The Children’s Union – children fundraising on behalf of children (part 2)

The second part of a blog written by one of our volunteers, Rod Cooper, takes a look at The Children’s Society’s fundraising activity and the work of the Children’s Union – a remarkable idea that allowed children to fundraise on behalf of children! You can read part 1 here.

Another Children’s Union-wide fund-raising initiative was the Happy Birthday League. As with the Rover League, the primary aim was to raise funds for the re-building of St Nicholas’ Home. There was one very simple rule to become a member of the League and that was the submission on one’s birthday of one shilling “as a thank-offering for your preservation during the year that has past.” The monthly issues of Brothers and Sisters always carried a reminder of the League and its purpose, and occasionally there would be a small article or report. In the July 1905 issue, for example, there was a not entirely subtle reminder to avoid being overlooked by its readers: “How many birthday presents have you given this year to your friends?” By 1905, the Happy Birthday League had enrolled almost 7,000 members and it raised £335 13s. 1d. during the year; an amount equivalent to about £37,000 today.

In the August 1905 issue Mrs Rose Leck provides a report about the annual fêtes held at, and in aid of, the Bradstock Lockett Home, Southport. As mentioned in part 1, fêtes were an invaluable source of Children’s Union (C.U.) fund-raising, although larger-scale events such as that held at Bradstock Lockett also had the important function of cementing bonds between the local branches; Mrs Leck reported that she “was able to count representatives of nearly forty branches” either attending or providing attractions. It’s quite likely (and refreshing to think) the term ‘networking’ was missing from the lexicon of Edwardian England, but there is little doubt that events such as the annual Bradstock Lockett fêtes were central to engendering close personal contacts and a unity of purpose within the C.U..

B&SAugust1905frontcoversmall

 

Her contribution to Brother and Sisters notwithstanding, Mrs Leck’s primary role was as the Organising Secretary of the Northern Children’s Union, a reminder that the C.U. at this time, as well as being the fruit of a local, grass roots initiative, was very much a decentralised organisation. St Nicholas’, St Martin’s and St Agnes’ homes, all located in the south of England, fell within the purlieu of the Southern Children’s Union (which, as is in the nature of these things, tended to just call itself the Children’s Union). The northern branches organised themselves within the Northern Children’s Union centred on the activities of the Bradstock Lockett Home, Southport (notably named after one of its main benefactors and advocates rather than a saint) and those of the Ripon and Wakefield Dioceses which oversaw funding of St Chad’s Home, Far Headingly. The extent of local independence and discretion is hard to judge, though as an example, the Northern Children’s Union chose to adopt the Happy Birthday League a little later than its southern counterpart, and with the specific aim of covering the outstanding debt on the development of the Bradstock Lockett Home.

Branch secretaries and members of the Children’s Union could advertise their affinity with the C.U. by purchasing and wearing the C.U. badge. These were available in white metal (at 4d.) or bronze (8d.). Branch secretaries often purchased badges and awarded them to members who secured the recruitment of additional members. In the September issue there is reference to Miss Olive Dawson of Shortlands, Kent, who had suggested earlier in the year that a bar should be added (“something after the style of the Boer War medals”) as a reward for securing additional members. The report continues that another branch secretary, Mrs Elsie Clifford (Blackheath) had consequently commenced awarding a Bar for Merit to individual members of her local branch. In recognition of these initiatives – and no doubt identifying a further means of raising funds – “We [the Children’s Union administration] therefore propose to supply the ribbon and bars to be fixed to the members’ badges: and further notice, with prices etc., will be given in the next Magazine. On the bar will be the following words: –“FOR SERVICE” – and Branch Secretaries may give the bar for special service rendered by a member to the Children’s Union in obtaining new members and new subscribers to the Magazine.”

