Home » Uncategorized » First American Public Orphan House

First American Public Orphan House

Chapter 23 of Charleston Firsts

chas first cover - official - front cover.png


When the city of Charleston was incorporated in 1783, the Act of the Legislature also charged the city with the care of providing for the poor and educating and maintaining the poor orphan children. And those of poor and disabled parents who are unable to support them.

This shifted the responsibility for these children from the traditional support by the Anglican (English) churches to the city itself.

On October 28, 1790, a Board of Commissioners met to establish rules for the operation of an Orphan House. The original nine commissioners were:

  • John Mitchell
  • John Robertson
  • Richard Cole
  • Thomas Corbett
  • Charles Lining
  • William Marshall
  • Thomas Jones
  • Samuel Beckman
  • Arnoldus Vanderhorst (Indendent/Mayor) of Charleston

The Board was concerned about the expense of providing for the poor children and investigated ways in which to curtail costs. They followed the example of Bethesda Home for Boys in Savannah, a private orphan house established by evangelist George Whitefield in 1740. Consolidating the care of poor children into one facility would mitigate expenses. Older children could be bound out as apprentices with the expense of their care provided by their master.  Girls were trained for domestic service, and boys for trade skills such as blacksmithing, carpentry, saddle-making, and printing.

Until a facility could be constructed, the Board’s most immediate task was to establish a location to house the children, who at this time, were scattered in various homes across the city. Mrs. Elizabeth Pinckney offered a building on Market Street for children too young to be bound out. However, the location of the building in the unsavory waterfront district, limited its appeal to the Board, and it was looked upon as only a temporary solution. Until the construction of a permanent building in 1794, the Orphan House operated out of several buildings.

Philip Besselleu was hired as a teacher. The goal was to teach basic skills (reading, writing and numbers) to all children. Boys over eight who showed academic skill lived with Mr. Besselleu and were given more strenuous instruction.  Sarah Bricken, “a woman of good capacity and character” was hired as the first matron, who was to instruct the girls in sewing and cooking skills. Mr. Vanderhorst provided two slaves (1 male and 1 female) to work in the kitchen. They were to provide the children a decent breakfast (hominy and molasses or mush and butter) and other meals (beef or pork with rice or bread.)

The Board met every Thursday and established a 160-year tradition of a “Commissioner of the Week,” rotated among the different members. The Weekly Commissioner was charged with visiting the Orphan House, seeing each child, receiving applications, conducting the Sunday Morning service and reporting his findings to the Board.

On Saturday, May 7, 1791 President George Washington visited the Market Street orphan building, at which there were 107 boys and girls. The President commented that he was impressed with the management of the house.

In 1791, the commissioners estimated the cost for the new building would be £2200. They organized several fund-raising ventures to pay for a new building and operating costs. Local clergy were invited to preach “charity sermons at their respective churches” after which a collection would be taken for the Orphan House. A total of £632 was raised in this manner. By September 1793, total donations from churches, fraternal societies and other groups had reached over £1800.

Thomas Bennett, a local merchant-builder-architect, was given the commission to construct the new Charleston Orphan House on a site at the corner of Calhoun and St. Philip Streets. The four story brick House was the largest structure in the city. It consisted of a center building, 40 by 40 feet, plus two wings 65 by 30 feet each with a cupola on the roof. Boys were to be housed in the East Wing and girls in the West. With only one major renovation, the Orphan House served its purpose for the next 150 years.

birdseye view of charleston - large - cropped, orphan house 2

Detail From C. Drie’s Birdseye View of the City of Charleston, South Carolina, 1872. The Orphan House (15) faces Calhoun Street. St. Matthews Lutheran Church (41) faces King Street. Behind St. Matthews, the small building on the right, facing Vanderhorst Street, is the Orphan House Chapel. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

On October 18, 1794, the Orphan House opened to 115 children. The opening crowd was so large that it would not fit inside the main building of the Orphan House. The ceremony was conducted twice, once inside the building and a second time on the street for the overflow crowd. Thirteen hundred dollars was raised during the ceremonies. An eight-foot high wall was built around the House’s grounds shortly after, financed by a lottery.

The first steward (resident manager) was John Wedderspoon. There were four nurses employed: a Mrs. McConnell, Elizabeth Griffiths, Ann McDowell and Mary Brooks. Most of the rest of the work force consisted of slaves. By the early 1800s the House owned ten slaves and nine more had been donated by benefactors.

The Commissioners also created a Board of Lady Visitors to oversee the Matron and nurses. The “Lady Visitors” were required to be “respectable females” – mostly the wives or female relatives of the Commissioners.

