Towards the end of the nineteenth century, no provision at all was made for looking after the daughters of women prisoners. Two ladies, Mrs. Meredith and Miss Cavendish, conceived the idea of building cottages in a village as a home for these children, and Miss Cavendish gave three acres of land for this purpose. H.R.H. Mary Duchess of Teck (later Queen Mary) became interested in the project, and in 1871 she agreed to start the building process off with a ground breaking ceremony. Money to actually build the houses had not been received prior to the ceremony, but a donation of £300 was given on the day enabling building work to begin.
Extract from Trust Deed dated 12th January 1872 states, ‘The purpose of the said Institution shall be the bringing up, including board, lodging, clothing and education of female children who shall have had a parent convicted of crime,………….who have no home or who are otherwise circumstanced as to be peculiarly exposed to demoralizing influence’. The Home was to be known as Princess Mary’s Village Homes for Little Girls, and the Princess herself chose as its motto ‘God setteth the Solitary in Families.’
Cottages were built in blocks of two, but as early as 1898 alteration were required to meet Home Office regulations and so each double cottage became one. The rooms were practically furnished and there was no electricity, nor piped water and each cottage had a ration of 1 1/2 pounds of candles per week. Food was plain and a typical breakfast in 1875 consisted of bread, treacle and milk.
Soon after the first cottages were opened a laundry was built, and all the washing from the Homes was done there as well as being a commercial laundry which brought in a useful income. In 1894 laundry income was £523. The girls were also taught how to become seamstresses, mainly working on old clothes as new materials were expensive. In 1926 a gift of £2.10 was spent on new fabric which the girls made in to dresses for them to wear. The success of this led to more money being donated so that it was possible for every girl to have a new dress.
In 1964 on 7th December, the new school block was opened by H.R.H. the Princess Royal and besides classrooms, there was a hall with a stage, a modern laundry, needlework, art, typing and domestic science rooms. By 1970 each cottage had easy chairs, adequate heating, television, radio and in some cases a record player. Ample hot water and gas or electric cookers. The girls were allowed to decorate the dormitories as they wished and there was a sitting room for the supervisor. It also became a community home once more and the Centenary celebrations of the Foundation took place on Sunday 9th July 1972 in the Chapel.
In 1871 Princess Mary Village Homes was a hundred years in advance of its time. It showed vision, imagination and compassion. The school was closed and demolished in 1980.