TCS CU (CU Medal)While the greater part of each issue of Brothers and Sisters comprised news from the Homes, or essays on photography and natural history, plus short-stories and puzzles, it is the shorter articles and notes, the readers’ letters and news from the branches which provide a real sense of the C.U.’s activities. In the October issue, for example, there is a short article entitled “Some Ways of Working for The Children’s Union”. This is a direct appeal to the C.U.’s membership and informs children how they may help in practical terms to produce items for ‘Sales of Work’ – a mainstay of branch fêtes and fund-raising in general. Described in a gender specific terms that wouldn’t accord with present-day mores, it suggests items of needlework for girls, whilst boys might consider “wood carving, iron-work, netting hammocks, handbags, fruit nets etc.” The impact of such activities is apparent elsewhere in the magazine; in the same issue – just as in all issues – there are a numerous reports from local branches referring to sales of work and the money raised as a consequence of children’s efforts.

In addition to producing items for sale at Branch fêtes and bazaars, children were also encouraged to produce plays and entertainments. In the November 1905 issue there is a “List of Plays, Duologues &c.”, detailing scripts for short plays which could be purchased directly from their publishers for sixpence or one shilling. In the same issue, amongst the “Reports from Branches”, two branches refer to performances put on by their members. The Chelmsford Branch’s Annual Fête saw three members acting “two fairy plays, viz., ‘The Three Wishes’ and ‘Foolish Jack’” – their endeavours contributing to a total of £30 raised by the overall event. Elsewhere, the Pershore Branch reported that “two performances of the play, ‘Three Fairy Gifts,’ were given and much appreciated, supplemented by a piano duet, a skirt dance, and a duologue entitled ‘Perseverance Wins’.”

 

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The December 1905 issue very much follows the format of the preceding eleven issues. News from the Homes is preceded by a notice from “The Crippled Children in our Homes” wishing the readers of the magazine and the members of the Children’s Union “A Happy Christmas and New Year”, and the magazine continues with its mixture of regular and feature articles, short stories, puzzles and news from the branches. Amongst the latter is a report on the C.U.’s conference at St Mary Abbot’s Church, Kensington, London. Many important figures from The Children’s Society and the Children’s Union were in attendance, including Edward Rudolf – “who gave a brief sketch of the general work of the Society” – and Lady Beatrix Wilkinson. As President of the C.U., Lady Wilkinson gave an account of the C.U.’s work from its beginning and “gave many practical hints on the management of a Branch which included among the children members of all classes.” Such words might seem patronising and anachronistic now, but when she mentions subsequently that “children can work at home or at meetings”, or that some children can put savings in boxes or collect from others, and that “ways and means of working are found to suit each Branch”, she clearly highlights that the C.U., reflecting its “spirit of endeavour and loving service”, was grounded very much at the local level with branches reflecting their own capabilities and conditions.

Branches were also encouraged to pursue their own initiatives and ideas, and to share these with fellow branches. Allowing ideas and initiatives to take root at the local level was clearly useful. It maintained enthusiasm among the members (there wasn’t the necessity of waiting for instructions from HQ), it fostered a spirit of inclusivity among the members, and a notion that all branches were of equal standing and prominence. Added to this mix were the rather straight-forward aims of the C.U.; the support of five Homes and their resident children. This combination of localism, decentralisation, inclusivity, and simple straight-forward aims, all contributed to promote the Children’s Union as a very effective means of fund-raising within fifteen years of its – arguably, quite accidental – inception.

Want to know more?

Further information on the Children’s Union Rover League can be found on the Hidden Lives Revealed website:  http://www.hiddenlives.org.uk/activities/rover_league/rover_league1.html

Scanned copies of the Brothers and Sisters magazine can be found here: http://www.hiddenlives.org.uk/publications/brothers_and_sisters/index.html

Records relating to the Children’s Union featured in this blog are held at The Children’s Society Archive:

If you would would like to know about how The Children’s Society continues to change children’s lives today, visit the charity’s website: http://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/

© The Children’s Society

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The Children’s Union – children fundraising on behalf of children (part 1)

Another in the series of blogs written by one of our volunteers, Rod Cooper, takes a look at The Children’s Society’s fundraising activity – here the work of the Children’s Union – a remarkable idea that allowed children to fundraise on behalf of children! The blog has two parts – this is part 1.

