Thistleboon Orphanage: extracts from the autobiography of

Amy Winters (nee King)

Thistleboon Orphanage, Mumbles

Ed. note: Orphanages conjure up images of dark forbidding places where food was in short supply and there was discipline a-plenty. However, Amy’s story tells a very different tale of love and companionship, following the breakup of her family.

I am seen in the photo aged 7yrs and will never forget ‘Lady’ and my wonderful childhood years. I left school at 14 years old and almost immediately started my training to go into service. Looking the part of a maid in my white apron, black dress and little white cap, I loved doing everything except house cleaning. But my story begins much earlier-

My very earliest memory of my childhood was when I was 2 years old. I can't remember how I got to Thistleboon Orphanage or who it was that took me there. All I remember was sitting on a table surrounded by the happy, smiling faces of children, all fighting to take my hat and coat off.

The most important person there was someone we called ‘Lady’, who dressed in a nun’s habit. She was to become the only mother I ever knew and I will always love her. Her real name was Rose Margaret Scott and she taught us that ‘You are very special and as good as anyone else but not better and every one of you is capable of doing anything you set your heart to.’

As I settled in and the months passed, I would learn that this was the children's playroom and the focal point of the orphanage. In this room we played and ate all our meals. In addition, the older girls had dancing lessons, put on occasional concerts for visitors, and spent many hours reading, writing and doing embroidery. Much of this embroidery would later be sold to help raise money for the home. There were long, wooden tables, scrubbed white and filling the centre of the room. The children's lockers, covering the walls at one end, held our hats and coats and a few treasured belongings. At times the tables would be pushed to one side to give us room to play.

At the tender age of two however, I had no toys or belongings, only the clothes I arrived in. Thistleboon was to be my home for the next 13 years, until I left in 1938. Already I was responding to the love that was being given to me by these lively children. It didn't take me long to settle down in my new surroundings and understand that their toys were now my toys and we were all one big, happy family.

The orphanage was a large, stone, turreted building at the top of Thistleboon Road in Mumbles. I can remember sleeping in a small bedroom with three other children when I first went there and then as I grew older, being transferred to a large, dormitory-type bedroom at the back of the house, which I shared with about ten other girls. Daisy, one of the Matrons made all our clothes for us and even then, young as I was, I thought she was the ‘cleverest person in the whole wide world.’ We were all dressed alike in gymslips and blouses—in summer they were green with crème blouses and in winter, navy with white blouses. We also had panama hats in summer and navy velour hats in winter. Once, for a special occasion she made us pretty blue dresses with green collars and wide green sashes. She took three weeks to complete the 32 dresses on the sewing machine in our playroom, surrounded by lively children. Another time, she made the lovely floral dresses, which we are wearing in the class photo below.

There were usually 30 to 40 children living in the house at any one time and they were mostly girls. In the beginning there were 3 or 4 boys and they slept in a 3-sided lean-to beside the playground. My brother, who was a year older than me, was one of these boys but he was later sent away because he was too difficult to handle. He constantly played truant from school and would be brought back to Thistleboon by the police after they found him playing in the coal trucks.

I especially remember the gardens at the house because they were so beautiful. The house was surrounded by a high stone wall, which had double iron gates set into it in front. In one corner of the wall was a door from which we sold fruits and vegetables to the local people. A path led from the gates to the front door and either side of the path were the flower gardens. They were full of all different kinds of flowers including lupins, wallflowers and hollyhocks. There was also a small piece of garden at the back where the wood shed was. The produce was all grown in the kitchen garden, which was across the road from the front gates. Here there was a greenhouse, cold frames, a herb garden and gooseberry and blackcurrant bushes. We grew tomatoes, onions, potatoes, lettuce and many other vegetables.

A Church School class C1930

back row L-R: ? Sanders, ? Stevenson, ??, ??, Gerald Balsden, Graham Supple, ??

middle row L-R: Geoffrey Chanter, Kenny Bale, ??, ??, Barbara Johnson, Rosamond Slee, ??, ??

front row L-R: Elaine Gammon, ??, Amy King, Joyce Maslen, Marguerite Jones, Avril Holman, ??,

Georgina Jones, Enid Bevan

Please can you supply any of the missing names?

I went to the Dunns Lane School. Most of my friends came from the village and in later years, I named my daughter after two of my best friends—Elaine Bladen and Elaine Gammon.

Woollacott's farm from the dormitory window

We had many laughs together and would spend many happy hours in the playground as well as sitting next to each other in class. My favourite subject was nature study and my favourite teacher, Miss Woolacott.

