In Brixham on the Berry Head Road which overlooks the south-east shore of this south Devon fishing town’s outer harbour, there is a unique building. It is Grenville House, the British Seaman’s Boys Home. The “Ophan” has long since been omitted from the name.
It was founded by the warm hearted Bristol ship owner William Gibbs of Tyntesfield, who often remarked that “I owe all I have to sailors, and I owe him much in return”.There was a dreadful storm, worst for many years; the loss of life in the English Channel was serious, and the Brixham fishing fleet was sadly denuded of its manpower.
It moved William Gibbs profoundly to think of the fatherless boys. This man of immense charity determined to do something about these little boys, with the result that the orphanage was founded and in some way his debt to sailors was paid. Grenville House building was started in 1863 and completed the following year as an orphanage, part of the Torbay and Dartmouth Mission to seamen. It was further enlarged in 1873 and a school room was added in 1875. A new wing was built in 1888-89 and a second in 1912, and a further enlargements made in 1913.
The Gibbs family originally came from Venton, a small hamlet near Dartington and were originally wool merchants who, in order to sell cloth to the Spanish, became involved in shipping, bringing Spanish fruit and wine back on the return voyages. Because of the Spanish links they became involved in trading with them on the Pacific coast of South America. The family's success came with the importation of guano and then 'nitrate of soda' which was mined in the desert areas of Peru and Chile. These products were used as fertiliser but also, and very importantly, in the manufacture of munitions. The trade made the Gibbs family immensely wealthy.
The young Anthony Gibbs would have been very aware of the maritime skills and perils as his chartered ships made the very hazardous voyage to the East Pacific around Cape Horn, and he doubtless knew that his family owed their success to these mariners. Anthony died in 1815, and the firm passed to his eldest son Henry before passing to William in 1842.
Among other good deeds he performed was the building of St. Michaels Church, in Exeter. He died in 1875 and his widow conveyed the Home upon trust to the Bishop of Exeter and two other trustees, with the object of providing for and maintains the orphan sons of British seaman.
Many hundreds of boys have passed through the Home, some 470 from Plymouth alone, and have been given a good start in life which they otherwise would have lacked.
Just as the engine had replaced sail and brought a thousand changes in the worlds harbours, not least in Brixham, so the home has kept moving with the times. Six years before his death its benefactor William Gibbs built a chapel because he desired above all else to be assured that whatever change the world might go through, the reading of the Word of One who changes not, should be a feature of the Home Religious instruction went side by side with a day-to-day schooling; the earliest schoolmaster receiving a mere pittance for his duties, five shillings a week.
But this has all changed long since. Instead of remaining a community within the confines of Grenville House, the boys went to schools in Brixham and were taught by professional teachers. They also enjoyed a wider and more interesting life by mixing with the town’s children, and they were also free to invite their friends to the Home.
Many visitors to Brixham had heard the celebrated marching drum and bugle band of the Home; it was greatly in demand to play at fetes and functions in the Torbay area. It had moreover had an effect on the careers of many a boy since its formation in 1865, stirring many to enlist in the Royal Navy.
The First World War sadly enough caused a high entry of fatherless boys. In 1918 no fewer than 38 boys were “war orphans.” A year earlier the High Commissioner for Canada contributed a sum of £1800, the interest on which money is devoted to two boys who were called “Canada Boys.”
The gymnasium is the result of a legacy in 1923 and the swimming bath, a greatly desired amenity, came about through a donation in 1929 by King George’s Fund for Sailors. A large legacy was left in 1949 by one of the old boys of the Home, a testament to his time there, it closed in 1988.