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Walking down the winding country lane which leads to Beechholme Children's Home in Banstead, it is hard to imagine why Wandsworth Council would want to give the place up in favour of ten modern replacement homes situated within the borough. When the sun shines and butterflies cover the buddleia bushes the rows of Victorian houses which comprise Beechholme look idyllic.
But step inside any of the houses and it is easy to see why the Council has decided to leave. Most of them are damp and in need of repair. The antiquated baths and toilets are lined in military rows and the bedrooms are like dormitories despite attempts to partition them. There are no play rooms and the staff quarters are extremely cramped.
Beechholme was opened in 1880. In its day, it was considered to be quite revolutionary - a bold attempt to get away from the massive institutions housing armies of orphans. But standards have changed and some of the innovating design features are completely out of place in modern child care.
The old band hall still stands - a memory of the time when children in care were taught to play band instruments.
The school building is damp and draughty. An entry in an old school master's diary tells how one winter, the ink in the ink wells froze and the children were made to jump up and down every half hour to keep warm. The Council has installed heating at Beechholme, but the Superintendent, Mr. C. Dicker, says:
The Council decided some while ago that Beechholme had outworn its usefulness and would have to go. Work on replacement homes commenced when it was realized that it was no longer any use trying to patch up the old houses. Mr. Edward Higgins, Director of Social Services, says:
As well as the structural disadvantages, there are other drawbacks to Beechholme. The children who live there, are Wandsworth children and they are a long way from home - too far for casual visits from relatives and friends. Beechholme was originally designs to be self supporting incorporating a farm and all the craftsmen necessary for an independent existence.
Mr. Higgins says: "We feel this is all wrong. Beechholme is no longer the way to prepare town children for the life they will eventually lead."So now the children of Beechholme are moving back to Wandsworth into small purpose built homes housing 20 children each.
Naturally, moving home can be a traumatic experience. especially for younger children who have spent most of their lives at Beechholme. The staff have done their best to pave the way and since the move was first anticipated in 1969, children have been sent to Wandsworth schools.
Mr. Dicker says: "It has meant a lot of travelling for them, but we felt that to ask them to move home and school at the same time might be a bit too much."
Staff at Beechholme have arranged trips to the sites of the new homes to accustom the children to their new neighbourhoods and let them see the building in progress.The first of the replacement homes to be completed in Wandsworth was Larch Road home in Balham and the group of 20 children are now settling in.
After Beechholme, Larch Road is very luxurious. All the rooms are bright and colourful. The bedrooms are spacious, each one decorated in a different colour scheme, and the older children have rooms of their own. Posters on the walls indicate that the children are making themselves at home. The play rooms and sitting rooms are well furnished, and the dining room and labour saving kitchen are of open plan design. The toilet and bathroom facilities are plentiful and the larger bedrooms contain hand wash basins.
Miss Eva Knights, Superintendent at the home who made the move from Beechholme with the children, says: "When they settle in, I think they are going to find it much more fun living here. One major advantage is that this place looks much more like a real "home". Beechholme always had an institutional feeling to it."
Older children are benefiting from the advantage of being able to mix with local children and school friends. They can invite them back to their new home and meet them after school with ease. Nearness to a big shopping centre, the cinema and clubs is another advantage appreciated by the teenagers. Some children are now receiving more frequent visits from parents.
A further Beechholme replacement home has recently been opened in Doddington Road, Battersea, and the other eight homes are all in advanced stages. This winter will be the last one that Wandsworth children have to spend at Beechholme.