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Children’s Homes: A history of institutional care for Britain’s young by Peter Higginbotham

16 February 2018

John Pridmore explores the range of institutions for the care of children

“CHILDREN’S HOMES.” Today the very words are chilling, such is the extent of the physical and sexual abuse that we now know took place in many of these institutions. Yet those who founded and funded them did so from the highest ideals. One comes to the end of Peter Higginbotham’s magnificent history of the institutional care of children in Britain with a single sad reflection: “That it should come to this!”

Higginbotham reminds us of Thomas Coram, whose Foundling Hospital (1741) was England’s first charity devoted exclusively to children. Unwanted infants could be deposited at the door of the Foundling Hospital with no questions asked. We meet Mary Carpenter, about whom we would like to know more, who believed that the treatment of Reformatory School inmates should be based on love, and that they should not be flogged quite so often. (The Reformatory Schools were founded as an alternative to prison for convicted juvenile offenders.)

Thomas Müller, whose Orphan House in Bristol eventually housed more than 2000 children, relied entirely on unsolicited donations for funding.

A chapter on Thomas John Barnardo rehearses the familiar but still inspiring story of his “Ever Open Door” homes and his commitment to the principle, proclaimed in the famous slogan running in huge letters across his home for boys on Stepney Causeway: “No Destitute Child Ever Refused Admission”. Higginbotham does not overlook the conflicts that dogged Barnardo’s career, including the controversy over his questionable use of the title “Doctor” and his recourse to phoney photography in his promotional material.

James Fegan is recalled. Fegan, founder of “Mr Fegan’s Homes” and zealous advocate of the quack medication “Homocea”, took his boys camping, thus pioneering what was to become a staple activity in the programme of many children’s homes.

In their heyday, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were an awful lot of children’s homes. Without Higginbotham to steer us so skilfully through their story we’d soon be lost. We are told about the homes run by the “Big Three” — (Dr) Barnardo’s, the National Children’s Home, and the C of E Waifs and Strays (now Children’s) Society. Alongside them there were innumerable smaller operations — The Guild of the Poor Brave Things, which cared for disabled children; the Truant Schools, whose name indicates their clientele; The Gracie Fields Orphanage, and many, many more.

Chopping firewood at the Waifs and Strays home in Lincoln, in the 1890s. From the book

An appeal of this endlessly fascinating book is its window on the daily life of children in residential care. The regime that most inmates experienced was harsh, though — lest we forget — more benign than that of the streets from which many of them had been rescued. Every hour from early rising had its allotted task, and little time was spared for recreation.

Food, if adequate, was plain — though at Newton Hall, in Cheshire, you were given a small sausage roll on your birthday. On Sundays, at the Waifs and Strays home in Dover, you were whipped if you were caught smiling. (An audio-history of children’s homes would make for painful listening, such was the frequency and ferocity of the use of the birch.) The Friday-night administration of brimstone and treacle “opening mixture” was feared. In some institutions, as on the Shaftesbury Homes training ships Chichester and Arethusa, you were addressed not by your name, but by a number.

Why have most children’s homes closed? Not because of the scandals, nor because a minority of homes were, indeed, ghastly places. These institutions closed because it came to be recognised — the 1946 Curtis report marked the turning of the tide — that adoption or fostering were preferable to institutional care for children without parents or a satisfactory home.

As Higginbotham makes clear, many children’s homes morphed into institutions better suited to today’s children in need. One of the earliest was the Bridewell Hospital (1553). In the 19th century, the notorious Bridewell became a boarding school. Your reviewer was once its chaplain. He is still in touch with some of those who, in need of boarding education, were placed there. Some of them, at least, are glad they were.

The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.


Children’s Homes: A history of institutional care for Britain’s young
Peter Higginbotham
Pen & Sword History £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

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