Chil­dren’s Homes: A His­tory of In­sti­tu­tional Care for Bri­tain’s Young

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - THE GUIDE - by Peter Hig­gin­botham

Pen & Sword, 256 pages, £14.99 Peter Hig­gin­botham is known for his ex­per­tise on work­houses, so it is no sur­prise he has writ­ten about in­sti­tu­tions for chil­dren in care. It is a well-re­searched over­view of chil­dren’s homes, start­ing with Christ’s Hospi­tal, given by Henry VIII to the City of Lon­don for re­lief of the poor. His son Ed­ward VI pro­vided it with an an­nual in­come and, in 1552, 340 poor, fa­ther­less chil­dren were ad­mit­ted. They wore long blue gowns, giv­ing rise to the name Blue Coat School.

It was dur­ing the Vic­to­rian age that chil­dren’s homes pro­lif­er­ated, and we are given a com­pre­hen­sive list of all the dif­fer­ent types of in­sti­tu­tion, from re­for­ma­to­ries to vol­un­tary homes. The at­ti­tudes to the in­mates are re­flected in some of the names the char­i­ties chose to call them­selves such as The Waifs and Strays So­ci­ety, or the Guild of the Poor Brave Things.

Chil­dren with learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties were called ‘ idiots’ and ‘ im­be­ciles’ and those with phys­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties were dubbed ‘crip­ples’. Over time, the large in­sti­tu­tions gave way to smaller cot­tage homes and even­tu­ally board­ing out or fos­ter­ing be­came the norm.

While the his­tor­i­cal cov­er­age is ex­ten­sive, there is al­most no sense of what it was like for the chil­dren them­selves. Although the de­scrip­tion of ‘Life in Chil­dren’s Homes’ gives us a good pic­ture of themes such as what the chil­dren did and what they ate, there are hardly any chil­dren’s voices to tell us how they felt about these places.

Sim­i­larly, while there is an ex­pla­na­tion of how child em­i­gra­tion worked, the ex­pe­ri­ence of it is miss­ing.

The au­thor has bravely at­tempted to deal with the hor­ror of 20th-cen­tury child abuse in some places. The fi­nal chap­ter on the fu­ture for chil­dren’s homes is in­ter­est­ing, par­tic­u­larly the No Wrong Door project based on mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary teams car­ing for chil­dren. The Vic­to­rian sys­tem has long been ban­ished and more suit­able so­lu­tions for chil­dren in care, per­tain­ing to our age, are be­ing ex­plored. Janet Sacks is a his­to­rian, writer and edi­tor

At Here­ford Boys' In­dus­trial School (opened 1877) in­mates were taught bas­ket weav­ing

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