Nugent – 135 years of care

The Sheppard-Worlock Library’s Archives & Special Collections have been working in partnership with the charitable organisation, Nugent, and Liverpool Record Office at Central Library to mark Nugent’s 135th anniversary by showcasing material from the archives held at Liverpool Hope University, Central Library and Nugent to highlight the work begun by Father Nugent in the nineteenth century and the development of the organisation from the 1970’s to the present day.

Mgr. James Nugent
Monsignor Nugent, portrait by Sir James Jebusa Shannon, 1897 (Walker Art Gallery)

The origins of Nugent date back to the 1800’s and the pioneering work of James Nugent (1822-1905), better known as Father Nugent, a Roman Catholic Priest of the Archdiocese of Liverpool. He was a passionate social reformer appalled by the state of the homeless living in the squalor of Victorian England and he dedicated his life to the education and rescue of destitute children.

James Nugent was the eldest of nine children born 3 March 1822 in Hunter Street, Liverpool, to an Irish father, John, a poultry dealer, and an English mother, Mary, a convert to Catholicism. He was educated at private school under the patronage of Rev. James Picton of Christ Church and, although his father wanted him to be a merchant, his mother and the local priest encouraged him to enter the priesthood.

In 1838 he studied at Ushaw College, Co. Durham, and the English College, he was ordained at St. Nicholas’ Liverpool in 1846 and then after working in several parishes in Blackburn and Wigan returned to St. Nicolas’ parish as curate on New Year’s Day in 1849.

At this time Victorian Liverpool was reeling from the effects of the Irish famine and the typhus epidemic that followed. During the Summer of 1849, 5,000 would die from cholera. The influx of Irish immigrants put a huge strain on Liverpool’s already acute housing shortage. Many were simply passing through on their way to North America but a large minority were too poor or too sick to go further.

Father Berry's Homes - on admission (NCA005)
Father Berry’s Homes – on admission (NCA005)

In 1841 the population of Liverpool was almost 300,000 and by 1851 this had risen to 376,000. It is estimated that the Irish immigrants and their children accounted for 24% of the total population. Fr. Nugent could not help being aware of the vast numbers of homeless, destitute children roaming the streets, begging and stealing in order to exist, and sleeping in boxes under bridges at night. As early as 1849 Fr. Nugent established a Ragged School at Copperas Hill for homeless children offering shelter, food and clothing. Father Nugent was also keen to provide children with a basic standard of education. He soon set about fundraising for his next venture, the Catholic Institute, which opened at 26 Hope Street in October 1853. The institute, which was open to non-Catholics, was a great success and noted scholars came to deliver lectures, among them John Henry Newman. The Catholic Reformatory Association, with Father Nugent as President, was set up following the Reformatory Schools Act 1854, to authorise financial help to institutions that would accept children convicted of crime. The Liverpool Catholic Reformatory Association established a Ship Reformatory on The Clarence, capable of housing up to 250 boys. The success was quite remarkable for a time until in 1884 a few boys set fire to her. It was refurbished but the same happened again in 1899 and the scheme abandoned. After three years on The Clarence many of the boys were taken into the Merchant Navy.

Homeless (1902) Father Berry's Homes (NCA008)
Homeless (1902) Father Berry’s Homes (NCA008)

Fr. Nugent’s reputation as a man of action and compassion had grown so much that he was able to bring together leading figures across the religious divide to promote a charter for children under the slogan, “Save the Child”, foreshadowing legislation to come in the Industrial Schools Act of 1857 which allowed the State to intervene to remove children from neglectful parents and place them in industrial schools where they would receive education and training. From 1866 Fr. Nugent took a leading role in the management of St George’s Industrial School for Boys and the Boys’ Catholic Orphanage in Beacon Lane, under the management of the Sisters of Charity.

In 1863 he founded the Association of Providence from among the young Catholic professionals and businessmen, and former pupils from the Catholic Institute to help support the orphanage and in 1864 he set up a night-shelter for destitute boys at 22 Soho Street, supported by donations, fundraising and subscriptions from members of the Association of Providence.  He came to realise that a night-shelter was not enough. What was needed was a residential school where the boys could learn to read and write and be taught a trade and prepared for adult life. In 1869, Fr. Nugent acquired larger premises on St Anne Street, The Boy’s Refuge, a certified Industrial School teaching shoemaking, tailoring, joinery and printing in order that the boys might be taught a trade. They were responsible for printing the ‘Northern Press’, and later its successor the ‘Catholic Times’, which soon had a circulation of 73,000 and continued until 1923.

Boys' Refuge Printing Works - Rescue Notes, 1898 (NCA006)
Boys’ Refuge Printing Works – Rescue Notes, 1898 (NCA006)

Father Nugent was appointed the first Roman Catholic Prison Chaplain in Britain for Liverpool Borough Gaol, Walton in 1863 and served 22 years. He assembled data illustrating the types of crime associated with male and female inmates, Catholic and Protestant. His Prison Chaplain’s Report of 1864 confirmed his observation; that 54% of the male prisoners and 63% of the females were Catholic and, of the Catholics, the majority, 63%, were women. This made Liverpool prison the only prison in the World where the females exceeded the males. Many of the females Nugent met in prison were unemployed or worked as basket girls (street traders), which he believed led directly to prostitution. Nugent was determined to help the young female convicts to begin anew. He persuaded the Order of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God to establish a refuge to help and he also established a home for mothers and their babies, The House of Providence, in the Dingle.

