Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace

by Ros Black

Ros Black has penned a fascinating account about the life and work of Grace Kimmins, who spearheaded the way for specialist care and craft training for young people with disabilities.

Today, Chailey Heritage Foundation (CHF) provides a range of educational, training, leisure and residential facilities for children and young people with complex needs. But it has evolved from the pioneering work of a very special woman – Grace Kimmins – who, in 1903, brought down 7 disabled boys from the Bermondsey slums and set up a residential craft school in an old workhouse.

Grace Hannam was born in Lewes in 1870. As a young woman she devoted herself to the welfare of others, as a non-ordained Sister of the People at the Methodist West London Mission. She mixed with suffragettes and suffragists but concentrated on social work rather than politics. She had a natural empathy with children and the disabled, young and old. She set up the Guild of Play for girls from the slums. They were taught the songs and dances of ‘Merrie England’, an innocent escape from the harsh reality of their daily lives.

She also established the quaintly named Guild of the Brave Poor Things, offering workshops and entertainment for the disabled. Her work flourished as she moved to the Bermondsey Settlement where she met Charles Kimmins, a distinguished educationalist. They married and had two sons. Fortunately for Grace, Charles had an enlightened view of the role of women and was always encouraging of her work.

Grace’s dream was to have a holiday home for slum children in the countryside and a craft school where disabled children could learn skills which would enable them to earn a living. Her energy devising pageants, sales of work and lectures attracted support from rich and influential people, including Princess Louise, Lady Henry Somerset and Lord Llangattock.

The old Chailey workhouse and industrial school was in an appalling condition but Grace and her friend Alice Rennie were undaunted as they began their work. Soon, purpose-built accommodation for girls was built across the Common, offering training in laundry, housewifery and needlework. The boys then got better buildings and St Martin’s Chapel, the spire of which is still a local landmark today, was built in 1913.

During the First World War, Grace pioneered ‘educative convalescence’ for wounded soldiers. Disabilities were matched, so a one-armed boy would work alongside a man who had lost his arm; boys on crutches would show how football could still be played; disability could be overcome with fortitude. The boys had given up their accommodation for the soldiers but helped build temporary huts for themselves by Chailey windmill. Grace also established homes for raid-shocked children.

Her war work won many plaudits. Eminent doctors gave their time and expertise, medical facilities were improved and Chailey became a pioneer in the development not only of solariums but also of artificial light therapy. The children spent as much time as possible in the fresh air, sleeping outside on balconies whatever the weather. If it snowed, an extra blanket would be provided! Tough love indeed.

A site on the shingle beach at Tidemills, Seaford, was developed as a convalescence facility, bracing air and icy cold sea being deemed good for health. Like all Grace’s enterprises, this facility grew and grew. She was devastated when, with the prospect of another war, the site was requisitioned in 1938.

Thanks to Grace’s flair for fund raising, the girls’ site expanded. The Princess Elizabeth Clinic for tiny babies opened in 1928, and St Helen’s chapel in 1931. The temporary huts by the windmill were finally replaced with a grand building, St George’s, providing much improved accommodation for the boys.

Chailey again played its part in World War Two, offering convalescence facilities for servicemen and a home for blitzed babies and toddlers. Post-war it became increasingly hard to find money, materials and manpower. The newly formed NHS took over both school and hospital in 1948, although the educational side was subsequently passed back. Grace Kimmins passed away in 1954, having been made a Dame in 1948.

Grace Kimmins and her Chailey Heritage is available from Reception at CHF or from www.rosblackcreative.com. All proceeds go to Chailey Heritage Foundation, a registered charity.

Photos by kind permission of CHF and East Sussex Records Office