Caring for a child with scrofula

James was an orphan. He was born in Oxford in 1886 where his father worked as a guard on the railway. James would have been about two years old when his father died from heart disease.

After the death of James’ father, James’ mother found work as a nurse for a family living in East Grinstead in Sussex. Then, when James was about seven years old, James’ mother moved the family to Westminster in London where she started keeping a lodging house.

Unfortunately, two years later in 1895 when James’ was only nine years old, his mother died of bronchitis and pneumonia during a cold winter, leaving James and his brothers and sister as orphans.

James was the youngest of his siblings. His eldest brother, aged 25, was a soldier serving in India, while his three other brothers, aged 21 to 16, worked in Westminster; one as a road sweeper, one as a clerk and the other as an errand boy. Meanwhile James’ sister, aged 12, was adopted by their aunt.

Neither James’ elder brothers in Westminster nor James’ aunt, who also paid money to help his grandmother, were able to look after James. Temporarily, therefore, James was taken into a home for working boys, St Matthew’s Home in Westminster, which was also looking after his 16 year-old brother, Robert.

St Matthew’s Home wasn’t run by The Children’s Society (then known as the Waifs and Strays Society). It was a home for older boys, like Robert, who were working. At only nine years old, James was too young to stay in this home, and so an application was made for him to be taken into the care of the Waifs and Strays Society.

In May 1895, two months after his mother’s death, James entered The Society’s Talbot Home for Boys in Bournemouth.

Three years later in 1898 when James was aged 11 and still living in the Talbot Home, a medical certificate was filled out for him. This stated that he had a tendency to scrofula.

There had been no mention of scrofula in a previous medical certificate for James, which had been completed when he first entered the Talbot Home, so perhaps James had recently contracted the disease or perhaps the symptoms had only just started to show. Scrofula is an infection of the lymph nodes in the neck which leaves them swollen; it is sometimes caused by tuberculous bacteria, but can also be caused by other types of bacteria instead.

James remained in the Talbot Home until he was 12 years old. The Talbot Home looked after younger boys, and when they reached the age of 12 the boys often left the home to start apprenticeships in Bournemouth. It was considered that James wouldn’t do well in an apprenticeship and so instead, in 1898, he was moved to Standon Farm Home for Boys in Staffordshire. This home usually looked after boys until they were 14 years of age and trained them for farm work.

The next we hear of James is five months later in 1899 when James would have been 13. He was examined by the doctor who worked as the medical officer for the Standon Farm Home; the doctor’s report is below.

Medical report from case file 4772, stating that the child is suffering from ‘Tubercular disease of the glands of his neck’, 1899

April 4. 1899.

Jas. [surname].

This boy I have examined carefully
& I do not consider him to be a fit
inmate of this institution. He is suffering
from Tubercular disease of the glands
of his neck, of some duration, one of
which has ended in suppuration.
I should advise his removal from
this home as I do not consider the
climate here suitable to the case.
It is quite possible that the Tubercular
disease may spread to the lungs.

Thomas Dixon.
M.R.C.S. Eng.
L.R.C.P. Lond.

Reading the report, we see that James’ scrofula was tubercular and that one of the swellings on his neck had become suppurative (meaning that it had become an open wound). It also suggests that the disease could spread, leading to pulmonary tuberculosis, if it was not treated.

As the doctor advised, it was considered best for James’ health for him to be removed from the Standon Farm Home, and arrangements began to be made for James to go to hospital in London for treatment.

At the time, James’ elder brothers were still living in London and it was thought best for James to stay with them while he was receiving hospital treatment. And so in 1899, when James was 13, he was returned to his second-eldest brother William who was then aged around 25 years and was living in Lambeth in London.

A few days later, we find that James went into St Thomas’ Hospital in Lambeth for an operation. Presumably this surgery was to remove the infected lymph nodes. The success of surgery to treat tuberculous scrofula can be variable, but before the use of antibiotics it may well have been one of the only treatment options available.

Unfortunately, James’ case file ends there. Perhaps his brother William arranged James’ stay in hospital and any later care, which could be why the Waifs and Strays Society didn’t create any more correspondence about the case. If we want to know more about how James got on, a search of the records of St Thomas’ Hospital might be able to give us the outcome of his treatment there.

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