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 !!
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.