In January 1960, three brothers were admitted to Spurgeons Homes at Birchington. Peter, Robert and Colin Shew were placed in Charlesworth House under Mr Willicome, where strict discipline was maintained, except for the one day of the Christmas party when all rules were relaxed and great fun was had by all. One of the older boys mentored the three brothers to settle them in. This was Martin Lambie-Nairn, a skilled artist who went on to establish his own advertising agency and won critical acclaim for his work. He was responsible for the original Channel 4 logo and many award winning BBC idents as well as the original idea for Spitting Image.
Day to day life included daily chores whereby we learnt to clean sinks, polish floors and wash dishes properly. The Homes were run on a Christian ethos so we were expected to learn the books of the Bible off by heart and to be able to recite them perfectly when called upon at Chapel Services. We can still do this today.
Peter, Robert and Colin stayed in the Homes for five, seven and nine years respectively and during this time saw many changes, including building of the new Babies Home and the Chapel. There was great excitement when the Trustees purchased a television set for each house, replacing the need to gather in the Pavilion and strain to see the one distant set on the stage.
One of the favourite events of the year was the visit to a strawberry farm near Faversham owned by Mr Vinson, one of the Trustees. Places were limited and had to be earned but if chosen each child was invited to eat as many strawberries as they could manage, swim in the outdoor pool and then pick box after box to take back for the other children.
November 5th saw the impressive bonfire and fireworks display on the playing field although disappointingly one year some local youths broke into the grounds and set fire to the bonfire overnight, just to spoil the children’s fun.
Other highlights were the trips to see the Dancing Coloured Waters at Margate and the Rollo and Shandy show in Ramsgate. This was a clown show with the serious purpose of teaching children about road safety.
We all looked forward to Easter when we would be given chocolate from the giant egg displayed in the Pavilion which was donated each year by Cadbury’s.
Sporting activity was greatly encouraged and nearly every Saturday afternoon we would go and play on a particular area of grass at Minnis Bay. Mr Willicome told us this place was called the Charlesworth Green, and in our innocence we believed we owned it and would look askance at anyone daring to play nearby. All three brothers played football and cricket for the Homes and would play matches against other Childrens’ Homes and local schools.
In the summer we would swim at Minnis Bay and would learn by leaping from the promenade into an inflated large inner tube. Health and Safety being unheard of at that time.
During the run up to Christmas a few children would be taken to various churches for Toy Services from where we would return with a ‘box’. This was a tea chest filled with toys, books, games etc. donated by their congregations, the contents then shared out so that every child received a present.
The main highlight of the year was the Annual Meeting during which we all took part in the play directed by Miss Carcas. This would be performed at the Winter Gardens, Margate and the Methodist Central Hall, Westminster. A coach trip to London for the Meeting plus wonderful refreshments afterwards was especially prized.
1967 saw the Centenary of the Homes and so a special play was performed depicting the Homes’ foundation. Invariably in these plays our Housemaster, Mr Willicome would play the Voice of God, which as far as we were concerned, he was. In this play, Colin played a Trustee and the Rev Spurgeon was portrayed by Ray McPherson. Ray was the son of Mr and Mrs McPherson, houseparents of Waterbeach, and as Ray was older and sported a beard, he was ideal for the part. Affectionately known as Mr Mac, Fred McPherson was much beloved by all and was always ready with a kind word of encouragement for all the children, not just those in his house. After retirement from the Homes, Mr Mac became a ‘lollipop man’ at The Square where today there is a plaque set into the wall of the church in his memory.
The boys’ father had served in the Royal Navy during WWII and the sea is in their blood because after leaving school, Peter and Robert attended Sea Training School and both joined P&O Cruises. Peter always said that by age 19 he had been round the world twice, yet strangely throughout his life he never set foot on an aeroplane.
When it came time to leave the Homes, every child was taken to be fitted with their leaving outfits, comprising a suit, sports jacket and trousers etc. plus a large suitcase. On leaving day, they were presented with a personally inscribed Bible and £10, then made their way to a prearranged lodgings somewhere in the country to start a new life in the wide world. Although the childrens’ basic needs were met in the Homes, the natural closeness and love of a family unit could never be replicated.
Upon leaving the sea, Peter had various jobs and fulfilled his ambition of singing in a local choir and living on a boat at Newhaven until later years when the cold winters proved too much. Robert went into industry after the sea and has a celebrity connection as his daughter is married to one of the world’s top DiscJockeys. Colin did not follow his brothers to sea, but went into office work and banking, and was one of the team responsible for moving HSBC operations from the City of London to the HSBC Tower at Canary Wharf.
As for the site of the Homes at Birchington, although the kitchen blocks have been removed along with the Chapel, Sick Bay and other buildings to make way for new housing there are still reminders of those days. A search for Charlesworth Drive on Google Earth will show the distinctive V shapes of the 12 houses still highly visible today.
Peter, Robert and Colin all married, had children and grandchildren. Robert and Colin are retired but Peter sadly passed away in October 2019.
Spurgeons Old Scholars
Old Scholars are those supporters who spent some of their childhood living at Spurgeons Children’s Homes in Birchington and Reigate.
We encourage alumni to keep in touch with us and share their memories.
To read more about our heritage and Charles Haddon Spurgeons, click here.