One of my favourite pastimes in the summer was to go on the cliffs with the rest of the children. We were allowed to pick whatever book we wanted from the library —I always chose ‘Little Women’. We would all make for the cliffs and lie in the grass with the smell of gorse and heather close at hand. It was so peaceful and a perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

On a Saturday afternoon we would go to the cinema but not before Lady had sent me down to the home of the projectionist to find out the name of the film that was showing and if it was suitable for children. I remember seeing many Shirley Temple movies or Our Gang movies. Brynley Simmons was the projectionist. He had chestnut hair and freckles and always had a big smile. In fact he was the first boy I ever had a crush on. I will never forget passing him one day on the way to town. All of us orphanage children were walking in pairs as usual and I watched him walking towards us. As he passed by he gave me a huge wink. I was so embarrassed I didn't know where to put myself. My face must have been as red as a beetroot!!

In the summer time there were boat rides from the Mumbles pier. Another memory was when we children were invited on one of these rides around the bay. Everyone was very excited except me. I was terrified of the thought of bouncing about on the waves. I went anyway and never did let on that I was frightened. The trip seemed to go on forever and I was really relieved to get my feet on dry land again. I couldn't understand why all the other children were whooping with joy when I was so miserable. However, I soon forgot the ordeal and was back to my normal, happy self.

I used to be very fascinated by the Lifeboat. Sometimes on our Sunday walks we stopped by the Pier to look around the Lifeboat House. It was always such a thrill for me to see all the shiny brass and the tip-top condition of the boat. We were told stories of how the men would go out to sea to help ships in trouble without a thought of risking their own lives to save others. Over the years, I have often thought of those brave men lost at sea. I believe my feelings were even stronger because of my fear of water. Every time I heard the fog horn I would wonder about the passing ships and their safety.

Often on a Saturday morning, two sisters used to come and take us on outings to the beach. They were Margaret and Dot Watkins and they lived in Caswell with their parents. I don't think they were many years older than us. We would form our usual column of twos and walk to Langland Bay. As we walked, we picked wild flowers from the hedgerows and I remember one time winning the prize for picking the biggest selection.

Sundays for us were days of prayer. We went to the morning service at Oystermouth Parish Church (now All Saints Church) and after a good Sunday dinner, went back for Sunday School. Sometimes, if the weather was nice, we went for walks around the cemetery or around the cutting to Limeslade and back. I particularly enjoyed this walk because there was an ice cream shop there and the owner used to call out to us and give us all a cornet. What a treat that was!

I was confirmed at this church when I was about 13 years old. The curate was Illtyd Jenkins and he used to teach our confirmation classes. I think there were about four of us who used to go on a Wednesday evening. I remember two of the girls. Lucy was one of them. Mr Jenkins nicknamed her 'Lucifer' because she was very mischievous and full of fun and the other was Bertha Popham. She was a big, good looking blond girl and was quite sweet on one of the farm boys from next door to the orphanage.

I think his name was Gerald. When we came out of church one Wednesday he was waiting for her to take her home. The rest of us girls had to wait for her while he kissed her goodnight in the hedge! We couldn't possibly go in without her because we would have been in too much trouble.

When I first arrived at the orphanage, nobody knew when my birthday was, so it was celebrated every year on the day I entered the orphanage—March 3rd, 1925. Imagine the surprise when, many years later, at age 16, I was to discover that my real birthday was December 19th! Mrs Watkins, the mother of Margaret and Dot was a special person to me and made one birthday memorable. I loved her for she seemed to take me under her wing. I remember one year on my birthday, Lady told me to wear my Sunday clothes to school, but she wouldn't tell me why — it was to be a surprise! All day long I could concentrate on nothing but what the surprise might be. I waited and waited and nothing happened until it was time to go home. When I went out into the playground, Mrs. Watkins was standing at the gate waiting for me to take me home with her for a special birthday tea. She had a birthday cake with candles, which I had never had before. It was the most wonderful birthday I had ever had. I played with their dog - a big black Labrador. For some reason I remember the dog's room - it was a big room with heated pipes around the room, a dog bed and toys to play with. I remember thinking how lucky the dog was for I didn't know what it was to have a room to myself. I played games with Mr. and Mrs. Watkins before going back to Thistleboon.

This was yet another family that touched my life and added to my feelings of being made to feel special. I couldn't possibly have been happier than I was at Thistleboon where I was loved and nurtured and protected by the only family I had ever known.

Lady made birthdays at Thistleboon a special time also. She remembered every birthday and not one went by uncelebrated. She would come into the big room in the morning, pat us on the head and wish us a happy birthday. The big treat was being taken into the staff dining room where we could pick a pot of jam from her shelves. This was homemade from Mr. Morgan's garden fruit. I always picked marmalade so I had my very own pot for breakfast every morning until I had eaten it. Today, every time I eat marmalade, my mind returns to my childhood birthdays.

With Christmas approaching, Thistleboon was caught up in an atmosphere of happiness and excitement. About 3 weeks before, the cook would make the plum puddings. A thru’penny piece, a shilling, a button and a ring went into the mixture. The story went that if on Christmas Day, you had the money in your portion, you would be rich, if you found the button, you would be an old maid, and the ring meant that you would be married. We all wanted to find the money!! We were more interested in finding one of these treasures than eating our pudding. When the mixture was all ready, Lady used to come and tell us all to line up to come to the kitchen to stir the batter. We were told not to forget to wish and we each had 3 stirs and 3 wishes. Every year, my 3 wishes were all the same — that my father would visit me. He never did. He did however, send presents and pocket money with which to do my Christmas shopping. This was one of the highlights of Christmas. We usually went to Swansea and loved to go to Marks & Spencer’s and Woolworth’s. Here, we bought small gifts for each other, which usually consisted of bath cubes, writing paper and beads for our friends.

