The Hollies

The Beeches, one of the boys houses at the Hollies
The Beeches, one of the boys houses at the Hollies

The handsome three storey Edwardian building, pictured above, set in a secluded parkland enclave in Sidcup has been converted to flats. They are prestigious homes according to the estate agent’s blurb, but not so long ago this building was home to 50 boys, some of the 570 children from Greenwich and Deptford who lived at what was, at different times, the Greenwich & Deptford Children’s Home, Sidcup Children’s Homes, Sidcup Residential School and Lamorbey Children’s Home but was usually referred to as The Hollies – a name it was officially given in 1950.

It was also where my Dad and three of his younger brothers grew up in the 1930s.

Dad’s birth certificate says he was born in 1926 at 48 Vanbrugh Hill, which was the address for The Greenwich Union Infirmary. The infirmary was later renamed St Alfege’s Hospital, was then replaced by Greenwich District Hospital which was completely demolished to make way for the new Greenwich Square. The Greenwich Union Infirmary often wasn’t mentioned by name on birth certificates because it was originally part of the Greenwich and Deptford Union Workhouse, and there was a stigma attached to the workhouses, though it later became a more general hospital.

The Hollies
The Hollies Mansion House

It was the Board of Guardians of the Greenwich Poor Law Union who acquired the 1854 mansion house called The Hollies and its 69 acre estate and commissioned local architect Thomas Dinwiddy to design the children’s home. Dinwiddy was the architect for other south-east  London public buildings such as Laurie Grove Swimming Baths and the John Roan Girls School. The Guardians’ aim, according to Bexley’s Conservation Area Appraisal,  was to set up a “model home for orphans”, though it was also to be a home for the destitute children for whom the Guardians were responsible.  As well as four three-storey blocks for boys to live in and thirteen pairs of cottages for girls, the development was designed to be self-contained and included a laundry, gymnasium, swimming pool, bakery, boot makers and infirmary, plus a working farm and the nearby Burnt Oak Lane School. The original manor house was retained as an administration block and for staff accommodation. The home opened on 30th October 1902.

Dad lived in Blackheath until 1932 when the family became homeless. They stayed with friends or slept in church halls or lived a hop-picking life in Kent  until the brothers were taken into the Hollies in 1933.

The Hollies Children's Home
The Hollies Children’s Home

The accommodation houses and cottages at the Hollies were all named after trees, and the boys blocks were called Beeches, Firs, Limes and Oaks. Dad and his next younger brother were in Oaks and the two youngest in Firs. Each boys’ house was staffed by a house father and mother, usually a married couple, two nurses and kitchen staff. The house father and mother for Oaks were called  “Dog” and “Frog” Shenton, and the superintendent was a Mr Harper who had a goatee beard and never smiled.

Life at the Hollies seems to have been strict. The boys wore grey suits and boots, and had numbered lockers for their boots and numbered places for their tooth brushes in the washroom. They were expected to do household chores, and they also worked on the farm and in the gardens. However they did get pocket money: 1d a week up to age 10 rising to a shilling a week at age 14. They would save some of this to spend on their annual holiday, the house father recording any savings  in a book. Dad also recalled  dressing up for a Christmas party at nearby Avery Hill College and going to Blackfen School.

I recently got a copy of Jad Adams and Gerry Coll’s excellent history of the Hollies from Bexley Local Studies Centre. It provides a lot of detail about the regime at the Hollies. They were almost self-sufficient. Most clothes were made on-site; there was a tailor’s shop and needlework room, and they had a jersey-making machine and a stocking machine. Their farm provided much of the food, such as milk, eggs and vegetables. The book also includes personal accounts of life in the Hollies from former residents. More personal stories about life at the Hollies can be found on The Hollies Children’s Home Reunion Group web sites.

Although some of the personal stories about life at the Hollies are unhappy, Dad never had a bad word to say about the home and seemed to have had a positive, happy experience.

The water tower and swimming baths
The water tower and swimming baths

Dad left the Hollies in August 1943, aged 14, for a live-in job at the Bromley Court Hotel on 5s a week. The Battle of Britain was at its height, and he returned to the Hollies after the hotel was bombed. They found him another live-in job at Maples Furniture Store in Tottenham Court Road, and he also worked at the Naval and Military Club in Piccadilly. When he reached the age of 17 he volunteered for the army, 7 and 5,  and was trained in time to join the British Liberation Army in France and also served in Palestine, Hong-Kong, Germany  …  but that’s a different story. Overall, despite its difficult beginnings, Dad had a happy, good life.

Researching this story highlighted to me how lucky my generation have been compared to our parents’. Our lives haven’t been threatened and turned upside down by a world war, living in what Steven Pinker calls “the long peace”,  and we’ve benefited from the NHS, decent council housing and improvements in education that have allowed many of us to be the first generation of our families to go to university. It seems we’re now losing many of these benefits and also the social mobility that accompanied them.

The Hollies closed as a children’s home in the 1980s and most of the buildings have now been converted to housing, though the swimming pool and gym are now the Hollies Countryside Club. The estate has been designated a conservation area, described as “a good and well preserved example of a late Victorian workhouse environment”, with seven of the former children’s home buildings in the London Borough of Bexley’s local list of buildings of architectural or historic interest.

One of the cottages
One of the cottages

11 Replies to “The Hollies”

  1. My mother worked there in the late 50’s until she married my father. Her wedding photographs show all the children from her house came to the wedding of Miss Roberts. I think her house was the oaks, sadly she recently passed away so I can’t ask her.

  2. I was in the Hollies from 1950 till 1962. Part of my story is in the book by Jad Adams and Jerry Cole. My time there was 80% good. We had a life that any OUTSIDERS envied. A Fantastic Christmas time. i.e. Christmas party in the Gym , at the House you were in and also at Avery Hill College. Visits to Billy Smarts Circus. Taxi rides to the seaside. 2 weeks Holidays to the coast. Day trips to Box Hill Ect. One of the highlights was having visits from people like COCO the clown. Mr Pastry (Richard Hearn) one person who I wont mentioned, who I believe had no contact with children in the Hollies. Film shows once a week, sports day once a year. So many more I could mentioned.

  3. I was there from 1952 until 1960 along with my two brothers Stephen and Michael and my younger sister Patricia.we were in Myrtle cottage .and the hose mother was Miss memories are all very happy . We were allowed to have our friends from outside the home to tea .went to the pictures.had fantastic Christmases and holidays in Margate.

    1. Hi. My name is Les Welling and I was in The Hollies from 1954-1961, with a short time in between at another home in Charlton. I have written a book called “Who Care About The Deptford Boy?”. This is available ok Amazon Kindle.

  4. I stayed there in 1974 -1977 and can say my experience was awful , hated every moment , sexual abuse was rife , I think it was a very different place in the 1930s when life was more structured so the home worked well and gave kids guidance and usually had jobs to go on to when leaving the home , by the 1970s it became a dumping ground , unable to control the kids and no hope

      1. Hi Penny

        I was a very good friend of Christopher Taylor while in the Hollies in the 60’s and 70’s they came from the bermondsey area would these be them ?

  5. I would like to find out more about my mother Irene May Anderson who was born in 1923 and to the best of my knowledge she was sent to the Hollies children’s home approx 1928 with her sister Ivy Anderson.

  6. I was in the hollies from 1962 – 1975 with my two brothers stephen and paul, we were in quite a few houses, japonica, Ash, Beeches and oak. Had many a good time there.

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