Rescue Notes - Mother and Child (NCA006)
Rescue Notes (June 1898) – Mother and Child (NCA006)

In his role as Prison Chaplain, Father Nugent witnessed the effects of alcohol on the poor, especially women. Understanding that a new life abroad presented an opportunity to escape from the dangers of Liverpool, he instigated emigration schemes for children from the Poor Law Schools, young women trading on the streets and ex-offenders from reformatories and prisons.

In 1881 the Liverpool Catholic Children’s Protection Society was founded to care for destitute Catholic children and to continue the work started by Fr. Nugent. Usually the homes that grew up in Liverpool were affiliated to this society. At the peak of their activities the Liverpool Catholic Children’s Protection Society could look after around 550 children. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul was founded in 1891 along with the Homes for Friendless Boys (later Homes for Catholic Friendless Youths).

Homes for Catholic Friendless Youths - Seventh Annual Report 1899 (NCA 005)
Homes for Catholic Friendless Youths – Seventh Annual Report 1899 (NCA005)

Fr. John Berry, Rector of St. Philip Neri’s Oratory in Catharine Street, opened St. Philip’s Home for Street Trading Boys in Marble Street in 1892, and a few years later he took over the management along with A.C. Thomas of a home in Shaw Street, called St. Vincent de Paul’s House until ill-health forced him to leave in 1897.

In 1870 Fr. Nugent took the first group of 24 children to Canada on 18 August 1870 on the SS Austrian; this was probably the first organised emigration of its kind. Fr. Nugent used the opportunity to spend nine months on a lecture tour of Canada and the United States, (encouraged by Archbishop Ireland), pleading the cause of these children and raising money. This was a task at which he excelled. The Catholic Children’s Protection Society set up two homes in Canada to cater for children who wished to emigrate; these were St. George’s Home for Boys in Ottawa and the St. Vincent’s Home for Girls in Montreal. Large numbers of children were assisted to emigrate to the New World and this continued until 1930.

Party of Boys Emigrated (NCA009)

Mrs Lacy, Matron of the Society’s Home in Shaw Street Liverpool, accompanied the children and spent a considerable time visiting those previously sent out. During 1885, she reported that she had personally visited 140 children at their new homes, and in 120 cases the results were entirely satisfactory. She concluded that it was only to be expected that some of the children should not realise to the full the hopes of their benefactors. Some were looked upon simply as a source of cheap labour, others were adopted by their new families, and were brought up and educated as their own children.

Fr. Nugent had a vision of happy, healthy children, prospering in a land of opportunity; others saw it as a scheme to rid the city of those who would otherwise become a burden on the rates. Annual reports of the Liverpool Catholic Children’s Protection Society later included copies of letters sent by some of the emigrants to the Home in Shaw Street. Most expressed contentment, or at least resignation to their new life, but there is a constant theme of loneliness running through them. Although the children are described as orphaned or abandoned, most seem to have had some relatives in Liverpool, and there are constant requests for information about them.

In 1924 the three separate organisations; the Liverpool Catholic Children’s Protection Society, the Catholic Children’s Aid Society and Father Berry’s Homes joined together as one under the guidance of the Archbishop of Liverpool. He appointed Monsignor Pinnington, the successor of Fr. Nugent and Fr. Berry, and Monsignor John Bennett (1891-1965) to take charge. This partnership was to be the early development of the present day Nugent. Fr. Bennett was the administrator for over 40 years continuing the pioneering efforts of Fr. Nugent in the field of Catholic Social Welfare. He was an important character in the development of social welfare and his influence and expertise extended beyond Liverpool.

The archive at Liverpool Hope University contains 26 books and 264 items in total, including; Father Nugent’s letters written during his time as Chaplain of Walton Gaol and as co-founder of the Liverpool Catholic Children’s Protection Society, and Fr. Nugent’s successor, Monsignor Bennett’s correspondence letters covering subjects such as child welfare, juvenile delinquency, child psychology, and the end of child emigration to Canada.

Postcard of the statue of Mgr. Nugent erected in St. John's Gardens, 1906 (NCA071)
Postcard of the statue of Mgr. Nugent erected in St. John’s Gardens, 1906 (NCA071)

Liverpool Record Office host an extensive Nugent archive consisting of nearly 300 items covering 22 different organisations in Liverpool and includes 2,500 files of children who emigrated to Canada under the auspices of the Liverpool Catholic Emigration Association.  The Nugent collection tells the story of children in various institutions, including industrial schools, reformatory ships and orphanages. The Nugent Archive is available to view, by appointment, at Liverpool Record Office.  Some of the records are closed under the Data Protection Act but advice on accessing these records will be given on request.

The exhibition is on display on the 3rd floor of Liverpool Central Library, William Brown Street, from the 22nd November 2016 until the 16th January 2017. There are also items from the Liverpool Hope Nugent Archive on display in the Sheppard-Worlock Library.