Escape to the Country
Stories of an often unexpected childhood
The “long read” for April 2020 been a little delayed because of the Coronavirus lockdown which has made research into the April theme of Growing up in the Village more difficult than usual. It’s also unusually short of information. However, we’ve found a few stories and a little of the history of the Children’s Homes in Denham.
Denham Court passes into public ownership
The last private owners of Denham Court (now the Buckinghamshire Golf Clubhouse) as a private dwelling were the Swithinbank family. Sir Harold Swithinbank died in 1928. It is not known exactly when Lady Swithinbank left Denham. We know that she still owned property in Denham until her death in 1942. Her Executors sold the four Blackbarn Cottages and the adjacent small farm to developers in 1943 - though evidently they did nothing with them other than to demolish the farm buildings. However Denham Court itself had fallen into "severe disrepair" by the mid 1930s. It was then acquired by the Middlesex County Council.
The Middlesex County Council decided in 1935 that it should provide an approved school for senior girls and it was subsequently decided that the mansion of Denham Court might be suitable. "Approved schools" operated in England and Wales from 1933 to 1969. They were boarding establishments "for all classes of neglected and delinquent children". Children were normally sent there by a court after they had committed criminal offences though the regime was rather less strict than that of "borstals" which were effectively prisons for young people.
Approval to convert the mansion was given in the autumn of 1937 and on March 13th, 1939, an Approved School for Senior Girls was formally certified. It was intended that the premises should accommodate up to 50 girls aged between their 15th and 17th birthdays at their date of admission and that training should be provided in domestic skills, gardening and tailoring.
Work to convert the mansion continued through 1939 up until the outbreak of war, but the plans for a girls approved school were then temporarily shelved to allow boys to be accommodated in an adjustment of remand home accommodation, that is accommodation for children awaiting trial or reallocation, necessitated by wartime evacuation of London. However in April 1940 the Home Office objected to the use of Denham Court to accommodate boys and required their removal. The long delayed girls approved school commenced operations in the spring of 1941.
We have a recollection of how things were at Denham Court in 1946.
"During the war Alec had been training girls for the Land Army and that, as it turned out was partly instrumental in getting him the job on the big estate at Denham Court. It was run by Middlesex County Council, as a senior girl’s approved school. He had to give gardening lessons to the girls there and was also in charge of six men in the garden and four on the estate. We had a lovely period cottage on the estate."
But the Approved School was not a success - mainly it appears because of the isolated location away from all urban amenities. On 11 March 1948 the managers of the school resigned the “Certificate of Approval” by which it was licensed and the premises were subsequently used instead as a hostel for children in care awaiting foster homes.
Memories of the Children's Homes
Contributors to the Memories section of the excellent Francis Frith Collection website have offered wonderful recollections of their childhood memories at the Denham Court Children's Home.
“I was placed in Denham Court on 20th February 1953 at the age of 12 years (just five days before my thirteenth birthday, which I recall was not even acknowledged by anyone) when it was a Children's Home. The Matron and her husband were Mr. and Mrs David Hill. They had a daughter called Susan and I believe she was about the same age as me. The home was populated by approximately 35 boys and only 5 girls. We used to disappear into the large grounds and have a secret smoke.
The weir in the grounds was always a problem, but we never lost anyone in it to my knowledge. Before I travelled to school each morning, I had to share the cleaning of the house, especially the polishing of the wooden floors. We had to be up at 6 am and in bed by 6 p.m. All us girls slept in the girls' dormitory - when we misbehaved we would be confined to the dorm but used to climb out of the window and drop down onto the brick pillars surrounding the house - making sure that we climbed back in the same way before the time of our detention was up.”
"I was at Denham Court for a few years. Mr & Mrs Hill were in charge then. They had a son called Steven and a daughter who I think was called Susan. I can remember there were 9 dormitories, a snooker room, library, table-tennis tables and a room where Mr Hill had a quite extensive train set; his office was next to the dining room. Outside in the courtyard you could play badminton. There was a boiler house and an area where we had to wheel coke as a punishment. There was also a room where there was a potato machine but if it wasn't working, we had to peel the potatoes as another form of punishment. Outside in the grounds was a tennis court, a long jump sand pit and some old stables that were not used. There was that bridge that went across the river that I remember and the moat that went around the building.