From a modern perspective it might appear unusual that an organisation established as recently as 1881 should, by 1889, be entertaining and indeed, actively, encouraging, the development of an additional movement within its ranks. But that’s exactly what happened when in 1889 the Church of England Central Society for Providing Homes of Waifs and Strays (henceforth, The Children’s Society) incorporated and adopted the fund-raising efforts and initiatives of The Children’s Union within its general organisation.

In light of this development, and notwithstanding the considerable zeal and organising talents of Edward Rudolf, it is evident that in its early days The Children’s Society was neither a ‘top down’ nor highly centralised organisation and considerable leeway was invested – and indeed, was essential for its success – in garnering the efforts, initiative and local knowledge of individuals and groups working within dioceses and parishes throughout England and Wales.

Edward Rudolf, the founder of the 'Waifs and Strays' Society

Edward Rudolf, the founder of the ‘Waifs and Strays’ Society

The Children’s Union developed out of such local efforts, and specifically the fund-raising activities of Miss Helen Milman. Miss Millman – who could not possibly have imagined what would develop from her quite simple idea – organised a fund-raising effort among the children in her town of Tenby, Pembrokeshire, with the specific goal of supporting a child at The Children’s Society’s recently opened St Nicholas’ Home for disabled children in Tooting, London. With the fund-raising being conducted during the children’s school holidays, the initiative quickly took on the name of the ‘Holiday Union’ and soon raised the £15 required to support one child for one year. Within two years, and attracting the interest and support of the Earl and Countess of Pembroke (also known as Lord and Lady Herbert), the scheme spread rapidly, to the extent that the fund-raising activities of children organised through a network of individual branches were soon able to wholly fund the St Nicholas Home.

Adopting the name Children’s Union in 1889, the C.U. was soon wholly or partly funding five homes belonging to The Children’s Society, all of which specialised in the care of disabled children; namely, St Nicholas’ (soon to be relocated to West Byfleet), St Martin’s at Surbiton, St Agnes’ at Croydon, St Chad’s at Leeds and Bradstock Lockett at Southport.

Specifically organised for the purpose of raising funds, membership of the C.U. was open (in 1905) to anyone under the age of 21, and at that year’s end was organised via a network of 444 branches with a membership of around 14,000. The monies raised in 1905 amounted to £5,536 7s. 10d. (i.e., just over £600,000 at present day values).

Based in parishes, schools and local communities in general, the branch network was in constant flux. In any single year, there would be a significant number of branches opening and closing. In 1905, for example, 38 branches started up, whilst 13 ‘lapsed’. To help bring the C.U. together there was a regular monthly magazine – Brothers and Sisters – and it is through the 1905 editions that I wish to explore and highlight the means by which the C.U. disseminated its message, promoted fund-raising schemes, and bonded its membership together.

January 1905 front cover of Brothers and Sisters

January 1905 front cover of Brothers and Sisters

Brothers and Sisters – 1905

Undoubtedly the patronage of the Earl and Countess of Pembroke was instrumental in spurring on the rapid development of the Children’s Union. January’s issue of Brothers and Sisters opens with an article penned by their daughter and President of the Children’s Union, Lady Beatrix Wilkinson, describing the Annual Sale at the Earl and Countess’ home at Wilton House in Wiltshire. Realising a profit of more than £100, the event comprised stalls selling “plain work, fancy work and articles, dolls, toys, sweets and teas,” and musical and theatrical performances, as well as a Baby Show. Sales of work and fêtes were a mainstay of branch fund-raising, but clearly this event was of a different order to those organised later in the year at, say, Lytham (raising £6 10s. 2d. – i.e., £6.51 approximately), or Keswick (£16 10s. – £16.50), and had a number of notable attendees such as their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess and Wales and the Duchess of Roxburghe.

