The Best an Orphan Could Hope For

Friday, 15 July 1881 - Birmingham, UK

Today I visited the Mason Orphanage in the Birmingham suburb of Erdington, exactly five miles from Birmingham’s city center. The custodians were eager to show me about, no doubt thinking me a wealthy philanthropist.

Mason Orphanage
The Orphanage was opened in 1869 by Sir Joshua Mason, the pen king. Mason was the largest manufacturer of writing pens in Britain. Don’t go looking for a Mason pen, for he made them for other distributors who put their own names on the pens. When Mason couldn’t find anyone who wanted to help poor children, he had to pay for the building himself.

The orphanage was needed. The lot of the orphan in the 19th century is not good. Most are either homeless or in workhouses where they are worked like slaves for a roof over their heads and some gruel (watered-down oatmeal--emphasis on watered down.)

By Victorian standards Mason’s Orphanage is progressive. The children are clothed in something other than rags, sleep in clean beds, get adequate meals and are given an education (things workhouse children don’t get.) Indeed this is a better deal than Joshua Mason received as a child. He had to go to work at a very early age, and never was able to attend school.

Mason girls attending class
By our standards, the orphanage is horrible. The children wear uniforms, sleep in crowded dormitories, the food is boring and flavorless and their spare time is spent doing chores around the orphanage. Some of the staff are mean, and those that aren’t understandably can’t give the children individual attention.

Dormitory in the Mason Orphanage
Perhaps the cruelest practice is the children are not allowed to leave to visit kin. Relatives can come here but only on specified dates in January and June, in the middle of the week, between 3:00 and 5:00 p.m. with a limit of three relatives. I suppose the custodians believe that the relatives should have just taken the child in, but too often they are just too poor to feed one more mouth. Contact with relatives would benefit the child so he would know that someone does care about him.

My guide assured me that all the children are of legitimate birth with both parents dead. They do not except “foundlings.” This always bothered me about the Victorians. Not only is poverty considered a crime, but a child is held personally responsible for whether or not his parents got married. But what is truly deplorable is a man in this society can seduce some young naïve girl and then waltz away, leaving her and the baby to suffer the wrath of proper society. The “hussy” and her “illegitimate” child are victims, not criminals.

Perhaps the saddest spot on the orphanage grounds was a burial plot with its little gravestones. I’m sure none of these children were starved or beaten to death. Most Victorian families will lose at least one child to some disease like Scarlett Fever or Diphtheria. No, what I found heart-breaking is that their lives were short and tragic. They never had a real childhood.

Cemetery at the Mason Orphanage
In the next century Mason Orphanage will be converted into a school. It will be closed in 1960 and torn down in 1964. All the little bodies will be dug up and cremated to make room for development. Almost all the records of the orphans will be destroyed as unimportant. Children disregarded in life and even more in death.

I know this boggles the mind. In our own 27th century every parent has to fight long and hard with the Population Growth Regulators to be given the privilege to even have a child. Any orphans are instantly snatched up by eager relatives. Children are considered precious and not nuisances to be ignored.

The orphanage currently holds 150 boys, 300 girls and 50 infants. The vast majority will reach adulthood with enough education to get a decent job. They will have a better life than they would have without Sir Joshua Mason. At least they will have a life.

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