There was another couple who were in charge when Mr Hill was off duty, I think their name was Mr & Mrs Williamson (not sure if the spelling is correct). I remember that dreaded long walk from the church down the tree lined drive to the court. It was scary in the winter time when coming home from school. I was a choir boy at that church for a while. I remember I got 2 shillings and sixpence pocket money each week that we could save or spend at the village shop that doubled as a sweetshop and a cafe/restaurant"
"I was at Denham Court from 1958 - 1962. I remember Mr.& Mrs. Hill clearly and they had a son called Stephen and an older daughter whose name escapes me. I remember wheeling barrowloads of coke from near the rose gardens to the boiler house for punishment. I also recall the work we had to do in the mornings before school and sometimes in the evening. Despite some memories of the bad times, it taught me to look after myself and not have to rely on others."
"If I remember rightly, in my time, we were banned from the village shop, so we used to go into Uxbridge on a Saturday to spend our pocket money. The punishment I remember is polishing and buffing the dorm floors with a really heavy bumper. I loved the smell of the polish though. Also, we didn`t have toothpaste, but used that Gibbs powder stuff."
"I lived at Denham Court from 1958-62. Although we were not supposed to go via the village, I used to go this way and look at the trout in the stream by the bridge. It brings wonderful memories back."
Formerly home to a branch of the wine and spirits merchant family, the Gilbeys, The Lea was also a Children's Home from 1949 to 1956.
"I lived in Denham in the 1950s and lived at The Lea which was a children's home then. It was lovely there and I loved the village and my junior school. We used to go to Uxbridge to spend our pocket money either to buy sweets or go to the pictures. I also belonged to the Brownies which was great fun.
I also remember Miss Martin. She was my favorite teacher and Mr. Entwhistle was the headmaster when I was at school in Denham."
"I lived at The Lea and I remember they must have rented or borrowed a TV because we watched the Coronation (1953) on it in fuzzy black and white. I can also remember I used to go to the house of a friend who had a TV which was even fuzzier due to the traffic and we always had baked beans on toast for tea.
Some of us from The Lea used to go to the house of the American film producer, Earl St John, on a Friday and his wife we called Aunty Trissy. Their chauffeur called Alan used to pick us up from school in a black posh car. The TV used to be on there too and we used to watch a children's show about penguins. Have never come across it since. The best silver used to be out and we usually had a pink bunny blancmange surrounded by jelly. Just adored those Friday afternoons."
The village was also a refuge for children evacuated from London during the years of the Second World War. A contributor to the BBC's archive of stories of the war recalled -
"I was evacuated to Denham when I was eight in 1939, a couple of days before the war started. I didn't want to be separated from my brother who was thirteen. We insisted on not being separated and this created a problem. Eventually they found somebody who was willing to take us both. I remember the air raid siren going off on the 3rd of September and I was terrified. We were picking bluebells - we went straight back to where we were living.
My parents used to visit once a week but it seemed like forever. I was very worried about my parents being killed. We came home after about a year."
Children in the Movies
Children too had their share of Denham's involvement with the film industry. The curiously titled "Kadoying" from the Children's Film Foundation told the story of "a quaint village about to be bulldozed to make way for a motorway until an alien outcast arrives from outer space and befriends a group of children, helping them to foil the plans".
Is this perhaps the way to way to foil HS2 ?
1. This history relies heavily on contributions made to the Memories section of the website of the Francis Frith Collection to be found at www.francisfrith.com/denham (ignore the reference to "Quainton"). Those contributions have been edited a little for this site and the contributors' names have been removed. However some of the contributors to the Francis Frith site do ask for replies and comments on their memories and they may well be known to some of our readers. So please do visit the Francis Frith site to respond. They also have an excellent collection of old photos and maps for sale.
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