Typical by this time, Brothers and Sisters would open with a short editorial piece, followed by news from its homes, with stories on the achievements of individual children and the growth and development of the homes themselves. In February’s issue, for example, there are articles – with accompanying photographs – on St Martin’s Home, Surbiton, and on the Bradstock Lockett Home, Southport. Without entirely using children’s full names (e.g., “Jim F.” and “Annie C. from Clitheroe”), the reports – without being patronising to the readership – clearly described the daily life, and sometimes the struggle, of the homes’ children. The articles take care too, to emphasise the value and impact of the fund-raising efforts of the Children’s Union and freely advertise any short-term causes and appeals. For example, the article regarding St Martin’s finishes with a request for clothing: “Will our readers ask any grown-up friends (fathers, brothers and uncles) for cast-off clothes, which will be gladly and thankfully received by our boys at Surbiton.”

Children's Union members at work from Surbiton

Children’s Union members at work from Surbiton

As for the adult fundraisers of The Children’s Society, the Savings or Collections Box was an important means of collecting monies at the local level and in the March 1905 issue there was reference to this and myriad other locally inspired means of fund-raising. There was the following notice, for example: “The children of the Bryn Branch have done excellent work with their C.U. collecting boxes during the year. The members do not belong to the wealthy classes, and their small “self-denials” teach a lesson of earnest devotion to the cause for which they are so faithfully labouring.” Brothers and Sisters was careful to ensure that news of fund-raising efforts, whether large or small, were given equal space and prominence: for example, the Clyst Branch reported on “three entertainments” raising £3 11s. 4d. (about £3.57), and two performances of a children’s play at Pinner raising £1 1s. (£1.05).

The following month’s issue of Brothers and Sisters emphasises the direct relationship between Children’s Union members, their fund-raising endeavours and the children under the care of The Children’s Society. In an article reporting on the Bradstock Lockett Home, there is a List of Cots which identifies each individual child (or ‘cot’) alongside the branch supporting the cost of that child’s upkeep. By this means, a very direct and personal relationship was engendered between the branches, their members and the children in the homes. This strengthening of the bond would have been a powerful method of ensuring future interest in the welfare of individual children and the continued support from Children’s Union members.

Underlining the bond between Children’s Union members and individual children in the homes, there is short report under the May issue’s “Notes and Notices”. Headlined “Cot Friends” it states: “It very gratifying to note that, in response to the note in the last issue, some of the children in our Homes have found special friends in the C.U. who are going to write to them, and take personal and sympathetic interest in their welfare. We shall give every facility to those who desire to correspond with a child, and hope that a great measure of happiness may be the result of this friendly and sympathetic intercourse.”

As a further fund-raising initiative, to specifically help fund the re-building of the St Nicholas’ Home at Byfleet, the C.U. commenced promoting The Rover League in 1905 ; a means by which Children’s Union members and branches could enrol their pet dogs and submit funds on their pets’ behalf. By mid-year the scheme had blossomed and members were enrolling their various pets and submitting photographs for publication, typically accompanied by letters ‘penned’ by their pets. By June, “Rover’s Scheme for Helping to Re-build St. Nicholas’ Home, Byfleet” was under the “immediate patronage of “Joey” Lord Herbert’s Charger in the Royal Horse Guards”, and that month’s report commences, “Rover has got fifty-four new members during the month, including horses belonging to Lady Muriel Herbert (i.e., Lord Herbert’s younger daughter and Lady Beatrix Wilkinson’s sister), dogs, cats, a goat, some goldfish, and a delightful donkey.” Typical of the letters published in Brothers and Sisters is one from Sir Gibbie, a wire-haired fox terrier. Sir Gibbie sent 1s. 6d.; representing the membership fee of sixpence apiece for himself and his two friends, Daisy (“a grey donkey”) and Dick (“a sort of terrier”). By June it’s apparent that the specific purpose of the Rover League had broadened out somewhat, as a notice was included of a home wanted for “Emma” and “Eliza”, a pair of “mongrel lurcher puppies rescued from a cellar in East London”.

'Rover' the founder of the Rover League is featured here in the top photograph

‘Rover’ the founder of the Rover League is featured in the top photograph

Part 2 to follow.

