When Norwood's children discovered the joy of family life

The son of the children’s home’s inspiring principal recalls a happy but unconventional upbringing

By David Conway, May 3, 2012
The Norwood Orphanage Seder, 1950s-style. The principal Dr Edward Conway stands at the head of the table, his son David fifth left.

The Norwood Orphanage Seder, 1950s-style. The principal Dr Edward Conway stands at the head of the table, his son David fifth left.

Seldom do children grow up in the care of their parents while inside an orphanage. Such, however, was the unusual upbringing my elder brother Charles and I received when, in 1951, at the respective ages of six and four, we moved with our parents into an apartment in an imposing red-bricked Victorian building in south London that was home to 200 less fortunate Jewish children.

We had moved into the Jewish Orphanage in West Norwood, of which my father, Dr Edward Conway, had just become principal, as his position was called. To its resident children, he was to be known affectionately by the nickname of "The Barrel", which they had bestowed on him on account of his corpulent frame.

Few of the children at Norwood were orphans in the strict sense of the term, most of their parents being alive but simply unable to care for them for one reason or another. As a result, all were badly scarred emotionally, and not a few disturbed.

To a four-year-old, however, whose mother's comforting embrace was never more than a quick scamper away whenever the going got at little too tough, the children at Norwood were simply an inexhaustible reservoir of playmates.

One of the primary tasks for which my father had been brought to Norwood was to inject into life there as much of a traditional Jewish atmosphere as was practically possible. Since few of the children had come from observant backgrounds, many initially resented what was in effect their compulsory attendance at the Sabbath services held each Friday night and Saturday morning in the small synagogue. In time, however, through the force of his personality, he succeeded in communicating to most of them his love of Jewish liturgy so that, eventually, synagogue services there became orderly and vibrant.

David Conway (in white cap) enjoys the annual trip to Brighton in 1957

David Conway (in white cap) enjoys the annual trip to Brighton in 1957

To the barmitzvahs held there, the parents, relatives and family friends of the celebrant would be invited and encouraged to attend the Saturday morning service at which the boy would read his Torah portion. Afterwards, the visitors, plus a hand-picked selection of the barmitzvah's closest friends, would adjourn to the oak-panelled library for a special reception.

On one such occasion, after waiting for as long as he reasonably could for arrival of the barmitzvah boy's mother, my father could delay the proceedings no longer. With great sadness and disappointment, the boy read his portion. The service was just concluding when his mother appeared at the synagogue door and let it be known in no uncertain terms that she would not take it kindly were she to be denied witnessing her son's performance. Instantly, my father announced that, so well had her son read his portion, everyone would be only too delighted to hear an immediate repeat performance.

Another way in which a more homely atmosphere was injected into life at Norwood was the annual Seder services. The long, top table, at which on weekends my family would dine with a handful of selected children, would be moved into the centre of the large dining hall. Seated at it would be visiting members of the governing body. Next to my father at the head of the table would be a sizable choir of girls and boys whom he had spent several preceding months painstakingly preparing for these occasions.

The children's attention would be held by the hiding of afikomen. One year it fell to me to find the hidden piece of matzah and I triumphantly declared that I would not hand it over until all the assembled children had been promised double pocket-money for the following week. With mounting desperation, my father implored me to hand over the matzah or at least moderate my demands. All to no avail, his young son was not for turning. The deadlock was broken only after one of the eminent visitors agreed to my terms, much to the delight of the children and me, and perhaps to the embarrassment of my father. It was a good job that, by then, that post-war rationing of sweets had ended.

Another eagerly awaited event in the annual calendar was the London taxi drivers' outing. Each year, 60 or so balloon-festooned black cabs would show up at the orphanage to transport its deliriously happy residents for a day out at the seaside at Brighton. After savouring all the amusements at its two piers, the day would be rounded off with a tea party at which the children would be entertained by such celebrities of the day as Frankie Vaughan and Petula Clark.

Despite the very real deprivations suffered by the children at Norwood, life there was not entirely devoid of small compensations and they were given as much of a normal Jewish upbringing as circumstances permitted.

Like childhood itself, my time at Norwood eventually ended. Shortly after my eleventh birthday, I moved with my parents and brother to Golders Green to enable my father take up a new appointment as headmaster of the newly re-opened JFS School in Camden Town. With that move, we began to enjoy a more normal and conventional family life. However, I will always cherish my memories of the camaraderie of the children at Norwood with whom I had grown up.

It was a fitting testament to the success which my father had in creating a sense of a Jewish family atmosphere into the orphanage that, just before we left, it had, upon his suggestion, been renamed the Norwood Home for Jewish Children. Its impersonal dormitories and dining hall were also in the process of being replaced so that the children would be able to enjoy a closer approximation to a normal family upbringing.

David Conway is a visiting fellow at the School of Philosophy and Art History at the University of Essex. His father,

Dr Edward Conway, was head of JFS School and Principal of the Norwood Jewish Orphanage

Last updated: 1:09pm, May 3 2012