WHEN she first heard about the one-time existence of a 19th century orphanage in Whitehaven run by the Church of England Waifs & Strays Society, a Sandwith woman had no idea she had a family connection to its Victorian founder.

The St Agnes’ Home for Girls which used to be at Victoria Road, at Sunnyhill, was opened in 1884 “to receive 18 girls between the ages of seven and 14”. It would close in 1938 after 54 years.

The Waifs & Strays Society, later to become the Church of England Children’s Society, and latterly known as just the Children’s Society, was founded in 1881 by one Edward Rudolf, a London civil servant of German ancestry.

Former village postmistress at Sandwith, Teresa Telfer, 92, is the mother-in-law of John Rudolf, a great-great-grandson of the founder. John had met Teresa’s daughter Pauline at university in Liverpool and married in 1970. They now live in Knowle, in the West Midlands.

Teresa said: “Pauline and John were married at St Bees Priory and had their reception at what was then Abbot’s Court hotel. They have a son, David, and next year they will celebrate their golden wedding.

“It’s only in recent times that I’ve discovered John is a descendant of this important Victorian philanthropist and that the society he set up to help destitute children, at a time when there was no welfare state, used to have an orphanage right here in Whitehaven. It’s quite something.”

Pauline, who at one time worked locally for Robinson’s accountants, frequently returns to Sandwith to visit her mother. Her father Jack died in 2016.

John’s great-great-grandfather, Edward de Montjoie Rudolf to give him his full name, was born in 1852 in Lambeth and he and his brother Robert ran a Sunday School in a poor area of London. They were greatly affected by the sight of street children begging for food. They realised that there was a dire need for (free) accommodation for these hungry, homeless children, and so set about raising money and lobbying the great and good to support such a cause. After nine years of effort Rudolf was able to establish the Waifs & Strays Society, a charity running 35 homes. By 1905 this had risen to 93, including the one in Whitehaven.

In 1987, when she was 95 years old, Edward Rudolf’s daughter, Mildred, was encouraged to write her memoirs. They were never published but kept as a valued archival document within the family and in them Mildred relates how, historically, her father’s family had come from Hanover – merchants who developed trade with London. In the late 1700s one of the sons arrived in the city on business, and met and married a Stepney girl, becoming a naturalised British subject in 1794.

Mildred’s father Edward would become private secretary to Lord Rosebery and Edward’s brother, her Uncle Robert, worked for the War Office.

While still working in the civil service, Edward founded the Society and established its first home with two children and a matron, in Dulwich. The home’s first donor was an old boy from Rudolf’s Sunday School days, who gave 13 penny stamps. Thus “13 Penny Stamps” became the title of a subsequent book about the story of Rudolf and the Children’s Society.

In adulthood Mildred Rudolf would travel the country to inspect the Society’s homes and meet the committees running them... and we know she came to Whitehaven. That visit was considerably hampered by heavy snowfall in one of the worst winters Britain had endured. Mildred had been to Hull for a committee meeting at the society’s home there and had journeyed onward to Whitehaven. She recalled in her memoirs: “I did eventually get there but we were turned out after a time at a small station, with a small waiting room with a little fire, and one old farmer to keep me company. I waited with him until they were able to find us a train to go on to Whitehaven. While there I met the committee and saw the home.

“I always remember travelling back from the north because when you looked out of the window you never saw a soul, right from the north of England down to London. The whole country was white with snow, and the canals frozen over.”

When her father died in 1933, aged 81, tributes came from Dr Barnado, from the Archbishop of Canterbury and a message of sympathy from King George V and Queen Mary. The chairman of the society, Colonel E S Wyndham DSO, said that if Rudolf had used his gifts to his own advantage he might have died a very wealthy man. “He chose rather to dedicate them to the service of little children. He had his reward in the large number of children who have had cause to bless his name.”

By chance, almost 10 years ago, I was able to meet up with a 91-year-old Keswick woman, Irene Lee (nee Burton) who, from aged four, along with her two sisters Hazel and Doreen had lived at the Whitehaven Waifs & Strays home on Victoria Road. The girls were not orphans however; their mother had died of TB and their father was a serving soldier travelling abroad. They had grandparents but their mother, who was deeply religious, had left wishes that her girls must go to a Church of England home. The family came from Yorkshire and had no links with Whitehaven at all. It was quite an upheaval for the three Burton sisters who were at the home from 1923 for around 10 years. Irene, since deceased, said that the regime there was “strict, but kindly, and there was never any mistreatment.”

The Children’s Society marked its Centenary Founder’s Day with a festival at the Royal Albert Hall in the presence of the Queen when it was noted the society’s work had moved away from residential care to helping communities at family centres and finding adoptive and foster homes for children. It cared for over 5,000 children every year. Today the society still works with vulnerable young people, fighting child poverty and neglect and last year helped over 11,000 children.