Creches in Nineteenth Century Neston
by Stella Young
In the nineteenth century Neston had, at two different periods, a crèche for children under school age. Although neither lasted for more than a few years they made a lasting impression and they were still remembered in the early years of the twentieth century.
Crèches, or day nurseries for young children, were first established in France (the name is derived from the French word for manger or crib) in the 1840s and soon became commonplace in other parts of Europe. It was not however until the late 1860s that they first appeared in England. In 1869 Mary Teresa Clifford, the 12th Baroness Petre established a crèche in Marylebone, to provide a safe place for mothers to leave their children while they were at work. Others followed in different areas of London and soon spread to other parts of the country including Bath, Burnley and Liverpool. They received the support of social reformer Lord Shaftesbury and were advocated especially for those industrial areas where work for women, even those with young children, was both necessary and available. And such work was often essential if the family were to survive, not only for women who were widowed but also for those whose husbands were unable to work or whose wages were insufficient.
They were seen as a means of lowering the infant mortality rate and increasing school attendance rates. If neighbours or family members weren’t available to look after their children it was not unusual for mothers to leave very young children alone at home and accidents such as falls, burns and scalds, sometimes fatal, were all too common. The terms of the 1880 Elementary Education Act made it compulsory for children between the ages of 5 and 10 to attend school. Often older children, particularly girls, in the family were kept at home to care for younger siblings even though their parents might be prosecuted and fined for failing to send their children to school.
The state made no provision for the care of children under 5 at this time and although mothers who used the creches paid a small charge the creches were not self financing; they were organised and funded through the charitable endeavours of the wealthier members, mostly women, of the community. In 1881 Phillis Browne’s book What Girls Can do: a book for mothers and daughters was published and was widely reviewed in national and local newspapers, including the Liverpool Mercury. One section advised on appropriate charitable works including crèches-
‘In London alone over 40% of the children die under five years of age and it has been amply proved that this high death rate is to a large extent due to neglect, not wilful but unavoidable, when, as in many cases the mother spends the day in washing or charing away from her own home. Creche-nurseries where for a small payment little children are amused and cared for during the day were established in England about ten years ago and have been gradually attracting public notice since. These institutions are eminently useful and maybe warmly recommended to the attention of all girls who may have time on their hands’.
Although there were crèches operating in Liverpool there is little evidence of any in Cheshire and an early crèche in Wrexham lasted only a short time. However in 1883 a crèche was established in Neston by Miss Sarah Lyon.
‘…no class of women in the United Kingdom endure greater hardships…’
Why Neston might need a crèche is perhaps not immediately obvious. It was most often in the larger manufacturing towns, especially the mill towns, which had factories employing large numbers of women, that crèches were established. Neston did however have a significant number of women in the fishing community who, a Neston resident noted, ‘work as hard and endure as much hardship as any class in the United Kingdom’ (Cheshire Observer Saturday 11th December 1886). He was referring to local women who earned a living gathering cockles who were obliged to go out in the early hours of the morning in all weathers to pick cockles and then go out again later to sell them. The Neston correspondent of the Cheshire Observer provided a sympathetic description of their life.
The ‘ bad liver ‘ in ‘ these parts ‘ whose conscience has kept him awake until two or three o’clock on a cold winter’s morning, or the virtuous individual whose ‘ bad liver ‘ has performed for him a similar function, may have heard in the small hours a troop of people passing beneath his window, and if he has had the courage to get up in the frosty atmosphere and draw the blind -which is not at all likely – he may have seen in the starlight a band of men and women, especially the latter, driving donkeys in the direction of the beach. Another and another regiment would pass in like manner, and, two hours after he has drawn the blankets to his nose again and settled for sleep with a half audible expression of thankfulness that he is not as the other men and women and donkeys are who have just set off to follow in the footsteps of the receding tide, the band of toilers will be nearing the scene of their daily labour. It has been weary work walking over the yielding gravel and sands in the face of a biting wind, but nevertheless the work of the day must be begun at once. Then follow hours of walking to and fro in the shallow pools of icy water, with clinging wet skirts freezing against the bare discoloured feet and ankles. Hours of toiling, and stooping, and grubbing in the wet sandbank, while the nipping frost lightly powders over the striped linsey petticoat and the closely tied shawl. The Point of Ayr Lighthouse flashes its intermittent light upon the scene from time to time; but long before the first streaks of day have been drawn across the eastern sky these Neston women will have completed a portion of their daily work. They have been seen pushing slabs of ice aside with their bare feet, as they have waded out to the black mussel patches; and they have been seen toiling at the mussels when those savoury molluscs have been freezing together in the hand-basket and bag.