Want to know more?

Further information on the Children’s Union Rover League can be found on the Hidden Lives Revealed website:  http://www.hiddenlives.org.uk/activities/rover_league/rover_league1.html

Scanned copies of the Brothers and Sisters magazine can be found here: http://www.hiddenlives.org.uk/publications/brothers_and_sisters/index.html

Records relating to the Children’s Union featured in this blog are held at The Children’s Society Archive:

If you would would like to know about how The Children’s Society continues to change children’s lives today, visit the charity’s website: http://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/

© The Children’s Society

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Life after polio for a child in care

This week I’ve been tracing lives through the Historic Hospital Admissions Registers Project (HHARP). The HHARP website contains a database of children who went to 19th Century children’s hospitals, and I wanted to see if any of those children were also in the care of The Children’s Society (known as the Waifs and Strays Society until 1946).

I found a few children in the database that could be matched to our case files here at The Children’s Society Archive, and today I’m going to tell you about one of them. John went to hospital with a deformity in his feet, which is described in John’s case file as both club feet and flat feet. He had had polio (also known as infantile paralysis) when he was younger, which is likely what had affected his feet.

In October 1911, the HHARP website lists John as entering Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. He was four years old and had been living at the Home for Sick Children in Battledown, Gloucestershire (this was a home that wasn’t operated by The Children’s Society). John stayed in hospital for about two months to have treatment for his feet.

While in hospital, an application was made for John to enter the care of The Children’s Society. It appears that the whereabouts of John’s parents and family was unknown. They had last been heard of in Winchcombe in Gloucestershire but they hadn’t been in contact while John was in the Battledown children’s home, and it had been assumed that the family had abandoned him.

John was discharged back to the Battledown home in December, and was described as “cured”. One month later, in January 1912, John re-entered Great Ormond Street Hospital in order to have more treatment for his feet. This time he was in hospital for just two days and was discharged back to Battledown with his condition described as “relieved”. In one of his two hospital stays, it seems that John had undergone an operation on his feet. As he was still recuperating from the surgery, the application to The Children’s Society was put on hold for a while.

By August 1912, John was able to “walk splendidly”. His application to The Children’s Society was restarted and in October, aged 5, he went to live in The Children’s Society’s St Nicholas’ Orthopaedic Hospital and Special School in Pyrford, Surrey.

John stayed in this home for about a year and a half and then, in 1914, he went to live in a foster home in Frettenham, Norfolk, along with another boy from St Nicholas’ Home. At this point, John was seven years old and we know that he was attending the local school while he was in foster care. Correspondence in our case file for John tells us that he received a medical examination at school, and that a doctor from The Children’s Society also came to see him. One of the doctors prescribed special boots for John’s feet and the other prescribed exercises for John to do; we don’t know what exercises these were, but we do know that the boots cost 15 shillings, 10 shillings of which were donated by a local person in Frettenham.

For a number of years, there’s little medical information to be found in John’s case file. He stayed in foster care in Frettenham until 1920 when he was twelve years old. It was normal for children at the age of twelve to leave foster care and go live in a children’s home where they could begin to learn a trade. And so, at the age of twelve, John left Frettenham and went to Peckham Receiving Home for Boys in London, which was a home that boys normally stayed in temporarily before moving on to other children’s homes.

At Peckham Receiving Home, John was seen by a doctor, who recommended that he have hospital treatment for his ankle. For a second opinion, John was also seen by the doctor from The Children’s Society who’d gone to see him in Frettenham. Her response after seeing John is below:

Letter about treatments for John's feet and legs, 1920, from case file 17217

Letter about treatments for John's feet and legs, 1920, from case file 17217

Letter about treatments for John's feet and legs, 1920, from case file 17217

March 15 1920

Dear Mr. Swann

Re John [surname]

This boy has had a form of
club foot due to infantile
paralysis which has been
operated on when he was
very young. The condition of
the legs and feet is good
and nothing further can be

done at the present time for
them.

