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Royal Liverpool Seamen's Orphan Institution

In the nineteenth century there was no welfare state for the relief of unemployed or destitute sailors, their families or even their orphaned children. The shipowners and merchants of Liverpool played an integral role in raising the interest of the people of Liverpool in welfare provision for seamen and their families. The archives, which relate to maritime charities and missions, demonstrate the importance of trained merchant seafarers to the maritime economy. However, they also reflect how the people of Liverpool came to realise the numerous hazards, physical and moral, affecting the life of a sailor.

Royal Liverpool Seamen's Orphan Institution

A group of leading shipowners, concerned about the lack of provision for orphaned children of seamen, invited members of the Liverpool public to attend a meeting at the Mercantile Marine Services Association Rooms on 16 December 1868.

Liverpool Seamen’s Orphan Institution Committee members

Alexandre Balfours statue in St Johns Gardens
Mr James Beazley, a shipowner and member of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, attended the December 1868 meeting, and was elected chairman of the Orphanage’s Executive Committee. Beazley donated the first £500 (worth over £23,000 in 2001) to the fundraising appeal. Mr Ralph Brocklebank was the Orphanage’s first President. In 1879 he paid for a hospital to be built at the Newsham Park premises. Alexandre Bafour was also the joint founder of the Seaman’s Orphanage as well as the Seaman’s Institute and a Sailor’s Home. His statue in St Johns Gardens bears the inscription "Alexander Balfour merchant, ship-owner, born 2nd September 1824, died 16th April 1886, His life was devoted to God in noble and munificent efforts for the benefit of sailors, the education of people, and the promotion of all good works. He was also the joint founder of the Seaman’s Orphanage, Seaman’s Institute and a Sailor’s Home."

Why was a seamen’s orphanage needed?

Sadly, over the centuries many seamen have been lost at sea or killed in accidents on board ship, causing great suffering to their families. On 16 December 1868 a group of Liverpool merchants and shipowners met to discuss how to help the children of dead seamen. They decided to raise money to set up an orphanage in which to house and educate these children. An appeal for funds was launched on 27 March 1869. The appeal revealed that 4866 British merchant seamen had died in 1866, including 2390 by drowning. In August 1869 the Liverpool Seamen's Orphan Institution opened in temporary accommodation in Duke Street. By the end of 1869 sixty children were already in residence. In 1870 Liverpool Town Council approved a resolution to give land at Newsham Park to the committee to construct a permanent building for the Institution and in January 1874 the children were transferred from the Duke Street premises to Newsham Park with an additional forty-six newcomers.

The Institution was formally opened on the 30 September 1874 by the Duke of Edinburgh the "Sailor Prince"  fourth son of Queen Victoria, and in May 1886 Queen Victoria herself visited the Orphanage, adding her name to the list of patrons.

The Duke of Edinburgh opening the Seamen's Orphanage

Another set of  illustrations of the opening of the Seamen's Orphanage 1874

Education at the Liverpool Seamen’s Orphan Institution

From the very beginning, educating its children was as important to the Liverpool Seamen's Orphanage Institution’s managers as housing and feeding them. At the orphanage school children were taught to read and write, as well as receiving more practical training according to their sex. Girls were taught knitting and needlework and boys learned about carpentry and shoemaking.

A woodwork class at the orphanage

Indefatigable on her final sailing from Liverpool

In 1875 the orphanage and the training ship Indefatigable agreed on a scheme for training orphanage boys as seamen on leaving the orphanage.

The Workhouses and Industrial Training Ships were part of the Victorian's answer to the problem of helping the poor and destitute. Training ships were used for both types of institutions, and for the same purpose: to give the boy's sent their the prospect of a better life. These were not reformatories, and boys that went to them did not have criminal records and so were able to join the Royal Navy later if that was the career that they chose. In both cases they were mainly supported by a mixture of charity and the Poor Rates levied by the local authorities, and in both cases life on board could be hard.

Boys from the training ship Indefatigable 
cheering dignitaries on Exchange Flags in 1927

Indefatigable Badge

A group of sailor boys
The Training Ship Indefatigable was set up for 'for the sons and orphans of sailors who are without means, preference being given to those whose fathers had been connected with the Port of Liverpool' aged from 12 to 15 years by Captain John Clint in 1864. The ship that he acquired for the task had been HMS Indefatigable which was built in Devonport and launched in 1848. She only had a short active service career being laid up in 1857. The ship was paid for with help from James J. Bibby, of the Bibby Line Shipping, who contributed £5000 which equates to over  a quarter of a million pounds in today's money. Although it was a charity payment was required for the training on board. This was £22 per annum, and £5 10s. for outfit on discharge. This might sound rather a strange requirement given the purpose of the ship was to train 'the sons and orphans of sailors who are without means', however in most cases the fees were paid by local public subscription, although some of the better off did pay for themselves rather than burdening others.

Seamens Orphan Institution 1895
Outdoor relief from the Liverpool Seamen’s Orphan Institution

As well as providing a home for children at Duke Street and then Newsham Park, the orphanage also helped to care for some children in their own homes. These children received a set of clothes and 10/- a month (worth around £25 in 2001) was paid to their families. This help was only given to children who attended school. The official name for this type of help was ‘outdoor relief’.

The above pages are from a leaflet made available to the public by the Orphanage

Frederick Fleet who was the
lookout aboard the ill fated 'Titanic'
Mr Frederick Fleet  the lookout on the ill fated Titanic was born in Liverpool on 15 October 1887. He never knew his father and his mother abandoned him and ran away with a boyfriend to Springfield, Massachusetts never to be heard from again. Frederick was raised by a succession of foster families and distant relatives via orphanages and Dr Banardo Homes was a resident at the Royal Liverpool Seamans Orphanage. Newsham Park and in 1903  went to sea as a deck boy, working his way up to Able Seaman. Before signing-on the Titanic he had sailed for over four years as lookout on the Oceanic. He address was given as Norman Rd, Southampton.
As a seaman Fleet earned five pounds per month plus an extra 5 shillings for lookout duty. And it was as a lookout that Fleet joined the Titanic in April 1912.

Newsham Park Hospita;
Photograph Creative Commons
At the outbreak of the Second World War, the Orphanage was evacuated to Hill Bank, Wirral. After the War preparations were made for the return to Newsham Park. By this time family allowances and the National Health Service had come into effect, therefore families had the assistance to care for children at home there was no longer the same need for the orphanage. In 1949 the decision was made to close it down and in 1951 the building was sold to the Ministry of Health and turned in to a hospital. The sale of the premises at Newsham Park to the Ministry of Health for use as a hospital realised £125,000 in 1951; the proceeds were forwarded to the Charity Commissioners for investment. The committee continued to provide support to orphaned seamen's children on a non-resident basis, thus continuing to pursue the original objectives of the institution's founders, with special emphasis on education.
The work of the Institution in providing for the relief and education of the orphaned children of seamen continues today, and in 1969 the Institution celebrated its centenary. In 2004 a plan by its owners Gateway Properties to develop the building into flats was defeated by local regeneration campaigners, and in July 2007 the site was put up for sale.

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