At Christmas in 1848 my 3x great grandfather William Brodie Gurney celebrated the birth of half a dozen new grandchildren that year. This was quite a tally, even for a man who eventually had 62 of them, and 1848 became known mock-memorially in the family as The Year Of The Six Babies.
Catherine Gurney (1848-1930)
One of them was my great grandfather William Henry Gurney Salter’s cousin Katie Gurney. A deeply Christian woman, she first made her mark by starting a Bible Class in Wandsworth Prison in the early 1870s. A chance remark from one of the policemen who made safe her journey from Wandsworth back to her home in Notting Hill – “What? D’you think a police officer has a soul?” – led her to found the Christian Police Association in 1883. To accommodate the Association she opened London’s first Police Institute, a drop-in centre for comfort and conversation.
In 1889 she helped an ailing officer find a place in a convalescent home, only to see him check out again when he found his neighbour in the next bed was a violent criminal whom he had put behind bars. Katie realised the need for a dedicated sanctuary for policemen recovering from injury or illness, and founded the Southern Provincial Police Home in Brighton the following year.
St George’s House, Harrogate c1898
soon after being opened as the Northern Police Orphanage
The institution began to serve a second purpose as a home for the orphaned children of policemen, for which it soon became clear there was a very great need. Children were being sent to the south coast orphanage from as far away as Manchester in the north. In 1897 Miss Gurney arranged the purchase of St George’s House in Harrogate and a year later opened the Northern Police Orphanage there. Within the grounds she then built the Northern Police Convalescent Home.
All these institutions were paid for through the personal fund-raising efforts of Catherine Gurney amongst her friends, family and other wealthy patrons in the north and south of England. Where funding fell short, she arranged loans on which she paid the interest herself. She remained closely associated with them throughout her life. She was on hand to show him around when the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII, opened a new chapel at the southern Home in 1923, and shortly before her death in 1930 she was awarded an O.B.E.
Catherine Gurney (right) with the Prince of Wales (centre left)
at the opening of the new Southern Police Orphanage chapel
27th November 1923
735 children passed through the doors of the Southern Police Orphanage from its founding in 1890 until 1939. (No doubt even more followed before its closure in 1947.) The first was James Henry Archer, five years old, from a family of seven in Leicestershire. The first admission to the Northern Orphanage in 1898 was a little girl from Sunderland called Minnie Smith; she was followed by 643 others before the institution closed in 1956.
Thousands of police officers have benefited from the convalescent homes, and continue to do so through the St George’s Trust. Attitudes to orphanages have changed, but the fatherless children of policemen are still cared for in Britain by the Gurney Fund.
Memorial to Catherine Gurney
in the chapel of the Southern Police Orphanage
Katie, who never married or had children, was born in an age when women were seen and not heard. She ignored that dictum. With the support of her relatives, and the example of her ancestors (for example her great grandmother Rebecca Brodie and her great great aunt Martha Gurney of whom I have written here), she made a difference. She still changes lives.