In 1802 a chapel, designed and built by local gentleman architect, Gabriel Manigault, was constructed on the grounds behind the House. Local protestant ministers took turns conducting services every Sunday afternoon. Reverend Richard Furman, of Charleston’s First Baptist Church, preached the sermon on the opening day, September 19.

orphan chaple

Orphan House Chapel on Vanderhorst Street. Orphan House cupola is visible in the left background. Library of Congress

During the 1817 fiscal year, the city spent ten per cent of its budget on the Orphan House, about $20,000. It was also supported by private funds and charities, which donated money and food. The Charleston Theater performed an annual benefit performance for the House. Mr. Frederick Kohne, a successful merchant left a bequest of $60,000 and two houses, including a mansion at 91 East Bay Street. Charleston City Council established an endowment for the Orphan House and the Trustees of the Orphan House Funds to manage the endowment. By 1855 the endowment held $64,460, yielding a 7 per cent return.

In 1808 the Orphan House was given a most unusual gift – the statue of William Pitt (see #13), where it remained on the grounds until 1881.

The most commonly cited reason for admission to the Orphan House was poverty. Many of the children were “half orphans,” with a single parent who lacked the financial means to rear and support them. The situation of Mrs. Ann Duncan was typical. In her application Mrs. Duncan wrote:

My husband died on the 18th October 1817 & from his long infirmity expended all his funds & has left me with two children without anything to support us. Necessity compels me to request that you will assist me by taking under your care my daughter Catherine. She is 11 years old.

Over half the children in the House were bound over by their mothers, 11 per cent by their fathers, and about 30 per cent were bound by public officials, such as wardens of the Poor House.

orphan house postcard

Detail From C. Drie’s Birdseye View of the City of Charleston, South Carolina, 1872. The Orphan House (15) faces Calhoun Street. St. Matthews Lutheran Church (41) faces King Street. Behind St. Matthews, the small building on the right, facing Vanderhorst Street, is the Orphan House Chapel. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

The daily routine for the children was regimented. Boys spent six hours in school, six days a week, 51 weeks of the year. They also spent two and a half hours in private study, one hour and five minutes in washing and dressing and fifty minutes in devotions. The girls were taught writing and arithmetic three hours a day, and then spent three hours and fifty minutes daily in the sewing room and dealing with “household duties.”

In 1854, twenty-three year old Miss Agnes K. Irving became Principal of the school. She was trained in the Lancasterian system of education, named after its creator, Joseph Lancaster, which stressed older children teaching the younger. Although the Lancasterian system never became popular in America, it was used at the Orphan House until the 1920s.

Conditions in the House were basic and often lacking. The boys slept on the floor in “two leaky bedrooms … with only two windows” and the girls shared four bedrooms that were “drenched with water when it rained.” Sick children were found to “lie scattered throughout the House in the apartment in which they are taken sick.” Since there was little money for candles or lamps, after sunset the Orphan House was cloaked in darkness.

In 1853, a major renovation of the Orphan House was approved. There was pressure on the Commissioners to accept more children so the Orphan House was expanded to allow twice the capacity. Local architects Jones and Lee designed plans for the expansion.

During the Civil War, the Orphan House was visited by Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard who discussed with the Commissioners the possibility that the children may need to be evacuated from the city. At the onset of the Federal bombardment of Charleston in August 1863, the Commissioners realized that removing the children from the city was imperative. A Mr. Legare owned a former ladies seminary one hundred miles north in the town of Orangeburg, South Carolina and offered it for $19,000. George A. Trenholm, a Commissioner and one of the wealthiest men in the South, purchased the building for the Orphan House and the children were moved. When Sherman’s troops marched through Orangeburg in early 1865, they spared the seminary building, but sacked the rest of the town. The orphans returned to Charleston at the end of the War.

One of the most distinguished alumni of the Orphan House was Christopher Gustavus Memminger. Admitted at age four as a full orphan he was quickly observed to be “a great native genius, particularly in mathematics.”

In October 1813 the nine-year old Memminger was given the honor of addressing the crowd at the celebration of the Orphan House’s anniversary ceremony. Thomas Bennett, Jr., son of the Orphan House designer and builder, was impressed with the young lad and informally adopted Memminger and brought him to live in his home in an atmosphere of refinement.

At age twelve, Bennett sponsored Memminger at South Carolina College (the forerunner of the University of South Carolina). Although he was the youngest student at the College, Memminger was singled out for academic excellence. After graduation he returned to Charleston and joined the law office of Joseph Bennett, his benefactor’s brother.

Memminger served on the Board of Commissoners at the Orphan House most of his life. He was later elected to the state legislature and as chairman on the Committee of Education, he reformed South Carolina’s public school system. For most of his life, he was a passionate proponent of public education. He also served as chairman of the Committee of Finance.

