On 24 June 1813 the Rev Andrew Reed gathered a group of friends at his house in St. George's Place, Cannon Street Road, to discuss his proposals for forming an institution to assist orphan children. A month later, on 27 July the East London Orphan Asylum was formally instituted. Reed gave an address in 1815, which was printed every year in the annual report, in which he set out the aims of the institution. He said that 'the present day is the period of benevolence and philanthropy' and that 'the widow and orphan have an undisputed claim to our benevolence'. The aims he sought were set out in the general constitution adopted at a meeting of subscribers on 20 April 1815.
The objects of the charity were to provide relief to destitute orphans, 'to rescue them from the walks of vice and profligacy; to provide them clothing and maintenance; to fix the habits of industry and frugality; to train them in the path of religion and virtue agreeably to the formularies of the Church of England and to place them out in situations where their principles shall not be endangered and the prospect of an honest livelihood shall be secured'. Orphans were defined as children who had lost both parents or their father, with the mother unable to provide for them. It was emphasised from the beginning that children whose parents had been in respectable circumstances had the first claim on the charity.
Andrew Reed (1787 - 1862) entered the Congregational Hackney College in 1807 to train for the ministry and became minister of the New Road Chapel, later called the Wycliffe Chapel, in 1811. He held this position until 1861. Reed was actively engaged in philanthropic work throughout his life. In addition to the London Orphan Asylum he founded an Infant Orphan Asylum, later called the Royal Wanstead School in 1827; the Asylum for Fatherless Children, later established in Purley and called Reedham School in 1844; the Asylum for Idiots, later the Royal Earlswood Hospital, Redhill in 1847 (the records of which have also been deposited in the Record Office, see 392/-); and the Royal Hospital for Incurables, now in Putney, in 1854.
By the time the general constitution was adopted in 1815 the charity had become established in a small way. A house in Clarke's Terrace, Cannon Street Road, was taken in April 1814 for the use of the charity, a matron was chosen and a ladies' committee appointed. In July three girls were elected as the first children to be helped. In February 1815 the word 'East' was dropped from the original title. Reed realised that he needed to obtain much more than local support if the institution was to flourish and despite his nonconformist background he recognised that the charity was unlikely to succeed unless it adopted the principles of the Church of England.
Reed does not seem to have had much personal wealth, but he had an extraordinary ability to attract the support and patronage of those who did. The Duke of Kent presided at the first annual festival dinner in 1815, establishing a virtually continuous history of royal patronage of the charity. Reed was able to secure financial support from the Stock Exchange and City Livery Companies, again establishing a tradition which has continued throughout the history of the school. James Capel of the stock broking firm of that name was a prominent early member of the board of managers.
With this support the number of children taken in gradually grew and a house was acquired in Hackney Road for the boys and one in Bethnal Green for the girls. By 1820 this accommodation was inadequate and 8 acres of land were purchased at Clapton as the site for new buildings. The neo-classical designs submitted by the architect William Southcote Inman (1798 - 1879) were chosen and an appeal was launched for the funds to pay for the buildings. The foundation stone was laid by Frederick, Duke of York on 5 May 1823. The occasion was somewhat marred when the platform erected for the ceremony collapsed tipping some of the distinguished guests into the pit beneath and causing the death of a workman. The new buildings were completed by 1825 and were officially opened on 16 June by the Duke of Cambridge.
In 1845 an Act of Incorporation was obtained. The presidents, vice presidents, treasurer and subscribers of the institution were incorporated as the London Orphan Asylum. As a corporate body they had a common seal. The Act gave them power as a corporation to acquire or sell land if necessary and to manage the stocks and funds of the institution.
When the school moved to Clapton it occupied a semi-rural location but by the 1860s this was no longer the case. In November 1866 a typhoid epidemic killed 15 children and precipitated the board of managers into a decision to move the school to a new site. In 1867 they purchased 36 acres of land at Watford and chose the plans of the architect Henry Dawson for the new school. The foundation stone was laid by the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, on 15 July 1869. The school was formally opened in 1871.
The buildings included separate classrooms and dormitories for boys and girls, a dining hall and chapel. The children were also divided into houses, the boys' houses being named after prominent figures associated with the school and the girls' houses after flowers.
In 1915 the institution was renamed the London Orphan School. In 1922 the school amalgamated with the Royal British Orphan School, Slough, which had been forced to close for financial reasons. Both the funds and pupils of the Slough school were taken over and transferred to Watford.
In 1939 the school was renamed Reed's School in honour of the founder. In 1940 the school buildings were requisitioned by the Ministry of Works for use as an army hospital and all the pupils were evacuated, the boys to the Seymour Hotel, Totnes, Devon, and the girls to a number of houses near Towcester, Northamptonshire. After the war the governors decided not to return to the school at Watford, which the government in any case wished to retain as a headquarters building for the Ministry of Labour. In 1945 Dogmersfield Park, near Basingstoke, Hants, a large country house with about 120 acres of grounds, was purchased for the girls' school. For the boys an estate of 56 acres with the buildings previously used by Sandroyd School in Sandy Lane, Cobham was purchased. Unfortunately financial difficulties made it impossible to maintain both schools and Dogmersfield Park had to be closed in July 1955 so that all the resources could be concentrated at Cobham where the school is today.
From the outset the school relied on private subscriptions for its existence. Those who subscribed annually or gave larger sums for life subscriptions were members of the institution and had a right to vote at annual general meetings and to vote in the twice yearly elections for the children to be admitted.
The annual general meeting of members (the general court) had the power to vary the aims of the charity, the rules for the eligibility of the children, the qualifications for membership, election procedures and the powers of the board of managers. The meeting had the power to nominate the patrons, presidents and vice presidents, treasurer and secretaries, to elect the board of managers, and to receive an annual report on the work of the charity and the accounts for the previous year. The board of managers were responsible for overseeing the day to day administration of the school and the board and the various committees it appointed met regularly. Individual board members had the responsibility for checking the credentials of children seeking election.
Children were generally admitted by election between the ages of 7 and 11. The numbers admitted at each election depended on the state of the charity's finances. Sometimes subscribers sent in their votes unallocated and a 'last time' committee sat to allocate these votes to candidates who would be too old to be admitted at a subsequent election.
Places for children who fulfilled the necessary conditions could also be bought however. In the 1840s this cost 100 guineas. Rights of presentation of one or more children could also be granted for life or in perpetuity on terms favourable to the charity. On leaving children were always formally dismissed by the board, presented with a Bible and Prayer Book, and sometimes an outfit, and exhorted as to their future good conduct. The board made efforts to find employment for the children on leaving. Former pupils got financial rewards for attending reunions with testimonials of good behaviour from their employers.
During the Second World War appeals to save paper excused the board from continuing to use the voting procedure for the election of pupils. A selection committee was appointed instead, and this system continued after the war. In 1958 a decision was taken to admit fee paying pupils as boarders or day pupils and to grant bursaries to those needing help. In 1987-88 about 90 Foundationers were in the school, all boarders. Foundationers are eligible if they have lost one or both parents, their parents are separated or divorced, they are from a single parent family, or if their home life is for a special reason unhappy or unsatisfactory. The Foundationers are supported by a mixture of public sources and privately subscribed funds to the school. The 1987-88 annual report says that through this the school demonstrates the 'undiminished social need to protect the widow and orphan'.