Orphanages originated from the tradition of Charity that was rooted in cities of the Middle Ages. People who had the means would give some coins to the beggar at their door or in the streets. The poor recipients due to illness, handicaps, old age or a lack of a steady income were unable to support themselves. The care for these needy people was largely in the hands of the Roman Catholic clergy. Nuns such as the Sisters of St. Agnes were kept busy with, among other duties, nursing the sick, both inside and outside their nunneries.
In Dutch cities foundlings and orphans were also objects of concern and care. However, in medieval times specialised orphanages were rarely established. Orphans were usually sent to private individuals, to be taken care of. Sometimes a charitable organisation would pay local craftsmen to take on orphans as apprentices. Other orphans, however, were simply left to their own devices.
During the 16th Century in The Hague, both the authorities and local elite turned their attention to a group of orphans who were staying in the city. There was a great need to establish a specialised home for them where they could be educated towards becoming good citizens with an honourable occupation. This is precisely what was created by initiatives that were private yet supported by the public funds supplied by, among others, the municipal authorities.
The Westeinde buildings
In 1576 the States of Holland (i.e. the parliament of the county of Holland) agreed to transfer the nunnery compound to the orphanage. Its new owners were given permission to demolish the convent’s church buildings and the chapel. The proceeds of the debris sold as building materials were a welcome addition to the orphanage’s modest income.
Initially 65 children lived in the new Hague orphanage. However, their number increased considerably during the 17th Century. Between 1624 and 1635 there were on average 77 girls and 80 boys in the orphanage.
The orphanage’s finances turned out to be sufficiently healthy to pay for housing and caring for the orphans. This changed in the 18th Century, particularly in the second half. In 1808 it was decided that the maximum number of orphans was to be 65. In 1816 admission requirements to the orphanage were made easier because there were only 23 children in the orphanage’s care.
Until the age of twelve both girls and boys in the orphanage received daytime school education, but after that age their ways separated. Girls who had left school went to work as seamstress apprentices; the oldest five girls went out to work as house maids. Orphan boys went out to work as apprentices at different tradesmen’s in town. When day work was done the orphans were back at the orphanage for evening classes.
Orphans who were smarter than most of their peers had few opportunities for being educated according to their talents. This changed in 1756 when the Renswoude Foundation took charge of that aspect. Several teachers were hired to supply education to gifted orphan boys. This was according to the instructions given by the late Dame of Renswoude as part of her legacy for this purpose.
Influenced by new ideas about education and hygiene, orphanage life changed considerably in the course of the second half of the 19th Century. Seamstresses working with wool and linen were no longer seen, all orphans were given an adequate education and personal development was encouraged. The orphan girls’ inferior treatment was corrected. Some girls were even allowed to follow secondary education.
Very few personal records about the way orphans were treated survive. This is why we do not know how frequently use was being made of the extensive collection of correctional instruments, intended to punish the orphans. There have been cases of orphans who had to walk around for weeks with what was called a punishment block. This was a heavy block of wood, attached to the leg with a chain, which seriously restricted all movement. Probably even worse was the humiliation that went with having to walk around with such a block.
Since 1910 there was an increasing consensus that the Westeinde orphanage was not fit for purpose. This was particularly true of the school rooms which were closed in 1906 on account of insufficient ventilation and unhygienic circumstances. From that time on the orphans followed classes outside the orphanage.
The search for a plot on the fringe of the city where a completely new orphanage could be built was started in 1908. A suitable place was found only in 1917 at Jozef Israëlsplein (off Wassenaarseweg). This building is now known as Renswoude Huis.
War Refugees: an intermezzo
The German 1914 invasion of Belgium chased tens of thousands of Belgian families from their homes. Many fled towards the North because the Netherlands were (and stayed) neutral during the First World War. On 10 October 1914 the Orphanage general manager received a telephone call from the Mayor of The Hague: would it be possible for Belgian refugees to be lodged in the orphanage? The General Manager immediately consulted the Chairman of the Board of Governors, and the upshot was that the very same evening 132 refugees arrived. The next day another 51 arrived, and somewhat later 14 people more. Everyone did their level best to receive the refugees in the best possible way (the municipal authorities supplied mattresses, blankets and food) but the orphanage with its young pupils, proved to be not very fit for purpose. The mayor arranged for the refugees to find shelter elsewhere and at the end of October the situation in the Orphanage was normal again. Both the authorities and the refugees themselves expressed their gratefulness for the hospitality given.
In 1919 the curtain went down on the rich history of the orphanage at Westeinde. That year saw the purchase of the building by the Roman Catholic Church’s workers society.