It deserves a better picture (sorry about that) but you can see just how vivid and deeply coloured the purple velvet still is, as are the petals’ golden undersides, the gold thread-wrapped stem and the five tubular stamens at its centre. Although a tiny gold bauble “anther” is still delicately glued in place at the tip of one stamen, it looks like it might have lost four others, and if so, perhaps that’s because it was actually worn by the Countess enough times to damage it slightly. But for an artificial flower (and fabric!) made so long ago, it’s in remarkable condition, thanks to the fabric spending the last 84 years safely hidden and protected from light, damp and insects in its small presentation box.
For me, though, the most interesting thing is the label which tells us who made it: the Girls of The John Groom’s Crippleage.
Who were they?
The answer is: physically disabled teenage girls who worked for a charity founded by a Victorian silver engraver in the East End of London.
John Groom was a devout man and a Sunday School teacher, and he grew concerned for the welfare of the disabled girls who, with no other support, tried to scrape a living by selling watercress and flowers around Farringdon Market. In 1866 he hired a room near Covent Garden, called it the Watercress and Flower Girls’ Christian Mission (also known as John Groom’s Crippleage), and started his charity offering free hot cocoa and a halfpenny dinner, with space for washing and mending, and some encouragement to attend Sunday School.
The charity blossomed, and by 1876 it was operating a school for 350 girls with a full soup kitchen. It also started an enterprise to raise funds and give the older girls work: a floristry factory. In summer girls aged 14 and above, some blind, some missing limbs, made bouquets of real flowers, and in winter they turned to making artificial flowers with great skill and artistry. The business was popular enough for them to move to even bigger premises and for the charity to expand to include housing for the girls in Sekforde Street, and from 1890 both an orphanage and holiday housing for the London girls in Clacton in Essex.
The artificial flower-making business enjoyed aristocratic and then royal patronage, with Queen Alexandra commissioning the Mission in 1912 to make flower badges for her inaugural Alexandra Rose Day, which raised money for her favourite charities and became an annual event. This led to the girls making the first poppies sold for charity to benefit wounded servicemen, the immediate precursor to the Royal British Legion’s annual Remembrance Day poppies. The Mission also held regular flower exhibitions, which must have been awe-inspiring to see. In 1925, for example, they displayed an arrangement of 30,000 flowers representing the full spectrum of English flora.
In 1932 the charity, priced out of central London, moved to Hendon, with new purpose-built homes and factory facilities, which is where they were in 1937 when they received another royal commission to make lilies from the coronation robe of Queen Elizabeth. Times were harder, however, in the floral business. Demand declined, especially during the depression, and the factory had to diversify. And then with the introduction of a more robust welfare system after World War II, there was less need for this kind of enterprise. By the 1970s the charity was no longer working with children at all. However, even after several name changes and a merger, John Groom’s Watercress and Flower Girls’ Christian Mission, makers of beautiful artificial flowers, survives to this day as the disability charity Livability.
- Article by Peter Higginbotham which gives the full history of the charity and includes wonderful photographs of the girls at work [http://www.childrenshomes.org.uk/ClerkenwellGroom/]
- 14 Aug 2017 article by Lauren Oldershaw in the Daily Gazette and Essex County Standard, [https://www.gazette-news.co.uk/news/15469022.when-barnados-was-the-crippleage-and-flower-girls-mission-and-floral-fundraisers-put-clacton-on-the-map-in-the-1900s/]
- 18 Nov 2019 essay ‘An Evolving Institution: John Groom’s Crippleage and the Interwar Years’ by Kevin Lavery [https://concerninghistory.org/general/an-evolving-institution-john-grooms-crippleage-and-the-interwar-years/]
All accessed 11 Aug 2021.
These papers, of the Earls of Clarendon of the second creation, are currently being catalogued and will be available to readers in 2022.