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