There is no reason why he should
not do a certain amount
of walking but he should
be allowed to take his time.
The condition, of course, will
have to be watched from
time to time in order to see
that the bones of the legs grow
sufficiently as the boy gets
bigger. I should advise letting
the legs be sponged down every
day with Tidmans Sea-Salt –
a tablespoon of the salt

to a washing basinful of
warm water. Massage would
of course, improve the muscular
development.

The boy would like to be a
tailor and this life or that
of a boot maker, would be
very suitable.

With kind regards

Yours sincerely

R Turner

Dr Turner’s recommendations are wonderfully detailed. We see that she recommends massage for John’s legs, which seems like something a child could be prescribed today. She also recommends bathing John’s legs in a salt solution, which is a little more unusual. I’m not sure what the purpose of this salt-bathing would be; let me know in the comments if you have any ideas!

John stayed in Peckham Receiving Home while a place was found for him elsewhere. After a few months he went to St Andrew’s Home for Boys in Matlock, Derbyshire. However, after only three months there it was clear that St Andrew’s Home wasn’t well-equipped to look after a boy like John who had difficulty walking. As a result, John was sent back to Peckham Receiving Home.

Once again enquiries were made as to a suitable children’s home for John. John wanted to become a tailor, and so he was sent to St Benet’s Home for Boys at Emmer Green, Berkshire, where they taught tailoring skills.

Sadly, however, it seems that this home wasn’t suitable for John either. After only a month, John was seen by a surgeon at Berkshire Hospital in Reading, who had the following to say (click the image for a larger version):

Letter about treatment for John's feet, 1921, from case file 17217

The surgeon recommended that John have special boots again, and suggested that John be sent to a home that would provide him with specialist medical supervision. Once again, we find that the home John was currently living in was not equipped to look after boys with conditions like his.

And so, for the third time, John was sent to Peckham Receiving Home. He was there for only a short while this time before being sent to St Martin’s Orthopaedic Hospital and Special School in Pyrford, Surrey. This home was next door to St Nicholas’ Home which John had lived in when he had first entered the care of The Children’s Society. Like St Nicholas’ Home, St Martin’s also specialised in looking after children with orthopaedic conditions; St Martin’s, however, took in older boys and often taught them trades such as tailoring.

Finally, John was able to settle down in a home for a decent period of time. He stayed at St Martin’s for three years until 1924 when he was seventeen years old. By 1924 John’s feet were described as cured and a report states that he had completed his training in tailoring. For a job, however, John had since decided that he would rather work as a servant than as a tailor.

There was initially some difficulty in finding John a job. He had a speech impediment which led some potential employers to turn him down because they didn’t think him suitable for answering the door to visitors.

In order to increase his job prospects, John returned to Peckham Receiving Home, as this home was often used as a temporary home for boys looking for work. It was successful. After just two days in Peckham, John went to work as a hall boy in Pimlico in London, earning seven shillings and sixpence a week.

John stayed in this job for about a month and a half. We don’t know why he left, but he soon went to another job on a farm in Plumpton, Sussex, earning six shillings a week. John started this job in July 1924 and stayed there until Christmas 1924 when he returned to Peckham Receiving Home for a brief holiday. However, when in Peckham, John said that he didn’t want to go back to the farm in Plumpton but instead wanted to go live with his father.

John’s father had just sent John a letter. After a number of enquiries over the previous year, The Children’s Society had finally tracked down John’s family. They found that John’s father and siblings had moved away from Winchcombe in Gloucestershire and had gone to live in Llantwit Fardre in Glamorgan. John’s mother had died, leaving John’s father and John’s eldest sister to look after John’s five other siblings. They were struggling to get by, and when their house was condemned as unfit for habitation, John’s father had become homeless and John’s siblings had been sent to a children’s home nearby. Previously, when John had been struggling to find work, it was suggested that he could go live with his father, but the local vicar of Llantwit Fardre warned that “It would be fatal to send the boy home under the circumstances”.

