The government orphan asylum in British Guiana, 1852-1917 By Arlene Munro
Stabroek News
August 7, 2003

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An Orphan Asylum and School of Industry was established in March 1852 by the Colonial government. The institution was maintained from Public Funds and was controlled by the Executive Government. It was housed in the building that presently houses the Ministry of Health in Brickdam Road. The Orphan Asylum was closed in 1917. Subsequently, the students of Queen’s College moved into the building and remained there until 1951.

When the Orphan Asylum was opened in 1852, Moore observes that “land restrictions, poor drainage, decay of the peasant village economy, discriminatory taxation and marginalisation in the retail trade” had resulted in the impoverishment of the Creoles. Many Creoles moved to Georgetown and New Amsterdam to live. As many as 50,000 persons migrated to these towns between 1841 and 1891. This influx of persons into the city may have resulted in unemployment and poverty which forced some parents to abandon children. The Orphan Asylum was perhaps started to provide a home for abandoned babies and street children whose parents were in hospital, in jail, or in prison. There is a paucity of information on the Orphan Asylum between 1852 and 1881 due to the unavailability of British Guiana Reports on Administration for that period. Therefore, I will focus on the period 1881-1917.

In the 1880s British Guiana and the West Indies were facing a serious depression due to the competition received from beet sugar. In 1884 there was a glut of sugar on the British market due to the increase in production of European beet sugar. Prices of sugar began to fall as a result of this glut. The depression of the 1880s led to greater unemployment and lower wages. In British Guiana the wages of immigrant workers fell because of the crisis in the sugar industry which began in 1884. Many of the Immigrants were not fully employed between 1886 and 1889. Although African workers on the estates received higher wages, those who worked outside of the plantation were experiencing hardship. They tended to migrate to the gold mining fields in the interior or to the towns. Some East Indian immigrants who had completed their indentures migrated to the towns and found other forms of employment. By 1891, 3,976 East Indians were living on the outskirts of Georgetown and working in the city.

Due to increasing poverty in the city, African and East Indian persons were sent to prison for petty crime while others due to unfortunate circumstances went to the Alms House to live. It was during this period that children were abandoned because their par -ents were ill in hospital, or had been sent to prison. These children were placed in the Orphan Asylum.

The Asylum was also established because this was the age of increased social work.

In the late nineteenth century several social welfare organisations were formed with the aim of providing for needy persons and children. In 1890 the Children’s Protection Society was formed in British Guiana.

In 1903 the orphan asylum came under the supervision of the Chairman of the Poor Law Commissioners. By Ordinance No. 1 of 1852, the orphan asylum was established and allowed to accept children for 6 months at a time. However, by 1905 children were being accepted for two years and the Governor ordered that these agreements be cancelled and that the conditions of the Ordinance be strictly observed. Licences were issued instead of agreements. In 1881 the orphanage had 54 boys and 25 girls. By 1891 it had 87 boys and 75 girls. Some of the children came from Berbice. By 1911, the institution had 63 boys and 31 girls. When the institution closed in 1917 it had only 17 boys and 7 girls. Statistics show an increase in the number of inmates during the 1880s when British Guiana and the West Indies were facing a serious depression with the competition received from beet sugar. Reports reveal that it was the poorer class of people particularly Creole and East Indian who sent their children to this asylum.

The reports also reveal that several members of the upper class particularly governors’ wives showed an interest in the orphans. At Christmas an Annual Feast was held. In 1881, the Lieutenant-Governor and Mrs Young as well as the Lord Bishop, Archdeacon Wyatt joined the children for dinner. Invariably these visitors paid for the dinner. On June 22, 1897 when Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, Lady Hemming, the Governor’s wife provided dinner for the children on 23rd June. In 1915 Rev. R Macnie gave the children a Magic Lantern Exhibition of pictures relating to the war. Lady Hodgson presented prizes to the children on prize-giving day on 5th January 1910. By 1915 a Ladies’ Committee was also showing an interest in the welfare of the children. The ladies paid weekly visits. In the early twentieth century several women’s organisations were established e.g. the Infant Welfare And Maternity League in 1914. Prior to that the Young Women’s Christian Association was established in 1895. The Ladies’ Committee taught the children cookery and other domestic skills in the Orphan Asylum. At that time it was the white upper class, especially the women, who were involved in social work. Woolford observed that they had the financial resources, contacts and position to successfully attempt that kind of work. Although there were Black and Coloured women who were interested in that kind of work they lacked the resources to undertake it and were not elected to leadership positions. She noted that in the early twentieth century the wives of the governors and expatriates tended to be the leaders of social organisations.

Linda Peake also observed that in the latter half of the twentieth century white and freed women taught Sunday School, raised funds for the church and so by 1900 upper-class women were involved in ‘unpaid charity work’.

The orphan asylum was staffed by trained personnel including the Managing Director, superintendent, a visiting surgeon, schoolmaster, schoolmistress, matron, gardener, overseer, stewardess, female hospital nurse, infant nurses, an outdoor nurse, washers and a cook.

