The History of the Epworth Children`s Home
Setting out to write the history of Epworth, it very soon becomes apparent that one is not so much trading in dates and events, but really caught up in the lives of people, for Epworth is people; old and young alike dreaming dreams, and together discovering new visions of life.
It all began with the dream of the man, who in January 1918, proposed in the Synod of Transvaal District the establishment of a living memorial to those who paid the supreme sacrifice. I would quote one brief paragraph from Rev. Amos Burnett’s address to the Synod:
“Plans and schemes for War Memorials of various
degrees of excellence are already being mooted but I
submit that no worthier or nobler memorial can be
suggested than that for each soldier who has gone forth
from our church and given his life for our sakes we should
take an orphan child to train and educate and send forth
fitted for the battle of life in their stead.”
The vision accepted by that Synod already foresaw the possibility of two homes in the Johannesburg area, one in Pretoria and one on the East Rand.
The committee established by the Synod to investigate and develop the idea speedily got to work and decided on the name “EPWORTH ”. The family home of John Wesley where, with his brothers and sisters, received in the years of their youth the training and upbringing which was to make them such outstanding leaders in their day. By November 2 of 1918, two children were taken into a rented house in Malvern and the work of caring for children in need had begun.
Accommodation was limited and although it had been intended to admit only girls, four boys had already been admitted by the end of that year and the total number of children was twenty.
By June 1919 a suitable home in Malvern became available for purchase and the committee with only £ 200 in hand decided they should buy the property at a cost of £2 000.The girls were transferred to the new premises. The boys remained in the rented house while a suitable site was sought in Pretoria.
November of 1919 saw the purchase of the desired property in Pretoria at a cost of £2 000. Again the committee only had some £200 available at the time of purchase. The Home was opened in May 1920 with full complement of 24 boys.
Behind this hive of activity, planning development, stood the people who made it all possible and as one reads the minutes of the period one is impressed by the sacrifices being made. Names, which keep cropping up again and again include those of Rev. A Burnett, C.T. Douthwaite, W. Meara, C Lowe, H.W Goodwin, A.S Clegg, Dr McCauley, Messrs D.F Corlett, W Mountstephens, M. Algar, W. Gardiner, F. Sugden, T. Howard, W. Fearnhead, G.K Tucker and Mesdames W H Johns, R.H Henderson, Boustred, E. Turner. Some of the devotions of these people can de gauged in the story of Mr Morris Algar who while confined to bed and in pain for many years, wrote letters, stories and poems all with the object of rousing interest and bringing funds to the homes.
It had always been the intention that the homes should be kept as intimate as possible and that the intake of children should never exceed 24.This was an entirely new concept in the field of child care at a time when mass institutions and large dormitories were the order of the day. It may be noted in passing that the average cost per child per year at this stage was £30!
References in the minutes and reports such as “today we have had to refuse 80 applications because of lack of accommodation”. A “waiting list with 60 names” soon prompted a realisation that expansion was imperative and in 1924 a second girls home was opened at Benoni and in 1930 the fourth home was established in Kenilworth for boys. Both these homes were donated by Messrs. Mountstephens and Collins.
As early as 1921 the homes had been registered to take “committed” children and important decisions were being made with regard to the care of the children. The “need before creed” principle was adopted. The children were to never wear a distinctive uniform, which would identify them as different to other children. In these fields, as well as in the concept of small intimate homes, Epworth was leading the whole field of childcare in the country.
As the years passed, those who headed the committees and worked with the children became increasingly aware of new areas into which investigation needed to be made and new ventures undertaken.
One early report, written before 1930 had this to say: “The most important factor in the running of the homes, is the aftercare of the children. Many of them are fast growing up, and will shortly be starting out on life and many of them will need a home for some time to come. It is no use training them and instilling the highest principles with their minds, if that training ceases as soon as they start out in life”. This plea was repeated over the years and was eventually implemented from the late 1980’s and has culminated in the setting aside of a house for this sole purpose.
The need for adequate training of the matrons and staff was recognised as early as 1925 and various schemes were devised and undertaken and is still one of Epworth’s distinctive features.
In 1928 Mr. George Lowe suggested what was to become the present policy in the homes. That the homes should be grouped together on one site and brothers and sisters could be kept together in one house. This then completely revolutionary and visionary idea would not be implemented for many years but the seeds had been sown.
The passing years saw numerous alterations and additions being made to meet new ideas in hygiene and working conditions.
The years brought new names into the limelight and saw small children become adults and take their place in society, some as teachers and nurses, others as competent tradesmen and efficient personnel and amongst them a minister and other professional people. The passing years resulted in changed causes for the needs of children, but no lessening of these needs, the years also took their inevitable toll in the existing buildings.
The old house in Kenilworth became unsuitable and a new building was erected in 1960 and for the first time part of the vision of George Lowe was realised in the fact that in this new home brothers and sisters could be brought together as a family unit of 16 children.
A similar home was opened in Germiston in the same year. Further deterioration of the premises in Pretoria and Malvern became a source of deep concern and it was decided to build five additional family homes each housing 12 children in the care of competent house parents at Germiston Children’s Village. The dream of 1928 had finally come true.
The boys from Pretoria and Malvern became its first inhabitants. Later two further houses were added to the Village and the Benoni girls were brought to Germiston.
In the meantime the dreaming and searching for more adequate ways to assist the development of the children and meet their individual needs had not stopped.
There were new people dreaming new dreams and one wishes one could name them all. Great contributions were made by so many but one must single out a few. One of these was Miss Iris Humble who for many years was the general secretary of the home who although she grew older with the passing years seemed almost to become younger in spirit as the years passed.
Another unique contributor to the development of Epworth Village was Rev. Arthur Bath, who at the age of 65 took on the role of Warden and has left over the last eight years an indelible imprint on its development. He dreamed the dream fulfilled in 1977. He dreamed of the time when there would be a qualified clinical psychologist on the staff and 1979 will see this dream come true.
He grasped with rare insight the deep emotional deprivation of so many children and moved into fields as yet unexplored in childcare anywhere in South Africa to meet these needs.
So the dream of Epworth goes on taking new form in each successive generation of those who serve sacrificially and those who are served in their ever-changing needs. With pride in our achievements and hope for the future we go on to dream the next inspired dream and realise the next step in adequately fulfilling our Lord’s command to” Suffer the children to come to Him and feed his lambs.”
As we enter the new millennia and anticipate one hundred years in childcare, we are deeply aware that we are the custodians of the vision of our forefathers and mothers. In our day we face the challenges of HIV/AIDS, children and families infected and affected by this terrible disease, the impact of child-headed homes, we see the cost of the growing inequalities in our new democracy.
We remain inspired by the dreams and vision of effective childcare.
The dream of Rev Arthur Bath has now also come true with the establishment of a fully functioning Therapeutic Centre not just with one psychologist but a full team of health care professionals. It has become a facility that is available not just to the children in our care but for the wider community as well.
We have come full circle, we are a ministry placed firmly in the middle of the community seeking to equip disadvantaged children to live full and productive lives.