We have recently acquired a finely illustrated book for our archive collection. ‘Our Village Life’ was published in 1884 and was written and illustrated by Lady Henry Somerset. In the preface she explains how the sale of the book would help to support a home she had recently opened in Reigate, Surrey ‘for workhouse girls’.

At St Mary’s the girls would be trained in laundry and domestic work. The girls would then be able to go out into the world and earn a good and honest living. More than that, Lady Henry wanted the girls to feel this place was a true home, like a family that they could return to at any time. Funds from sales of Lady Henry’s book would help her to realise this ambition.

Lady Henry Somerset

Lady Henry withdrew from society to Reigate Priory in Surrey, one of her family estates, following separation from her husband and a court case in 1878, in which she won custody of her son. It was at Reigate that she began to reflect deeply on her life and faith in God, and moving forwards she began her philanthropic and temperance work, mainly amongst women and children. She recognised the root cause of suffering within families was often due of the effects of alcohol. She would later go on to become President of the British Women’s Temperance Association in 1890.

Following the death of her father in 1883, Lady Henry opened St Mary’s Home in Reigate in June 1884, with the aim of providing young girls with better prospects for their future following the workhouse.


St Mary’s Home

From our archive is an article published in September 1894 in The Woman’s Signal Budget. It provides an insight into life for the girls at St Mary’s and was written by a visitor, who spent time looking around the home and speaking with Miss Hoddenott, the Matron.

On arrival Miss Hoddenott quickly announced to the visitor ‘You will gather that this is a Home in the truest sense of the word; Lady Henry does not want this to be a mere institution.’

House renovations were taking place at the time and all the children were busy helping. The Matron was described as bright and cheery and ‘a mother by instinct’. The children called her ‘mother’ and her aim was to inspire the girls under her care with a feeling of love, whilst maintaining a position of authority with a sympathetic attitude.

In Miss Hoddenott, Lady Henry had found a Matron who wanted to ‘act just like a mother does with a large family, to give abundance of love, much sympathetic interest and to shut my eyes to a great deal. Children will always be children….’. Miss Hoddenott had a vast amount of experience, having already managed a children’s home and been a mission worker with boys in the East End of London.

The bedrooms were freshly painted and papered, with a temperance pledge card hanging over each bed and a view of the countryside from each window. The girls were dressed alike but not in a uniform and Lady Henry had personally chosen a strawberry colour for their new summer dresses. In the dining room there were long tables down the middle and a piano to lead the children in their singing. Outside was a garden with roses and fruit trees, where the children were seen running around ‘at their own sweet will’.

The girls were sent to national schools for their education and as they grew older were taught housework and laundry work so that eventually they could find places in domestic service. They also had the opportunity to learn the duties of a maid or cook. Weekly pocket money was given to acknowledge their services and prizes were awarded for proficiency in their work.

The memorial chapel attached to the Home was erected by Lady Henry as a tribute to her father and this is where the children assembled daily for prayers.

The year after the home was opened there were 13 girls aged between 11 and 15 years at St Mary’s. At the time of the visit in 1894, there were 23 girls in the home, many coming from St Pancras Workhouse. Many of the girls had sad histories. One had been left as a baby in the lake at St James’s park but had been found and taken to the workhouse. The infirmary nurse there had written to Lady Henry, asking for help for the child. Having been taken to Eastnor Castle estate, one of Lady Henry’s family homes, the baby was put under the care of a nurse and eventually came to live at St Mary’s.

It is safe to say that children in other Victorian institutions of the time, may have had a very different experience to those under the care of Miss Hoddenott at St Mary’s, where we are told that the children looked ‘as happy as if they were at home’.

Along with the verse she wrote, Lady Henry also used her artist talents to illustrate her book, Our Village Life. She came from an artist line and her father was a fine amateur artist. It is recorded that Lady Henry wanted to study oil painting but her family did not consider this suitable, so she continued on with her water colour painting.

One illustration from her book shows young girls at work doing the laundry, just as they might have been at St Mary’s….