Sunshine House Nursery School
15 Warwick New Road
The Ordnance Survey map of 1886 shows 15 Warwick New Road approached by a sweeping drive, a substantial house and attached stable block set in good-sized gardens well-planted with trees. Named Milverton Lawn, it was built for the Company Secretary of the Warwick and Leamington Bank, Hubert Lloyd, and for its first sixty years was the family home of a number of prominent local businessmen and their families. The house later had several periods without occupants, when inevitably there was a certain amount of vandalism, and extensive repairs had to be carried out in order to re-let it.
In 1924, after Gilbert Farnfield moved his burgeoning Prep School to The Lawn at Emscote, Milverton Lawn again lay empty. The house and grounds were eventually bought by the RNIB, and turned into the Sunshine Home and Nursery School for Blind Babies, one of the key UK residential training centres for blind and partially sighted toddlers and children up to the ages of five or seven.
The house had been adapted to accommodate the Prep School and provide some boarding facilities, with a number of bedrooms and the elegant ballroom subdivided, and the top floor dressing room and the ground floor butler’s pantry converted to bathrooms. It was further adapted by the RNIB to meet the needs of younger children, with the addition of play facilities, a classroom, bathrooms, additional toilets and an indoor swimming pool housed in an extension.
The aim of Sunshine House was to encourage confidence and independence, enabling its pupils to lead as normal a life as possible, rather than growing up totally dependent on others for every aspect of their lives. Each child was assigned a key worker, and in small family groups taught the skills of sighted children of the same age, – to wash and dress themselves, to feed themselves at mealtimes, and to manage their environment. The children learned how to use playground equipment, – and what it was like to get on and off a bus, thanks to a static double decker in the playground provided by a local bus company. Photographs supplied by two assistants at the home in the 1940s show the children paddling in the stream at St Nicholas Park, (closely supervised, but nonetheless, what would Health and Safety officials make of that, now!), riding donkeys on holiday at the seaside, going to the pantomime at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and meeting the stars.
Other snaps show the children at tea on the terrace, tricycling round the playground, and meeting local dignitaries. Many of the children cried when they went home for holidays, and couldn’t wait to get back to their familiar surroundings. Nora Hillman, in the online Past Times Project, recorded how she started her nursing career at the Sunshine Home in Leamington. She describes how in kindergarten, the children played with the same educational toys as their sighted counterparts, learned country dancing and had a percussion band. They also started to learn Braille. Their lives were far more stimulating and adventurous than was generally imagined at the time, – witness the tricks some of the children got up to, such as collecting shoes when playing in the garden and throwing them into the sandpit, or over the fence into an adjoining paddock, going to the boundary fence to talk to builders working next door, – and being given sweets by them.
The nurses’ dining room was below the nursery where older children slept, and one evening at supper, the staff overheard interesting snatches of conversation: “My shoes are in the garden, are yours?” “My trousers are in the garden”, and so on. Going upstairs, staff found that nearly all the children’s clothes had been collected and thrown out of the window. On another occasion, everyone was wearing a new pair of shoes in bed, – and all had clean clothes neatly distributed, – whilst the duty nurse was attending to smaller children in an adjoining room. The RNIB Annual Report of February 1946 noted that “pages could be filled with lively anecdotes of what the blind little ones at the Nursery Schools say and do, each story showing that blindness is no bar to natural charm, quick wit and [the] sparkling vivacity of childhood.”
By the nineteen sixties, measles and rubella had become less prevalent thanks to preventative medicine, and vaccination, and as a result, fewer babies were born with limited vision or blindness. Parents were becoming less keen to pack their small children off to boarding school, no matter how good the facilities on offer and after the publication of the Warnock Report in May 1978, children with visual impairment and other needs began to attend their local mainstream schools. The need for Sunshine Home training centres diminished, and the School closed in 1985.
Once again the building lay empty and was vandalised until finally in May 1995, permission was granted to convert the main building into luxury apartments and to build houses in the grounds, – but there is still the Sunshine House inscription on one of the old gateposts.
This article is based on personal research, with help from Janet Meikle, whose mother worked at the Home in the 1940s, Margaret Bowdler (Learning Support Assistant in the 1950s) and Eileen Paling, (Secretary to the Headteacher until the Home closed)
Postscript: Sunshine House and The Grange, 1956-7
I worked at the Sunshine Home for the Blind in Warwick New Road for a year, from 1956 to 1957. All the children were blind and had either learning difficulties or physical problems, or both. All but the most handicapped were taught in two settings, one in Sunshine House and the the other, for slightly more able children, in The Grange, – the large brick-built house next door. I started as a classroom helper in Sunshine House.
During my time at the Home the children were divided into ‘Houses’ with a group of six or seven living in a unit with one qualified nursery nurse and an assistant. The children in The Grange remained in the same unit, and this became the ‘house’ that I later worked in. This arrangement provided a more familial environment for the children, with the added security of the same carers. Matron, Mrs Annie James, was in overall charge. She was a large, and to me at least, an intimidating lady who always wore black.
The Upper floor of The Grange was used for staff accommodation, as most of the staff lived in. The staff dining room, matron’s office were located in Sunshine House, as was a tiny ‘surgery’ for any minor injuries and a daily inspection of the children by Sister, a State Registered Nurse, and the kitchen. A long corridor joined the two houses, and the laundry took up a large outbuilding between the two.
The gardens at the rear of the buildings had been converted to a large playground, which provided scope for playing, riding tricycles, and experiencing snow in winter. It also had an old bus to familiarise the children with public transport. The children were sometimes taken out on shopping expeditions and to local parks. At the age of seven, depending on ability, the children moved on for further education and training either to ‘Condover’, a school for older blind children, or a similar institution in Staffordshire.