The story of Highfield Oval

Highfield Oval in Harpenden was once a children’s home, opened in 1913 by the National Children’s Home and Orphanage (the NCH, now Action for Children). The Oval was home to over 200 children at a time. Its grounds contained a school, hospital, chapel, bakery, carpentry, dressmaking and shoemaking workshops, an orchard, kitchen gardens, farm school and woodland. Also on site was the charity’s national printing school. Highfield Oval was one of the National Children’s Home’s largest homes and became the charity’s head office.

Further along Ambrose Lane, the National Children’s Home also ran the Elmfield Sanatorium, for children suffering from tuberculosis. Both the sanatorium and the children’s home were designed on the principle that children’s health and wellbeing is nurtured best outdoors, in ‘an abundance of sunshine and fresh air’. Open-air classrooms, chalets that revolved to face the sun, and lessons such as gardening and beekeeping helped the children to spend as much of the day in the fresh air as possible.

The NCH was founded by a young Methodist Minister, Thomas Bowman Stephenson, who moved to London in 1868. He was appalled by the number of homeless children living on the streets, ‘ragged, shoeless, filthy, their faces pinched with hunger’ and opened the charity’s first children’s home in 1869. In 1913 the NCH moved all the children from their London children’s home to Harpenden. Diseases such as tuberculosis were spreading quickly in the overcrowded and polluted capital and there was a growing interest across Europe and America in the benefits of fresh air and open-air schools for children. Highfield Oval, with its woods, fields and rural setting, was seen as the perfect location for a healthier new home for children.

The images and archive materials below are provided courtesy of Action for Children (unless indicated otherwise). They were scanned by staff and volunteers working on Making and Growing at Highfield Oval, a community heritage project made possible by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Highfield Children’s Home

Elmfield Sanatorium

The Beginnings of the National Children’s Home

Collecting memories

As part of Making and Growing at Highfield Oval we are collecting the memories of people who grew up or worked at the children’s home, or had another kind of connection to the site. We are really grateful to the people who have taken the time to share their fascinating stories with us. Click on the map below to hear their memories about special places on the grounds. This is a work in progress and will grow over time.

Collecting Memories