(Cheshire Observer – Saturday 15 November 1890 click here to read full article)
‘…a blessed privilege upon the poor of Neston’
In October 1882 Neston and Parkgate Local Board received a request for permission for ‘an iron building to be attached to Mrs Lyon’s house’ (Cheshire Observer, Saturday 9th October, 1882). The request was approved and the crèche opened the following year.
Sarah Lyon (1833 – 1907) was the daughter of Mrs Elizabeth Lyon (see Neston Female Friendly Society – Lady Patronesses), widow of the late Edmund Brock Lyon (1807 –
1844). Sarah’s grandfather, Joseph Lyon (1780 – 1845) was a cousin of Joseph Hayes Lyon (1786 – 1836) of Ashfield Hall. Sarah’s brother Reverend Joseph Lyon (1837 – 1900) was curate in Neston and the family lived in a house, the Lyon family residence for several generations, which stood next to the church where the Parish Hall now stands.
Abutting on the principal entrance of the Neston Churchyard stands an old-fashioned stuccoed residence, shaded with evergreens. Some of its windows look out through a vista of trees and shrubbery, over the low-lying meadows that stretch themselves between the gardens and the river, while others look down upon the churchyard. For some centuries this old house has echoed the sound of the church bells, as they have flung out their invitations from the tower ; and has watched procession after procession pass over the broad gravel path, and disappear through the south-west porch of the church. It has seen the churchgoers streaming into the building to return after the benediction in more leisurely fashion, while some have lingered as is their weekly custom by certain of the graves outside. Gay equipages have often times rolled up to the entrance, and the tall gates have opened wide for the bridal train ; but more frequently a solitary note has sounded from the belfry, and the processionists have moved slowly and with uncovered beads.
(Cheshire Observer – Saturday 15 November 1890)
The Reverend Joseph Lyon, the Reverend Canon Gleadowe, Vicar of Neston and Christopher Bushell were all members of the School Attendance committee and the School Attendance officer, George Hunter, was at that time living in Newtown in Little Neston. In April 1883 an entertainment evening was held at the National Schoolroom for the parents and guardians of children attending the school and amongst those present were the Reverend Gleadow and Christopher Bushell. During the interval Christopher Bushell addressed the assembled parents and made a reference to the new crèche.
‘…Mr C. Bushell followed, urging upon those present the necessity of assisting the children with their education; he considered that the most important period of a child’s life was between the age or three and five years when its character for good or evil was easily formed ; he considered that Miss Lyon had conferred a blessed privilege upon the poor of Neston by opening a creche- which enabled girls to attend schools who would be compelled to stay at home and nurse…’
(Cheshire Observer – Saturday 21 April 1883)
It was well equipped with toys to amuse and occupy the babies and children who were left there.
‘…No sooner was the last rivet driven into its place, and the building rendered taut and dry, than there began to flit into it cots and little forms, chairs tall and chairs short, chairs with rockers and chairs without rockers. There were also dolls that dressed and undressed, and dolls that went to sleep in their clothes ; horses that rocked and never got an inch farther, and horses that went on four wheels with tails and manes that would have made Bend Or weep with jealousy. There were the various other toys that go to make up the Paradise of ladies and gentlemen of tender years…’
(Cheshire Observer – Saturday 15 November 1890)
[Bend Or was a racehorse who won the Epsom Derby in 1880. His owner was Hugh Grosvenor, 1st Duke of Westminster]
The project was short lived however and by 1886 the crèche was no longer operating. It is not known why the crèche could not continue. The reason may have been financial as there is no mention of a committee and it would appear that it was Sarah Lyon alone who organised and financed it. A Neston resident wrote to the Cheshire Observer regretting the closure of the crèche and that no had attempted to support it when Miss Lyon could not. His letter was written after a young child died from severe burns when he and his young siblings were left alone while his mother was working.