It is understandable, then, that when John returned to Peckham in Christmas 1924 and said that he wanted to go live with his father, The Children’s Society didn’t let him go straight away.

Instead, in January 1925, John went to work in another job as an under butler in a college in Chelsea, London, earning six shillings a week. Meanwhile, The Children’s Society wrote to the vicar of Llantwit Fardre to see if John’s father’s circumstances had improved and if it would be possible for John to go live with him.

Unfortunately, John’s case file ends there so we don’t know what happened next. Did John stay working as an under butler in Chelsea or did he go to live with his father in Llantwit Fardre? Presumably John thought that he’d be able to help his father earn money to support the family, but it wouldn’t have been easy if they had nowhere to live. And why did John’s family never contact him when he was first put into a children’s home all those years ago? Were their circumstances as dire in 1911 as they were in 1924? It seems that John’s story still has more to tell.

Despite the gaps in our information, what have we been able to learn? Firstly we have seen just how fascinating it is to link our records to those of Great Ormond Street Hospital using the HHARP website. We can follow John’s treatment from surgery in hospital through to orthopaedic boots, to massage and to bathing in salt water. By the end of his file in 1925, it seems that all the treatments had paid off, with John gaining enough mobility to work as a servant.

What seems most clear to me though, is just how difficult it must have been for John and for other disabled children in similar situations. With John’s difficulty walking, it seems that there were many children’s homes which just weren’t able or weren’t willing to look after him. This led to a long period of being shuttled back and forth from one children’s home to another, which for John must have been as disheartening as it was unsettling. Then, when looking for work a few years later, we find that John’s speech impediment was another thing that caused people to discriminate against him.

John’s story is not an easy one to read. It does, however, give us an insight into social attitudes at the time.

Find out more
Have a search of the Historic Hospital Admissions Registers Project (HHARP) website for yourself and discover the children’s stories there.

Misunderstanding mental health in the early-20th Century

Today, we have a guest post written by one of our project volunteers, Leonora Fane-Saunders.

***

It is sadly apparent that mental health was not well understood in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The prevailing view at the time was one of institutionalisation, and many people with learning disabilities or mental health conditions found themselves sent to asylums and other similar institutions, to live apart from the rest of society. These institutions may have been seen as places of treatment, where people could be given specialised care, but they were also places of segregation.

The records from the Children’s Society [then the Waifs and Strays’ Society] show some of the attitudes and language prevalent at the time. An example of this is a letter recommending that a child be sent to an asylum in 1917. (Click to enlarge.)

Letter from Medical Superintendent of Newport Borough Asylum stating that the child should be admitted to an asylum, 1917

Dear Mrs De Gruchy

I am of opinion that
the little girl Gertie [surname]
from St. Cadocs Home Caerleon
whom I saw today is of
defective intellect – and not
likely to profit from the
training given at St. Cadoc’s
Home.

From the statement
of the Matron of the Home it
appears that the child has a
very deficient moral
sense in the matter of
truthfulness & honesty

and I think her example may
have an evil influence on the
other children in the Home.

Both on this account and
on her own I think she would
be much better placed in
an institution for mentally
deficient children where
the training and discipline
would be more suitable to
her case.

Yours Sincerely
Wm. F. Nelis MD
Med Supt. [Medical Superintendent]

In this letter there is nothing that today would today be considered grounds for institutionalisation and the terms used in this letter would now be considered highly inappropriate. It is possible that the child suffered from a learning disability that in turn led to the poor behaviour in the home.

List of Rules for Correspondents and Visitors to West Ham Mental Hospital, c1920

The asylums had very strict rules that seem akin to those found in a prison. A list of rules governing visitors to inmates at the West Ham Mental Hospital (see above, click to enlarge) show that visiting hours were restricted to two and a half hours per week unless under special circumstances in which case written permission was required. Presents could also only be given to inmates through the Attendant or Nurse in charge of the visiting room. Of the twenty four children who were admitted to an asylum or other such mental health institution from The Society’s care between 1894 and 1920 only two are known to have left the asylum. It is interesting to note that the two that left were different in that they were sent to the asylum for what appears to have been stress cause by over work whilst in service. The others were sent to the asylum for difficulties in learning what the children were being taught in the homes and for poor behaviour.

