The John Groom Children’s Home at Pilgrim House

Bill Curtis

John Alfred Groom was a London engraver and evangelical preacher, who became concerned with the plight of the poverty-stricken and often disabled girls and women who sold flowers and watercress in the streets around Farringdon Market. Taking inspiration from the then fashionable demand for imported handmade flowers, Groom set up a factory in Sekforde Street, Clerkenwell, where disabled girls could be taught to make artificial flowers and thus make a living for themselves.

In 1890, John Groom’s Crippleage and Flower Girls’ Mission in Clerkenwell opened another Orphanage at Clacton-on-Sea for fatherless girls aged 2 - 14, some with physical infirmity or blindness. The girls attended local schools, and on reaching the age of fourteen, they left and either went into domestic service, or joined the flower-making enterprise at Clerkenwell.

During the Second World War, the older children were evacuated to Davenport House in Shropshire, while the babies were transferred to Farncote House, Wolverhampton. After the war the Clacton Orphanage remained closed. The babies were transferred to Cudham Hall, near Sevenoaks, and the older children took up residence in Pilgrim House, Westerham, recently purchased from the Woolwich Building Society who had had their wartime offices there. The buildings were converted into dormitories, kitchens, day-rooms and staff-quarters.
The girls walked to Westerham each weekday for schooling at Saint Mary’s Junior and Westerham County Secondary Schools. They walked a total of eight miles each day, in four trips, as they returned to Pilgrim House for lunch!
I was contacted out of the blue by one of the former ‘Groom girls’, Doreen Tomlin, now in her seventies. Doreen had contacted Westerham Library to see if they had any information on the John Groom home she could show to her grandchildren. The librarian gave her my telephone number, as I have always been happy for library staff to do so. Doreen rang me and explained what she was trying to find, and we had a long chat about her years and memories of Pilgrim House. I said I would dig out what I had, and post it to her. In return, Doreen wrote the following account of those years just after the war: ‘Life in Pilgrim House on the whole was quite good. We were well fed and clothed and the house was always warm in the winter. The staff were quite strict, but they had to be because we all came from different backgrounds, though some staff were more understanding than others! Christmas was always lovely and we all had stockings at the end of our beds. We would find nuts, an orange, a chocolate bar, hair clips, ribbons, pencils and rubbers and we would all receive a main present plus some were lucky enough to have presents sent in. Our Christmas party was great fun and it was after the party that we were given our main presents, then we would watch films like Mr Pastry, Old Mother Riley and Laurel and Hardy. In the summer months we would all do a lot of scrumping for apples, pears, plums and strawberries but we knew if we got caught we would be in real trouble! During the Biggin Hill Air display some of us would go across the fields to Allen Orchards and get as many Victoria plums as we could carry then we would find a haystack with a ladder and climb to the top and sit  and watch the planes going over whilst eating our plums… but guess who always had a tummy ache the next day !!
There was a lovely chapel in the home and if the weather was really bad on a Sunday morning then the matron would take the service, otherwise we would walk along Pilgrims Way to the Baptist Church in Brasted or go the other way up Westerham Hill to the little wooden church in Biggin Hill. Sometimes we would go to St Marys Church in the town and would often see Sir Winston Churchill's children there.
At the end of the war, the Land Army girls were very good to us and sometimes they would take some of us out to tea or take us to Hosey Hill to pick horse chestnuts. They also treated us to a day at the Westerham Carnival. In the early 1950s, someone gave the home a big television and we sat all day watching the Queen’s Coronation and we were even given a packed lunch and packed tea to eat in front of the telly. After it was all finished it was hot chocolate and biscuits then off to bed. All of our beds had a rug and a patchwork quilt which were all made by the girls from the age of 13 upwards.
Ken Vigar was a pupil at the new Westerham County Secondary School when it first opened in 1949 “…All the classes included two or three girls from the John Groom home at Pilgrim House, who came to the school for their secondary education, and some of them were quite rough - he smiles - they used to walk from the Pilgrims Way to Westerham every day, both ways, and back for lunch as there was no canteen then, imagine that…” In the early 1950s John Groom at Pilgrim House began taking boys as well as girls. Around 1965-6 the Groom Crippleage charity along with Barnardos and many others started to consolidate their outreach in a world beginning to think of ‘care in the community’. The John Groom Home at Pilgrim House and Barnardos Home at Farley Croft were both closed around that time, within a short period of each other.

Comments about this page

  • Hi,

    I am fascinated by this part of my family history as so little of it remains to this day.

    My mother, then Barbara Mayer, who was mentioned above by Ann Mills, was in the home at Westerham during the 1950s and possibly as early as 1945. I do not know exactly when she was moved into the home but she left around the time she was 16 to move in permanently with my Nanna, Grace Douglas in Clacton. I suspect that she must have spent some time in the Clacton Orphanage but I cannot be sure as my mother was born in 1943. I have been trying to find out how the connection with Nanna Douglas was made so if my mother was not in the orphanage at Clacton, then perhaps, Nanna Douglas had some connection with the orphanage? Does anyone know or know where I can find the information?

    I can be contacted at

    Thanks 🙂

    By Donna Muldoon (27/06/2022)
  • Hi Donna, good to hear from you.
    There are records from the Westerham John Groom children’s home from 1953 to 1964 and these are held at the National Records office, Kew.
    Unfortunately they cannot be accessed for 75 years after 1964 as they are considered under the ‘Freedom of Information Act’ to ‘Contain sensitive personal information where release would distress or endanger an individual who was a minor at date of file…’
    This is obviously of no use to you, but I might suggest contacting them at least for confirmation of dates on the basis that you cannot be distressed as you already know the facts!

    You may also want to talk to Pamela Harris (nee O’Neil) on who was in the home around that time. She is happy for people to phone her on 07726 943794.

    Good luck and please keep us posted!

    By Bill Curtis (27/06/2022)
  • Hello John, Ann Mills here. Well, I never, I was just doing a bit of browsing and came across this page. Do you remember me? I certainly recognise your name. I have just has my 80th birthday! but still have so many memories mostly good of PH. I am in touch with Josie Leadbetter, Sue Morris, Doreen Dorrell, (Barbara Meyer and Vi Plum) both recently passed, and Virginia Zammit. Do get back to me if you get this.

    By Ann Mills (30/12/2021)
  • Hi Ann, good to hear from you! I will send your comments to John via email as well, just to make sure he gets it. Do you have any photos from your time there that we could add to the site? Thanks and best, Bill

    By Bill Curtis (04/01/2022)
  • Re the picture above “Westerham Carnival”, imagine my surprise when I was just browsing as I had spent some of my childhood in John Grooms children’s home.
    I am on that float with my two sister’s, I remember it clearly I am the one on the left with my arm in the air.
    My sisters Jean and Jackie are on the right hand side, the Red Indian girl and Chinese Girl.
    Fantastic to find this photo, any one out there who were in the home early to mid fifties?

    By John Boness (06/03/2021)
  • Hi John, that’s fantastic! Always good to hear from anyone who can name people in our photographs! Can you name anyone else? If you would like to jot down some memories from your time there, we will happily publish them.
    Thanks and kind regards, Bill

    By Bill Curtis (06/03/2021)

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *