A return to its roots

by
19 May 2017

Spurgeons children’s charity is rekindling the memory of its founder, discovers Pat Ashworth

Bronac McNeill

Three generations of care: a child taking part in a recent activity for young carers

Three generations of care: a child taking part in a recent activity for young carers

THE children’s charity Spurgeons is marking its 150th anniversary with a re-emphasis on its Christian heritage: a rebranding that its chief executive, Ross Hendry, describes as “an intentional move to be more visibly aligned to the Christian faith that is our guiding force. We want to honour what Charles Spurgeon started, and to be honest about how we work, and what we are trying to achieve.”

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-92) was the Baptist pastor of the biggest congregation in the country. He was famous for his oratory: his sermons were transcribed, pub­lished, and sold for a penny to a mass audience. Inspired by the work of George Muller, who worked with homeless and destitute children and set up orphan houses in London and Bristol, Spurgeon established his own Orphan Home for Boys, in Stockwell, founded on the promise of a £20,000 donation from Ann Hillyard, a widow in his con­gre­gation.

He did not want it run on workhouse lines: his vision was for fatherless boys to be put into large families, each in a house with a Christian “mother”, or matron, at its head. Large donors gave sums sufficient to build single houses in this campus arrangement, and smaller donations provided com­munal areas such as dining-rooms. By the end of 1869, all the buildings were completed and paid for. Ten years later, a girls’ section was added.

The children had to be aged from four to 11, and had to be legiti­mately born and healthy. The regime appears to have been kindly: they wore ordinary clothing rather than a distinctive uniform that would have identified them as charity children, and were given a good education designed to get them into work — jobs in commerce for the boys, and domestic positions for the girls. The children were moved to Reigate, in Surrey, when the Stockwell area was bombed in the Second World War, and transferred to new, purpose-built premises in Birchington, Kent, in 1951.

 

THE trust deed was expanded in 1954 to ensure that children in any kind of need could be cared for; and, for the first time, babies were accepted into the Home. Jan Avery was a live-in staff member in the babies’ house during that period, and remembers the home with fondness.

“There was no policy of dis­ciplining of infants,” she re­mem­bers. “The primary aim for the staff and carers was to make sure the children felt safe and secure, and help them develop into confident youngsters.” Outdoor play was encouraged, and the children were often taken out to play on mats under the trees in the beautiful grounds. “Spurgeons Children’s Home was a very important place for me. It showed me that there were good people in the world,” she says.

Mr Hendry describes Spurgeon as a man of huge talent. “I can’t believe how much work he accomplished in the course of his life,” he says. “He was preaching about ten times a week; he’d prepare his Sunday sermon the night before, go up with a page of notes and preach out of his head. He himself would say that he always had seven or eight thoughts going on in his mind. He had this extraordinary photographic memory, and was the most prolific author in the English language.

Girls at the Stockwell Orphanage at the turn of the century“Yet you hear stories about his soft heart. For us, what’s remarkable is that he married a deep sense of the importance of God’s word and theology with a compassionate heart to do God’s will. There are lovely stories about how intimate and kind-hearted and generous he was to the orphans who came to have a safe haven here. He was good with his time as well as his money: he’d sit down with the boys and the girls, and they were excited by his visits.”

There’s a strong sense of providence in the foundation story, Mr Hendry suggests: “of how God moved him and his congregation to pray for eyes to see the need and for God to open the right doors.”

 

THE orphanage was closed in 1979. Now the charity, based in North­amp­tonshire, works in partnership with local agencies around the country, and has distinct areas of work with children and young people which reflect changing times and challenges.

More than 80 per cent of its income derives from the statutory sector, mainly from local author­ities, and particularly in support of the children’s centres, safe environ­­ments that it manages in Peter­borough, East Northamp­tonshire, and Wiltshire. In addition, play-therapy buses visit schools to give one-to-one sessions to children suffering from trauma.

There are parenting courses to help families that are experiencing difficulties. And Spurgeons supports young carers such as Alex, who looks after a mother with multiple sclerosis, a grandmother who is a double amputee, and a grandfather who has suffered a series of strokes. He is part of Spurgeons Young Carers committee, and is himself an advocate for young carers, despite his demanding routine of school and running the home.

One initiative, Together for Families, results from a successful bid to the diocese of Peterborough to pilot a new way of working with churches and community groups. These organisations will work alongside the Children’s Centre teams to support young children affected by social and geographical isolation.

“We want to use the professional credibility and legitimacy we have to provide opportunities for local churches to meet and understand them, to let them know what statu­tory services are available, and to invite them into the warmth of a church community,” Mr Hendry says. He describes the initiative as “all part of our desire to refresh our brand and be more visibly a Christian children’s charity”.

 

THE charity also supports families who are experiencing the effects of domestic abuse. In conjunction with health visitors and social services, its work in Epping helps families to identify the traits of abusive people, learn how to avoid negative relationships, and build confidence, self-esteem, and new skills.

Young children at the Birchington site, Kent, in the 1950sSpurgeons’ staff — who do not have to be Christian, but do have to understand the centrality of Jesus’s teaching, and live out the charity’s values of compassion, inclusivity, and hope — need to take difficult decisions, such as advising removal from an abusive relationship, when that is the loving thing to do. “As far as possible, we try to keep families together; but, sometimes, that’s not possible for one or both involved,” Mr Hendry says.

The charity’s Phoenix Project has been running in Birmingham since 2013, and is a confidential service to support young people and their families who are affected by childhood sexual exploitation (CSE). It also works closely with children who have a parent in prison — 160,000 children each year are in this situation — and who often struggle to cope emotionally.

Money has recently been raised to help fathers in prison to build relationships with their children for the first time; help girls involved with gangs, and those at risk of self-harming; and young men at risk of sexual exploitation.

“All this is difficult stuff,” Mr Hendry acknowledges. “Our unique approach is that we deal with these issues in the family context of these children.” The charity has taken a conscious decision, he says, not to go down the route of being a social and secular enterprise, but to be creative and confident in seeking to do work from which others perhaps shy away.

“Part of our desire to refresh our brand is so that people don’t feel duped or misled when they engage with us,” he says. “We did not want to be a lukewarm charity, but to honour our heritage and history through believing that God has protected our work over many generations, and will seek to do so in the future.

“We are clear that we are proud to be a Christian charity that witnesses Jesus into the com­­munities we work in. We aren’t trying to replicate the Church’s mission, but to be a bridge some­times between the Church and the communities it has sometimes found it difficult to engage with.”

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