Although now, with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to look back with horror at these institutions, it is also easy to forget that the first asylums were set up with humanitarian intentions as places that could care for the mentally ill and potentially cure them. Before then such people were usually hidden away under the care of their relatives. Good intentions were lost amidst the increasing asylum population, inadequate staff, lack of understanding of mental health and the fact that any man and his dog could set up a private asylum. Those who started the first asylum probably looked back in horror at the way the mentally ill were treated one hundred years before, and who’s to say people one hundred years from now might not do the same.

Most asylums were shut down in the late 20th Century and our knowledge and understanding in identifying and treating mental health issues has increased since then. While it can be upsetting to us now to see how people used to be treated 100 years ago, records such as those highlighted here are important. It is through understanding and discussing the past that we can begin to learn from previous mistakes and pave the way for a better future.

Want to find out more?
A previous blog post discussing historical attitudes to disability can be found here:
http://www.hiddenlives.org.uk/blog/2012/05/the-changing-perceptions-of-disability

A brief history of West Ham Mental Hospital can be found here: http://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/goodmayes.html

See the Museum of Disability, the Science Museum and this post from the National Archives for more information about the history of attitudes towards learning disabilities and mental health conditions.

The changing perceptions of disability

While working with historical records relating to disabled children, it is very hard not to come across attitudes and phrases that can seem discriminatory and relatively demeaning when set alongside 21st Century standards and attitudes.

When reading these records, it is necessary to keep in mind that these were attitudes and phrases that were common in their day and were unlikely to have been seen as discriminatory by those using them. The records act as a body of evidence for how society saw disabled children in the past and how much has changed for the better in the intervening years.

In the above example, we have a page from a story booklet for children that was produced in c1930 by the Children’s Union. This booklet was created to teach children about the work of St Nicholas’ Home for disabled children in Pyrford, Surrey, with the aim of persuading them to donate money to the home.

The first thing that we come across in this example is the use of the word “crippled”. This term was very common in the 19th and early-20th Centuries and crops up very often in our records relating to disabled-children’s homes.

Secondly, when reading through this first part of the story, we begin to get a perception of how disabled children were seen at the time. Andy, the disabled boy, is described in a way that emphasises vulnerability and helplessness, with the aim of provoking a feeling of pity in the reader. Language like this is found in a lot of early publicity material for the Children’s Union; this material often talks about the disabled children being unfortunate and needy. Presumably, urging the public to feel pity was seen as a good way of motivating them to donate money for the disabled-children’s homes.

It is also clear that the focus at the time was very much on the medical model of disability and orthopaedic care. Disabled children’s homes often doubled as hospitals and were seen as places to treat medical conditions. The aim of the Children’s Union, as stated later in the above story, is to “help poor ill children, and make them well and strong”. Children with disabilities that could not be treated medically and children that were not able to learn a trade, were often seen as a group of people for whom nothing could be done; an unfortunate perspective.

As the 20th Century moved on, attitudes towards disability began to change toward a more social model, and we can see this reflected in the records.

Above is a page from a prospectus for Halliwick Further Education and Training Centre in Winchmore Hill, London, made c1980. While this prospectus also uses terms that are no longer common today, we can see that the attitude towards disability was quite different from that in the earlier document. The aim of the Centre was no longer about medical treatment to remove disabilities that were seen as obstacles. Instead, the aim of the Centre was to provide further education that was tailored and accessible to the disabled students, to provide them with the same opportunities for education as non-disabled children.

Examples like those above allow us to see how attitudes towards disability have changed over the years to become what they are now. I think it is very important that these records are preserved for the future and not hidden from history purely because they contain phrases that can be seen to be discriminatory or, indeed, offensive. After all, it is only by learning how things were that we can understand why and how things needed to change and where we need to go in the future.