‘One of the most valuable of our local institutions has been lost to us recently – viz, the crèche- which has saved the lives of many infants, who but for it would be lying out in the churchyard – victims of neglect. The child who has lost his life was one who benefited by its existence; and the poor cockle-gatherers, who work as hard and endure as much hardship as any class in the United Kingdom, have no suitable place in which to leave their children while they are absent at work. It was nobly supported from a source which can support it no longer, but Neston with all its wealth and philanthropy ( and it is not deficient of either) could not put forth an effort to save it, or to substitute another. Yours &c
( Cheshire Observer – Saturday 11 December 1886)
‘A PLUCKY UNDERTAKING’
The building was a substantial one. Constructed by local builder, Mr Fleming it measured 28 feet in length by 18ft wide and was 21 feet high, and it was decided in the
following year that it could be used to provide additional accommodation for the children at Parkgate School. Moving it, however, was a considerable undertaking but in August 1887 it was successfully moved to the new location.
‘…Mr Wolton Gray, a Neston timber merchant, undertook to remove it, and not a few bets were made as to the carrying out of the project. A low brick wall was first removed after which the room, which weighs about six tons, was placed upon gigantic wooden runners formed from the masts of a ship. At a very early hour on Thursday morning one of Mr Gray’s traction engines was attached to the whole, and the building commenced to move sleigh fashion up the High-street. It presented a very extraordinary appearance, and its progress was watched with interest by numbers of persons. The route selected was through the Five-lane-ends and Leighton, as the erection would not pass under the railway bridge at Parkgate. At nightfall, and after many difficulties had been surmounted, it was safely deposited in the square at Parkgate.’
(Cheshire Observer – Saturday 06 August 1887)
‘A new creche, with Mrs Corbett as lady president, is just announced’
Mrs Elizabeth Lyon died in 1890 and in December of the same year the Reverend Joseph Lyon left Neston (see Spring 1890 – Political Intrigues and a Raging Bull). Sarah Lyon went to live with him in Chester though her sisters, Mary and Maria remained in Neston, living in Mill Street. Around this time efforts were being made to establish another crèche in Neston. Reginald Corbett, the eldest son of Uvedale Corbett of Ashfield Hall had recently married and his new wife, an American from Buffalo, New York, formed a committee with other local women to set up and run a crèche from a house near the School. An evening entertainment consisting of an exhibition of Living Pictures was held at the Town Hall in November 1890 to raise money to finance it (Cheshire Observer – Saturday 15 November 1890). The new crèche was opened in January 1891 and a matron appointed. Mrs Gray, the hon. Secretary and treasurer supplied furnishings for the building and donations of clothes and money were received which ensured that the charity opened free from debt.
However by 1900 the crèche was no longer running and the Observer’s correspondent was again lamenting the absence of such a facility (Cheshire Observer, 17th November 1900). Finance does not appear to have been the reason for its closure. Perhaps it was due to the death of Uvedale Corbett in 1895 which might have ended Reginald and Mrs Corbett’s connection to the district.
In 1905 the residual money from the Neston Creche was donated by the former Creche Committee to buy ‘public seats’ and a small fire engine for the area. By 1906 the fire engine had been provided and arrangements were being made to find a place to store it in the police station and to train some Council workers to operate it.
Miss Sarah Lyon died in July 1907, age 74 and the funeral service was held in Neston. Her obituary in the Chester Courant remembered the numerous charities with which the family had been associated including the crèche which she built and supported for some years.
NESTON. FUNERAL OF MISS LYON. The funeral took place at Neston Pariah Church on Tuesday of Miss Sarah Lyon, of 6. Nicholas-street, Chester, eldest daughter of the late Edmund Brock Lyon, of Neston. Deceased, who was 74 years of age was herself a native of Neston, but, some years ago she took up her abode in Chester with her brother (the late Rev. Joseph Lyon), and continued the establishment at his death. The family have been honourably associated with Neston for many generations, and there are few of the local charities or deserving local institutions with which they have not at one time or other been identified. Many of the humble classes speak with gratitude of the Neston Creche, which was built and maintained at the expense of the lady now deceased, and conducted under her direct personal super- vision. Here in the midst of swings, rocking- horses and every variety of toy that could make glad the infantile heart, were gathered poor babies of the mothers who were obliged to toil for their daily bread, and particularly of the army who had to wring a livelihood from the bleak river banks. Exactly how many lives were saved by the motherly attention of Miss Lyon and her staff will never be known, but there are no doubt sturdy men and women in Neston-cum-Parkgate to-day who would have gone to swell the sum of infant mortality but for the crèche. The interment was of a very quiet character, and there were few floral tributes owing to the request of the family.
(Chester Courant and Advertiser for North Wales, 17th July 1907)