A Grand Day Out
The Opening of Babies' Castle, Hawkhurst - Tony Singleton
Dr.Thomas John Barnardo came to London in 1866, from his birthplace in Dublin, to train as a doctor with a view to becoming a missionary. However, he was so moved by the plight of the children of the East End of London that he devoted the rest of his life to rescuing them, housing them, and raising them to lead a full adult life.
By the early 1880s, Dr.Barnado was becoming increasingly concerned at the growing number of babies and infants which he was having to find homes for. He stated in an interview much later that "a way was unexpectedly opened through the kindness of a friend of long standing, one who has since then gone to his rest, the late Mr. Theodore Moillet. This gentleman, who owned property at Hawkhurst, offered me the villa of Hillside, consisting of two small houses, with the accompanying land, as a free gift to be used for the benefit of the Homes." Theodore Moillett moved from the West Midlands into the newly built house called 'Ellerslie' at Gills Green in 1875-6. He was a man of independent means; under the heading 'occupation' in the 1881 census, the enumerator wrote "Derives income from dividends". His son was similarly blessed and had a growing family, which may have prompted the move to Hawkhurst.
The houses, still called Hillside, were built in 1880, a short distance South of Ellerslie on Cranbrook Hill, and in 1881 they housed some of Moillett's domestic staff. However, they were taken over by the "Homes" in about 1883 and accommodated thirty babies and their carers. The demand for more spaces for infants continued and the land adjoining (an area of about 2 acres) was ideal for erecting a purpose-built home. Sufficient funds were raised to enable building to start in the spring of 1886. (When it was completed, Hillside became the infirmary and accommodated medical staff.)
The Inclusive fares for Special Return Tickets, railway and coach, were advertised as follows:-
Coaches were laid on from Etchingham to Gills Green and for visitors living locally, and not requiring the train, a seat could be booked for 3s 6d in advance.
As the date drew near, newspaper advertisements gave details of how further donations could be made: "Purses containing not less than £10 towards the funds of Babies' Castle may be presented to her Royal Highness on the occasion. Ladies and children desiring to offer such gifts are invited to communicate with Dr.Barnado at once, who will forward empty purses to be filled."
Many people must have been discussing the event for some weeks and putting forward their suggestions so it seems more likely that this was a final distillation of the plans being considered. The three arches proposed - with castellated towers - would have needed several days work and their basic construction may already have been started when this meeting was held only nine days before the visit by the royal party.
The Daily News reported the "Opening of the Babies' Castle". "Yesterday a new institution with this singular title, the thirtieth in connection with Dr.Barnado's Homes, was opened with great ceremony by her Royal Highness the Princess Mary, Duchess of Teck, at Hawkhurst in Kent. A considerable number of ladies and gentlemen who take an interest in Dr.Barnado's many 'Homes' went by special train from Charing Cross, calling at Cannon-street and London-bridge, to Etchingham Station, whence they were conveyed in vehicles engaged for the occasion to Hawkhurst, a distance of six or seven miles. At Etchingham Station a guard of honour, consisting of a detachment of the 1st Cinque Port Volunteers, under the command of Captain Aitkens, presented arms on the Princess's arrival at the station, and they formed an escort to her carriage. The platform of the railway station was covered with the customary crimson cloth and decorated with numerous foliage plants. The Princess, who was accompanied by Princes George and Adolphus of Teck, then entered an open carriage drawn by four grey horses, and with outriders proceeded to Hawkhurst. On the journey the whole population of the district, and many from parts adjacent were on the wayside to watch the progress of the cortege, and at various parts of the route arches of evergreens and flowers had been erected, with inscriptions appropriate to the occasion."
The Kent & Sussex Courier described the decorations on the route and the locations and mottoes carried on each of the arches. "The straggling village of Hawkhurst put on its best holiday garb in honour of the Royal visit. Flags and bunting were displayed along the road; in the High Street, Venetian masts with coloured pennants and streamers lined the wayside; the road from Etchingham railway station to the "Castle" was spanned by four or five substantial decorative arches and by several canopies supported by coloured masts and ornamented with evergreeen." Those organised by the Hawkhurst Committee were described as of "battlemented shape, flanked on either side with towers". The report then described in some detail NINE arches, the first at Etchingham and the rest in Hawkhurst. It appears therefore that several local residents or organisations must have been inspired to erect at least four additional arches, with the last (official?) being at the entrance to Babies' Castle.
The description of the route finished with "Close to the castle was another arch having the Royal Crown and the Prince of Wales' feathers, this being just in front of the special awning erected for the occasion of the ceremony." The Daily News reported: "On arriving at the institution her Royal Highness and suite were received by Mr.Samuel Gurney, chairman of the committee of the Homes, and were greeted by a Royal salute by the guard of honour, composed of the West Kent Yeomanry and the Hawkhurst Rifle Volunteers (B Company)." Another report tells us that their captain was Alfred Wood and their drill Sergeant was Frederick Hill; the latter kept the Weald of Kent public house near Highgate. The Cranbrook reporter for the Maidstone Journal claimed that the guard of honour also included members of the Cranbrook Company of Volunteers.
After a dedicatory prayer, Dr. Barnardo briefly explained how the gift of two villa houses and land had enabled him to provide for infant children in Hawkhurst. The reporter for the Daily News wrote, "The exact amount of the building contract was £3,747. The whole of the furniture has been designed and arranged by Messrs. Maple and Co., of Tottenham Court Road, and it was expected that the cost would not exceed £700. A number of ladies then presented purses, each purse containing not less than £10, after which a collection was made, the hand-bell ringers, consisting of boys belonging to the Homes, playing in the meanwhile. A procession of infants awaited the opening of the central doors by the Princess, with a silver key presented by the architect. Having thrown the doors wide open, the Princess said, 'I declare this building open, and may God's blessing attend it.'" She then unveiled a tablet in the porch in memory of Mr. Theodore Moillet, the donor of the site and the adjoining house. The company then proceeded to a marquee outside, where luncheon was provided, Mr Gurney Shephard presiding. No toasts were proposed afterwards, and no speeches made, but Dr. Barnardo stated that the sums contributed that day amounted to £263.
The building known as Babies' Castle was finally demolished in February 2015 after standing as an iconic local landmark for nearly 130 years, although, sadly, it had become a derelict site due to complete neglect over several years. It is a comment on our times that the land and two houses called Hillside, which were donated freely in the 1880s for a home for infants, was sold in 2005 - without the two houses - for £1.7million. Construction is now proceeding apace on accommodation for an older generation.
References (Kentish HIstory & Library Centre):
Edited version previously published in The Cranbrook Journal No.26 (2015)
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