Our History

The charity was founded in 1843 by William Williams, a solicitor’s clerk, who wanted to use education to break the cycle of deprivation and poverty among street children in London.

Our History



The first school, for 150 boys and girls, met in a hayloft over a cowshed in Holborn with classes staffed by 23 volunteer teachers. As part of the Ragged Schools movement, William Williams helped to found the Ragged Union the following year.

The work attracted the patronage and active support of Lord Shaftesbury (the 7th Earl) who, in 1866, used his influence to secure the use of a redundant naval warship, the Chichester. This was followed in 1874 by the Arethusa. These housed up to 400 boys on the Thames and were the start of over a hundred years of training boys for future life in the Royal or Merchant Navy. ‘Refuges’ in the Soho/Covent Garden area now housed boys and girls, teaching the former the trades of carpentry, cobbling and tailoring in addition to seamanship skills; and teaching the girls the skills needed for domestic service.

In 1867 the farm school at Bisley opened, followed by the Shaftesbury Boys’ School there in 1873.

By 1900 more than 1000 children were in the residential care of the charity. In 1904 the charity changed its name from The National Refuge for Homeless and Destitute Children to Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa.

Over the next 40 years the refuges in London amalgamated and relocated out of London forming large institutional schools (Bisley Farm School, Fortescue House, Esher Place (for girls) in Surrey and Royston in Hertfordshire). After the Second World War, the expansion of the fostering system gradually reduced the demand for places. The large institutions were sold, and the childcare provision was scaled down to a more domestic size. The change in the school leaving age in the early 1970s closed the gap between leaving school and the entry age for the adult armed services. The Arethusa training ship no longer had a role and was sold to the South Street Seaport Museum in New York. It is still there today, under its former name of Peking.

Children’s homes owned and run by the charity came and went as demand dictated during the 1970s and 80s. In 1993 the first service level agreement for a partnership between a local authority and a charity was signed with Wandsworth borough in south London. In 1998 a similar contract was signed with Lambeth. In 2004, Shaftesbury Homes & Arethusa formed a partnership with Southwark Council, managing three children’s homes in the borough.

Supported housing and care leaver services were set up in Suffolk and London from 1990. A Young Persons Support Service was developed in Islington in 2003.

The land based facilities for the training ship at Upnor on the Medway were developed into the Arethusa Venture Centre.

In 2006, the charity changed its working name to Shaftesbury Young People



To find out more about our history, order one of our beautiful hardback books detailing the history of the charity. “The Chance of a Lifetime – The Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa -150 Years” is written by Marion Bailey and published by Dianthus publishing.

The book is an essential read for all those interested in the work of Shaftesbury Young People or social history from the 1830s onwards.

We request that you make a donation to obtain your copy of The “Chance of a Lifetime” to include UK postage and packaging.  Please make your cheque payable to Shaftesbury Young People.  We are happy to post the book overseas but please note that the cost will be £30 for postage and packaging. To pay over the phone using a debit or credit card, please call our switchboard on 020 8875 1555.