Waifs & strays

In 1888 Hanley Swan provided a home for 12 destitute boys of the Church of England’s Waifs and Strays Society (now The Children’s Society). A committee of local people guaranteed a sum of £200 a year to run it, each boy costing £15 a year. It was the Society’s 25th Home and was so successful that one for girls was built in nearby Belbroughton. However, the Hanley house was not really suitable for its purpose and in 1891, after £1000 had been raised locally and another £1000 pledged by the Society, a new building was erected close to St Gabriel’s church, capable of holding 20 boys. It included two large dormitories, four bedrooms, a sick room, a boys’ room, offices and a covered playground.

In a speech at the opening of the Home of the Good Shepherd, known as Shepherd House, Sir Edmund Lechmere referred to the gradual depopulation of country parishes and said that, although country people were often very poor, they did not live in the squalid misery often found in large towns. He hoped the example of Worcestershire in supporting the work of the Society would be followed by other counties.

A visitor in 1891 painted a rosy picture of life at the Home. He observed that the boys started by tidying up the two dormitories under the supervision of the matron, Miss Boultbee. At 8 o’clock the chaplain, the Rev. G T Fielding, conducted a short service, following which the boys had breakfast and then ran to school. After school, they were taken on walks or amused themselves indoors. Another service at the end of the day was followed by the chaplain leading the way to the dormitories as they sang the children’s hymn Now the day is over. “They are as bright and happy a set of little fellows as can anywhere be found” said the Society, “and of all that have left this Home in the course of its history, none have been returned as failures.”

In later life, some of the boys had less happy memories, particularly of the harsh discipline imposed for minor misdemeanours. In the 1901 census 24 boys from all over the country were listed, aged from 4 to 13, all orphans or fatherless. At the age of 13 they were sent to live in other Society accommodation or to Homes the Society had established in Canada and Australia. An extension was built in 1902 to accommodate a further five boys and in 1938 a new wing was added. The Home closed in 1950 and was taken over by the county council as a home for young people.

But it fell into disuse and by 1975 was virtually derelict. At that time the Highball Trust, a children’s charity that took its name from the south Birmingham areas of Highgate and Borsall, was renting properties in the country to give inner-city boys and girls weekend breaks. Initially, they planned to convert some buildings on the old US hospital base at Blackmore Park, but the council refused planning permission and instead offered them Shepherd House. After a year of working on the property, the Trust bought it, fitting bunk beds to take up to 60 people in hostel-style accommodation. At the same time the Army installed a scramble net and a cable slide for the children in the grounds.

Today Highball still brings deprived children to the house, either directly or by sub-letting to other charities, such as the Inter-City Camp Trust, for around 30 weekends a year, plus weeks at half-term and in the summer holidays. Each year around 1000 children from as far away as Gravesend or Barnsley and as near as Worcester, all from estates, come to stay and enjoy the surroundings of the Hanleys. When the building is not used by the Trust, it is let to groups of adults as a base for walking tours.

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