Queen Alexandra and a Progressive Police Orphanage

Last year my daughter found an algae-covered claypipe bowl head in the Letcombe Brook in Wantage. We cleaned it up and I realised it was the lovely face of Queen Alexandra (Alexandra of Denmark), who had visited Wantage in 1877 when she was Princess of Wales (a title she held for 38 years until the death of Queen Victoria). With her husband, King Edward VII, she reigned from 1901-1910. 

My family has two connections to King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra – via a nephew and niece of my husband’s 2x great grandfather – Alfred George Read and Harriet Knights.

In 1874, Alfred Read Sr., a Constable with the Metropolitan Police, died of TB at just 32 leaving behind his widow Thirsa and little Alfred George, aged about 4. From 1883, when an officer died or was severely disabled, his wife would receive a compassionate allowance to assist in supporting their children. Unfortunately, Constable Read died several years before this fund was available. However, in 1870 the Metropolitan & City Police Orphanage had been established with Queen Victoria as its Patron, and 5-year-old Alfred George entered the orphanage in 1875 fifteen months after his father had died.

A few years ago I was thrilled to receive copies of the orphanage’s annual reports and school reports from the orphanage archives. They make for fascinating reading and really help illustrate what life was like for Alfred in this pioneering institution.

Annual Report from the Metropolitan & City Police Orphanage 1881, with thanks to the Metropolitan & City Police Orphans Fund
Could one of these boys be Alfred George Read?

In fact, as the records show, Alfred was not an orphan when he entered the orphanage; his mother was still alive, and this was the case for the majority of ‘orphans’ in the orphanage, many of whom returned home during holidays. I don’t know why Thirsa was unable to continue caring for her son, but it must have been a painful decision for her. I also don’t know if they continued to be in contact with each other; in fact, I have no idea what became of Thirsa (bonus points for anyone who can track her down!). However, I know from the orphanage records that Alfred was raised in a kind and caring and enriching environment.

Far from the awful Victorian orphanages conjured up by Oliver Twist, the Police Orphanage was acknowledged to be one of the best in the country, even in the world. Education started in the infant school and continued in the boys’ and girls’ schools. Both boys and girls were educated in reading, writing, arithmatic, and bible history. Boys’ subjects also included history and geography, while girls also learned needlework, knitting and other aspects of domestic economy. All children had physical education, including military drills and swimming for the boys (a swimming pool was built in the basement in 1878!). During Alfred’s time there, more subjects became available, including the addition of geography and grammar for girls, and drawing and science for boys. Music was also a very strong feature of their education; all children sang regularly and the boys also played instruments. The school band even gave public performances at Alexander Palace!

Older boys took part in the Fire Brigade (training exercises rather than actual firefighting) and received garden plots to work on, while older girls had to take turns with housework or laundry. The division of labour and activities grates on my 2020 sensibilities; however, girls had far greater opportunities here than almost anywhere else in the period, and these activities helped prepare children for realistic work opportunities when they had to leave the orphanage at age 14. The orphanage actively helped procure positions for its young people.

The children also received health and dental care. Infectious diseases sometimes struck, as they did everywhere. However, the spread of infection was low due to ‘isolation and care’. Notably, deaths were rare; in 1880, 182 children received medical treatment but only one died. Nevertheless, many children at the orphanage suffered from chronic health problems, especially respiratory conditions – it was stated that ‘many of the children inherit the weakness of their deceased parents.’ In 1881, the orphanage’s medical officer Dr. Leeson expressed his hope that a new system of warming and proposed schoolroom would produce ‘better statistics’.

Efforts were also made to accommodate individual needs. For example, all children attended church services on Sunday, and in 1880, the 17 Catholic children in the orphanage were able to attend Catholic Mass in Richmond. The orphanage was looking into using an omnibus to make the journey easier for them.

Most heart-warming of all to read, the children enjoyed a play-room, playground, library, and a wide array of sports and entertaining activities throughout the year. In October & November 1882, 12-year-old Alfred could have enjoyed watching or singing in several concerts, free admission to Sanger’s circus (pitched in a field near the Orphanage), Magic Lantern entertainment, attendance at the marriage of the Chairman, a trip to the zoo, and a lecture on bees. Then, in December, a ‘Christmas Tree, ‘presented by Sir John Lubbock, Bart., M.P., to the children remaining at the Orphanage during the holidays, was lighted and hung with toys’.

Excerpt from the 1882 Annual Report of the Metropolitan & City Police Orphanage, with thanks to the Metropolitan & City Police Orphans Fund

In September 1882, the Prince & Princess of Wales, Edward and Alexandra, came to open a new wing, at first named the ‘Prince of Wales Wing.’ The visit was widely reported in newspapers. When the royal carriage arrived at the orphanage, it was greeted by a ‘handsome marquee’ seating 1,200 people. The very front seats were occupied by the orphans – 246 boys and girls wearing blue rosettes and ribbons with silver ornaments and Prince of Wales’s feathers ‘who looked the very picture of health and happiness’. The Royal Party visited an exhibition in the new wing – of crafts and art made by policemen, including watercolours of scenes of notorious crimes (!), as well as woodwork, penmanship, and even knitting! The children sang ‘God bless the Prince of Wales’, and after a speech by the Prince, Princess Alexandra handed out prizes to the children, depicted in the picture below.

The Princess of Wales gifting prizes at the Metropolitan and City Police Orphanage, Twickenham
Illustrated London News, 15 July 1882 

Alfred George Read left the orphanage in about 1883-4. In his final school report he was placed 10 in the school in order of merit, and ranked ‘excellent’ in both conduct and industry. He was then apprenticed as a coppersmith in Southampton. Between 1901 and 1910 he settled on Ireland Island, Bermuda! He continued to work as a coppersmith and was a member of the Freemasons. I haven’t yet traced him after that date (I might need to take a trip to Bermuda …)

The orphanage closed in 1930 but the Metropolitan & City Police Orphans Fund has continued its work to the present day, supporting hundreds of children annually. Its current patron is Prince William, Duke of Cambridge. This year marks its 150th year.

Like Diana, Princess of Wales, Princess Alexandra was very popular with the public and was known for acts of kindness towards society’s outsiders. For example, she visited John Merrick AKA The Elephant Man and sent him Christmas cards for many years. Her husband, however, was a notorious womaniser. Which leads to our second connection …

Harriet Knights supposedly worked as a nurse for Sir Frederick Treves, another ally of the Elephant Man. Treves was the royal family’s doctor, and Harriet became, according to family lore, nurse to King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, and attended to Edward during his famed appendectomy in 1902. Much more juicily, Harriet also reputedly fell pregnant by the King or another royal, who then financed her move to America, where their child became a silent movie actress! Tracing Harriet’s story has been truly tantalising. I do know that she had two illegitimate daughters between about 1895 and 1900 and that they did go to America, where the daughters became a dance teacher and dancer. Harriet returned to England before WW2, in time to watch George V’s coronation parade from her apartment rooftop in central London. She died in 1945 and her ashes were interred in Kensington. 

Find out more about Harriet’s intriguing story.

Photograph of Princess Alexandra by Alexander Bassano, 1881, Source: Wikipedia

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