The children participated in extra-curricular activities, for example, horse races at D’Urban Park which was in close proximity to the asylum, and sports. They were taken to see the circus. They attended dress rehearsals of dramatic performances at the Assembly Rooms and Philharmonic Hall. The children were taken to see horticultural shows at the Promenade Gardens.

The children were educated at the orphan asylum which had its own resident schoolmaster and schoolmistress. In 1876 the Compulsory Denominational Education Bill was passed. It stipulated that attendance at schools should be made compulsory. Therefore, it became mandatory for the children in the orphanage to receive lessons under the schoolmaster and schoolmistress. The children above the age of three attended classes 5 days a week from 11 am to 2 pm and 3 to 4 pm. Girls and boys were taught in separate rooms. Every year the school would be examined by officers of the Education Department. The students would be judged in reading, singing and drill, writing and arithmetic. It was customary to use corporal punishment in the schools. Some of the girls also participated in the Primary School Needlework Competition and received certificates. This Needlework competition was introduced by the wife of Governor Sendall in 1899.

The school in the Orphan Asylum was closed on 31st March 1913. No reason was given for its closure. It became more feasible to send the children to schools in the community “thereby economising the expenditure and improving the education of the children.” The Court of Policy was not consulted. Some of the children attended St Sidwell’s school while others attended the Wortmanville Roman Catholic School.

The children also received religious education. Throughout the orphan asylum’s existence, the children attended St. Sidwell’s Church of England which was in close proximity to the orphanage. By 1896 an evening service was conducted on Sunday evenings at the orphanage. By 1915, a Nun from the Charlestown Convent would visit the orphanage to minister to the Catholic children.

Before these children left the orphanage they were placed in job situations. The 1902-1903 report reveals that approximately 18 of the boys were sent to the Botanic Gardens to work. Some of the orphans were apprenticed to tradesmen and farmers. Sometimes when the boys were dissatisfied they returned to the government orphan asylum and were placed in other positions.

Medical services were provided for the children in the orphan asylum. A medical doctor regularly visited the asylum to examine the children. It appears that in the 1880s skin diseases were prevalent among the children but were successfully treated by the Doctor. In the 1890s the children suffered from influenza, fever, worms and bowel complaints and itch. The Dispenser of the Alms House would visit occasionally to write prescriptions for the children. The 1892-1893 report reveals that when a large number of young children were admitted to the asylum, an assistant infant nurse was hired. Efforts were made to provide a balanced diet for the children. They ate breakfast at 6 am which consisted of bread, milk and molasses. At 10 am they ate a snack of rice/meal, milk and molasses. At 3 pm they were given plantains and peas soup. Each day they consumed four ounces of meat including fish and pork. Dinner consisted of biscuits.

Physical education was considered important for the healthy development of the children. In 1891 the Managing Director of the asylum requested that the government offer prizes to the “best behaved and most advanced children in education and physical exercise.” It is not clear whether this request was granted. In the 1890s a physical drill was conducted for the children on Saturdays by an officer of the British Guiana Militia.

Although the orphan asylum was funded by public monies, it attempted to generate its own funds. For example, the asylum sold its flowers and the produce of the kitchen garden to the public. In 1896-7 the asylum received $63.14 for its flowers and $30.56 for its produce. The older girls in the asylum would daily sew and repair clothes for the children who lived in the institution. In 1884 the girls produced 686 new pieces of clothes.

The asylum was closed on 28th February 1917. No reason was given for its closure in the Poor Law Commissioners’ Report. The Daily Argosy stated that the reduced number of inmates was the reason for its closure. Statistics reveal that the number of inmates was decreasing annually.

In addition, the number of inmates decreased from 82 on 1st April 1915 to 67 on 31st December 1915. This decrease was due to the new policy of allowing an aunt or uncle to take custody of the child. Prior to this the old policy had been one of compulsory housing of orphans. The new policy allowed the Poor Law Commissioners to provide monetary assistance to the guardians of the children.

In January 1917 arrangements were made to send the children to homes of parents and relatives. Only two children were sent to live with strangers. The Poor Law Commissioners agreed to give financial assistance to the parents who needed it on condition that the children attended school. In his final report on the orphan asylum, the Commissioner reported on the 17 boys and 6 girls. He stated that 4 boys and 1 girl were sent home to their parents. Another 4 boys and 2 girls were sent to the homes of relatives and guardians. Two boys were placed in the care of strangers. Six boys and 2 girls were given licences to work. 1 boy was apprenticed. These children were between the ages of 3 and 16 years.

In conclusion, the orphan asylum was established in 1852 to meet the needs of the poor working class families which could not afford to raise all of their children. Some of their children were sent to the asylum.

The asylum also accepted abandoned babies and reared temporarily the children of inmates of the prison and the Alms House. It found employment for the teenage boys. In the absence of a Department of Social Work, it was the Poor Law Commissioners who were responsible for this asylum. The white upper class particularly the women and the Governor’s wives showed an interest in the welfare of the children.

A Ladies’ Committee attempted to teach them domestic skills. The asylum provided a haven for children during the 1880s and 1890s when there was a severe depression in the colony due to the competition that West Indian cane sugar received from European beet sugar.

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