Christmas lasted about 3 weeks for us, starting with the stirring of the batter and ending on Boxing Day when we had to sit and write our Christmas ‘thank you’ letters. There was so much going on during this time. Every year we went to the pantomime in Swansea. We were given a box of Cadbury's chocolates to take with us and we always sat down in the front row. We were all so excited and talked about it for days afterwards, imitating the actors and re-playing parts of the show. At some time we usually went to a Christmas Party given by the TocH. This was given at their hall and we had food and games and lots of fun. Christmas Eve we were visited by carol singers and the horses head. Before we went to bed we hung up our stockings and pillowslips at the end of the bed. I always believed in Father Christmas. The older girls would tell the small children to put a note in the chimney for him. There was a fireplace at the side of my bed, which was boarded up. I had to put my letter in there. All night I hardly slept, thinking I would catch a glimpse of Father Christmas. I know now that it was the big girls who answered my letters. I always got the small things I asked for, bought by their pocket money or handmade by some of the more talented girls. We couldn't wait to get to sleep so that Christmas morning would come quickly.

Christmas day arrived and we were all up early. As a yearly treat, we were allowed to slide down the stairs on our pillows. The stairs were covered with linoleum, which was an ideal surface for our pranks. Halfway down, on the first landing, we knocked on the matrons' doors and sang carols for which they would give us pennies. The large playroom was always decorated with ivy that Mr Morgan had taken from the front wall outside. The tables were covered with fruits and sweets that were donated by local shopkeepers and there was a truly festive atmosphere everywhere. After breakfast we went to church where the service was extra special because of the carols and the merriment of the day. Christmas dinner consisted of turkey and all the trimmings, which we ate around midday. After a late tea where we ate jelly and Christmas cake, we all paraded into the staff dining room where stood a huge Christmas tree decorated with lights and lots of gifts, some of them sent by family members. I remember being 'adopted' by the local girl guides who had sent me a tea chest full of toys they had collected for me. I had so much fun sharing them with the rest of the children. We finished the day singing carols with Daisy at the piano.

I left school at 14 years old and almost immediately started my training to go into service. Looking the part of a maid in my white apron, black dress and little white cap, I helped in the kitchen, did housework, and set tables for the staff. I loved doing everything except house cleaning. One of my chores was to scrub the back yard steps, which wasn't much fun on a cold winter morning at 6.30. Another of my chores was to go to the coal cellar and fill all the scuttles from the dining room with coal, also at 6.30 in the morning. Yet another task was to answer the front door bell.

One day I answered it to find the postman standing there. He wished me a good day and handed me the letters. On looking through them I noticed a familiar handwriting addressed to Lady— it was my father's! I tucked the letter between the rest and took them all to her. For days after that I was curious as to why he had written. I was soon to find out. Strange things started to happen. Lady bought me a new outfit and shoes, so very different from what I was used to wearing. Of course I was thrilled with my new clothes but wondered why I was getting them. I was told to wear them a couple of days later and informed that I would be leaving that day to live with my father. One of the neighbour ladies came to fetch me to take me to the bus station. I think her name was Mrs. McKay. As I crossed the playground, walking to the back gate, I didn't realize that this would be the last time I would ever see Lady and the children. I turned round to look up at my home and saw all the children waving goodbye with their little faces pressed against the window. Not only did I feel sad about leaving them, but where was Lady who hadn't even said goodbye to me? I searched the faces at the window and caught a glimpse of her standing in the background watching me. I realized then that maybe this was the best way to part. After all, it would have been even worse saying our farewells. For me, it was parting from the only mother I had ever known, for Lady, she was losing the little girl she had raised from a baby.

Not knowing what the future held, I tried looking on the bright side for I was meeting my father for the very first time. So, it was with mixed emotions I left the old life behind and set off to start a new one. What lay in store for me would have to be another story. I boarded the bus with great expectations but would never forget ‘Lady’ and my wonderful childhood years.

First published as ‘Lady and Me’ in 1995

Amy now lives with her husband ,Ray in Memphis, Tennessee, USA

Other articles which feature Elaine Symmons nee Bladen

Taking in Visitors at Promenade Terrace by Elaine Symmons

May Bladen Many people in Mumbles opened their homes to visitors in the summer months and we were no exception.

Billy the Swan by Elaine Symmons

We named him ‘Billy’ and he soon made himself at home among us. My Mother, May Bladen, regularly put bowls of corn and bread and a pail of water for him in ...

More at -Explore subjects A to Z


You could use the 'Search icon' on the top right of every page