Alice Pidgeon, orphaned at the age of six, spent most of her childhood and adolescent years in St. John Groom’s Home for little girls.
St. John Groom, whom Alice refers to as ‘Uncle’, was the founder of the orphanage that Alice and her sister Doris grew up in. A man with a good heart and thoughtful ways, Mr Groom set up the little girl’s Home as well as other institutions such as ‘John Groom’s Crippleage and Flower Girls Mission’.
He believed that the young girl’s in his orphanage should not be made to wear a uniform. He thought it best to dress the girls in clothes comparable to the other local children so they were indistinguishable from others. This is something Alice describes with fondness. I feel she really respected the notion that they were treated as any other little girl.
As for John Groom, respect for him not only came from the little girls he housed, but from those who knew of him and his work within society. This fact is shown by by the other associations that have been developed in John Grooms name, including housing associations.
Alice and the other girl’s at Mr Groom’s orphanage were treated very well and behaved like sisters. They were dressed neatly, always clean, and were well fed. Meal times were always announced by the girls standing up to say grace;
‘Be present at our table Lord,
Be here and everywhere adored,
These mercies bless and grant that we,
May feast in Paradise with thee. Amen.’ (p5)
Alice’s memoir shows that her upbringing had a steady, but not overpowering, influence of Christianity. The repetition of Grace at every meal throughout her time at the orphanage, and her outlook on life and the memories she divulges, indicate someone with a religious influence.
For instance, she discusses her love of dolls as a child and the collection that she built up. She explains how she had dolls of all kinds; a Japanese doll, a soldier doll, a black doll… She looks back at this memory by stating,
‘I sometimes wonder if there was a message in all the different nationalities of dolls,
that all men are equal in the sight of God.’ (p2)
Her reminiscence of her home life of a Sunday echo the scene that would have been witnessed in most family homes. Alice’s father would take her for a walk in the morning, while her mother cooked the Sunday dinner. It is a bitter-sweet memory, but at least Alice got to experience this closeness and typical family life before it was taken away from her.
The Sunday experience at St. John Grooms orphanage was one of a different kind of closeness. Alice happily remembers how the girls would have a service every Sunday afternoon and in the evening would go to the Mother’s sitting room (they named the lady who cared for them ‘Mother) to listen to her read. They would have many different stories to listen to such as Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop.
Christmas was a time of great fun for Alice and the other orphanage girls. Reading through her memoir, it seems John Groom, Mother and all of the other orphanage staff worked very hard to keep the girls busy and entertained on Christmas day in particular, so as to feel part of the family.
The girls would write letters to Father Christmas and receive presents such as dolls, picture books and trumpets. As is typical of any young child’s bedroom on Christmas morning, the girls would waken very early and excitable noise would break out.
It was on Christmas that some girls would receive letters from ladies who ‘sort of adopted’ some girls and would send them gifts on birthdays and Christmas. Alice’s memory of Christmas is extremely happy one, even in the orphanage; she concludes her description with ‘at the end of a perfect day…/… Christmas was a happy time’. (p9)
Every day, the girls would go across to one of the larger buildings for prayers and Uncle John Groom would give a penny to any little girl whose birthday it was.
The girls were included in the strong dancing and entertaining culture of the time. During the winter they would all practice drilling and dancing, along with singing, in preparation for Garden Fete days they performed at during the summer. They would perform national dance in National costume as well as performing plays etc and the crowds would throw money on the stage at the end.