After South Carolina’s secession from the Union in 1860, Memminger was appointed head of a committee to compose The Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union to explain its reasons for seceding. The declaration stated the primary reasoning behind secession was the “increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the Institution of Slavery.”

At the beginning of the war President Jefferson Davis appointed Memminger secretary of the Confederate Treasury, one of the most thankless tasks of the new government. Since the Northern blockade prevented the exportation of cotton, the South’s principal economic resource, Memminger developed Treasury policies that proved ineffective against the problems of the Southern states during a four-year war. The Southern economy collapsed and, realizing his job was hopeless, Memminger resigned from office in June 1864.

memminger loc

Christopher Memminger. National Archives

Memminger took refuge in Flat Rock, N.C., where his summer home had become a wartime haven for friends and relatives.  In 1867 he was fully pardoned by President Andrew Johnson, and all of his privileges of citizenship were restored. He returned to Charleston and served in the South Carolina legislature where he endeavored to recover the lost credit of the state and resumed work to improve the South Carolina public school system for whites and blacks.

In 1945 Memminger’s Flat Rock home was purchased by Carl Sandburg where the famous poet lived and worked until he died twenty-two years later. In 1969 the home became a National Historic Landmark.

After the War, the Board of Commissioners included some of the prominent men in Charleston, including two wealthy blockade runners, George A. Trenholm and George W. Williams, who became known as the House’s “guardian angel.” Other members included Christopher Memminger, William C. Bee, Henry A. DeSaussure, Dr. James Moultrie and Dr. Benjamin Huger.

Their service was needed; the years after the War and Reconstruction were some of the most difficult in the Home’s history. Charleston was thrown into an economic malaise. Hundreds of children were served, with a peak enrollment of 334 immediately after the War. In 1870, the children were honored by a visit by General Robert E. Lee, who spent a few days in Charleston. The 1886 earthquake damaged the House to the point where the children were forced to live in tents on the grounds for a period while repairs were underway.

Also during this time, an urgent situation developed among a significant portion of the orphaned children in Charleston. Despite its nine decade history of care for white children, it had done little for the African children. Of course, before Emancipation, African children were considered property and most whites completely ignored the suffering of the blacks living under their own roofs. After the War however, hundreds of abandoned black children were living on the streets of Charleston.

Sarah Grimké, who left Charleston as a young woman and became a famous abolitionist in the 1830s, pointed out the double standard among the Charleston white elites. Grimké, who was hated throughout the South as a “traitor” praised the city for providing charity to the white poor, but criticized that they were blind to the fact their wealth and charity was only possible due to a culture based on oppressed slave labor.

The city’s first black orphanage was organized in 1891, the Orphan Aid Society, by a black Baptist minister, Rev. Daniel Jenkins. The Jenkins Orphanage, as it came to be known, was never financially supported by the city the way the Orphan House was. (Read the author’s 2013 book Doin’ the Charleston: Black Roots of American Popular Music & the Jenkins Orphanage Legacy.)

By the turn of 20th century, the practice of “binding out” children declined across America during this time and the school expanded their curriculum by adding algebra, typewriting and bookkeeping. The House also boasted one of the best libraries in South Carolina, with more than 5600 books and 1000 pamphlets.

orphan house - loc

Charleston Orphan Hose before its demolition in 1953. Library of Congress

In 1904 the House received a financial windfall when Andrew Buist Murray, an alumnus, donated $100,000 in honor of his father-in-law, W. Jefferson Bennett. In 1909 President William Howard Taft visited the House and addressed the children, urging them to become productive citizens.

By the 1920s the Home had an endowment of $600,000, the interest of which supplied 40 per cent of its annual budget, the rest being paid by the city and the Duke Endowment. During the 1930s structural repairs to the Home were provided by the Works Progress Administration, including a new roof, a new heating system, and painting the entire structure.

In the years after World War II the Board appointed a Committee to study the mission of the House in the post-War era.  They also encouraged a study of the Home by the Child Welfare League of America. The most important recommendation of the Committee and League was the relocation of the Orphan House outside the city for economic reasons.

In 1951 the Commissioners of the Orphan House purchased thirty-seven acres in North Charleston, known as Oak Grove Plantation, to relocate the children to a more home-like setting. On August 29, 1951 seventy-three children left the Orphan House for the last time and moved to Oak Grove.

The Orphan House building on Calhoun Street was sold to Sears Roebuck and Company for $350,000. Against the protests of the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings, the Orphan House and Chapel were demolished in 1953 and replaced by a Sears store.

For the next twenty-seven years, the Charleston Orphan House operated as an agency of the City of Charleston. In 1978 it became an independent non-profit organization known as Carolina Youth Development Center (CYDC), and continues to serve children through nine residential and outreach programs, continuing a 200 year legacy of care.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s