The London Orphan Asylum was founded as a charity in 1813 by social reformer and philanthropist Rev Dr Andrew Reed. Two houses were acquired in Shoreditch and Bethnal Green for fatherless children ‘of respectable descent’, but the need for increased space just ten years later dictated a move to then-semi-rural Clapton. In 1867 the decision to relocate to Watford and a cleaner, healthier environment followed an outbreak of typhoid that infected 200-plus pupils, 15 of whom died.

Thirty-six acres of land were purchased on the east side of the then 11-year-old London and North-Western Station at Watford (Watford Junction), which had been relocated from St Albans Road. The resources for the land purchase apparently stemmed from the Wellington Fund, following a meeting attended some years earlier by the Duke of Wellington.

On July 15, 1869, the first stone was laid by the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, accompanied by the Princess of Wales, after which construction began under the supervision of architect Mr Henry Dawson of Finsbury, London. The original proposed roll call of 300-450 boys and 150 girls was based on friends’ charitable donations; the Grocers’ Company being a ‘house’ donor, whilst the residents of Hertfordshire paid for a wing.

Watford Observer: London Orphan Asylum, early 1900sLondon Orphan Asylum, early 1900s

Fast forward to early September 1871 when the asylum opened and the first group of children aged between seven and 11 were met at Watford Junction and marched in crocodile formation. They approached the impressive site via a wide grass-verged entrance, on the left side of which lay a small lodge.

A chapel was nearest to the railway, the funds for which had been donated by Mrs Peckett, a school matron and governor’s wife. At the rear, a large administrative building housed a board room. There was a visitors’ room, library, other offices and a temporary infirmary; a permanent structure being planned at a later date.

Watford Observer: London Orphan Asylum Advertisement, 1915London Orphan Asylum Advertisement, 1915

The prominent tower was without its bell and clock when the asylum first opened, below which was the central entrance hall and main staircase. The large dining hall in another building at the rear had a visitors’ gallery, separated by columns and arches. Below were extensive kitchens fitted with lifts to transport plain wholesome meals to the pupils.

To the right of the administrative building was the girls’ quadrangle, where dormitories - some containing 40 beds - were named after flowers, such as snowdrop and orchid. The quadrangle included a music room, practice area; work rooms, sitting rooms and a school room, as well as residential premises and offices for the head mistress. The original uniform for the girls comprised a white flannel petticoat, another of black serge, a dark red dress and a pinafore, black stockings and boots. The girls wore capes with red hoods for chapel.

Watford Observer: Mr Arthur P. Blathwayt, Chairman and Treasurer, 1915Mr Arthur P. Blathwayt, Chairman and Treasurer, 1915

On the left were the boys’ junior and senior quadrangles, whose dormitories were named after prominent individuals with connections to the asylum, such as Blathwayt (Arthur Blathwayt was Chairman & Treasurer) and Capel. Several ‘houses’ each accommodated 50 boys with school rooms, class rooms and accommodation for the matron.

A swimming bath ensured that children were able to swim by the time they left, usually after their 15th birthdays. The whole complex was light and airy by Victorian standards, enjoyed a pleasant outlook across its gardens and playgrounds and provided indoor recreational space when unfavourable weather kept the children indoors. There was a specially sunk well that provided an abundant water supply.

Miss L Brunsden of Park Street, St Albans attended between January 21, 1888 and August 21, 1894. On the back of a postcard, she noted ‘In Memorium’. In November 1904, Ethel wrote to her uncle, Mr Pocock of South Tottenham, London: ‘This is part of our school, the chapel and the senior boys’ houses. This is the door where the boys go in.’ Another postcard is of the girls’ school room, with a written notation: ‘Very many happy days.’ The photograph is of the full complement of 150 or so girls in their smart gymslips and white shirts standing beside their wooden desks, watched over by prefects between the well-formed lines. Several large wooden honours boards can be seen on the rear wall of the cavernous room.

In 1915 the asylum was renamed the London Orphan School and later amalgamated with the Royal British Orphan School. At that time, it had 500 pupils and King George V headed the list of patrons.

Watford Observer: Girls at the London Orphan School, 1935Girls at the London Orphan School, 1935

When World War Two broke out, the school was evacuated and the premises were requisitioned as an army hospital. The site was later occupied by the Ministry of Labour. The boys were transferred to Totnes, Devon and the girls to Towcester, Northamptonshire. After the war, the schools were renamed Reed’s in memory of their founder. The girls were relocated to Dogmersfield Park, Hampshire, which closed in 1955 and the boys to Cobham, Surrey, where the school remains to this day.

Today, Reed’s Estate is residential and, although new buildings have been added, much of the Victorian school which played its part in the lives and education of thousands of children, was retained. Long may its worthy history live on.

  • Lesley Dunlop is the daughter of the late Ted Parrish, a well-known local historian and documentary filmmaker. He wrote 96 nostalgic articles for the ‘Evening Post-Echo’ in 1982-83 which have since been published in ‘Echoes of Old Watford, Bushey & Oxhey’, available at and Bushey Museum. Lesley is currently working on ‘Two Lives, Two World Wars’, a companion volume that explores her father’s and grandfather’s lives and war experiences, in which Watford, Bushey and Oxhey’s history will take to the stage once again.