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

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:

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.

Learning about volunteering in Birmingham

Last week David, one of our Unexplored Riches in Medical History project volunteers, and I went on a day out to sunny Birmingham.

Blue skies at Birmingham Moor Street Station

Here in Birmingham The Children’s Society Volunteering Team were hosting a forum for volunteers and their managers, from across the organisation, to get together and share experiences. (As a bonus, for those of you interested in history — and puddings — the forum was held at a place called the Custard Factory, which was the home of Bird’s Custard in the 19th and 20th Centuries!)

The day started with two talks. First up was Justin Davis-Smith, Executive Director of Volunteering at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO). Justin gave us an overview of volunteering across the UK, how it is being recognised by the government and what politicians can do to help volunteering thrive even further. He also talked about exciting new developments and trends in volunteering, such as ‘micro-volunteering’ projects, where people can volunteer online for only 30 minutes at a time, and organised rock concerts that are used to encourage young people to give volunteering a go.

Justin Davis-Smith, Executive Director of Volunteering at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, talks about volunteering in the UK

Next along was Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society. Matthew talked about how vital volunteers are to the work of The Children’s Society and how everything we do would grind to a halt without them. Interestingly, for us archive folks, Matthew highlighted how volunteering has been at the heart of The Children’s Society right from the very beginning. In 1881 our founder, Edward Rudolf, and those that helped him, gave their time freely to set up a charity to help the poor and neglected children they saw around them in Victorian Britain. What motivated them was the drive to improve the lives of children and young people; and over 130 years later, this is exactly the same force that still motivates The Children’s Society and our volunteers today.

Attendees at the Volunteering Forum

After that there were lots of opportunities for us attendees to get together and discuss how we can make volunteering at The Children’s Society better. It was great to meet volunteers and volunteer managers from across the organisation and find out what they do and how they do it. And it was really useful to hear everyone’s views on what they think we do well in terms of volunteering and what we still need to improve. I definitely came away with ideas to use here in the archive.

We were split into regional groups and came up with lots of ideas for how to improve volunteering at The Children's Society

All in all it was a great day. In particular, I enjoyed talking to volunteers from all over the country and hearing what motivates them and how volunteering has changed their lives. It was inspiring stuff!

For those of you interested, we have several volunteers here at The Children’s Society archive. Those volunteers involved in the Unexplored Riches in Medical History project are helping to conserve, repackage and catalogue our children’s case files, ultimately making them usable for medical history research. To find out more, check out our volunteers tag on the blog.

If you’re thinking you’d like to get involved with The Children’s Society as a volunteer, take a look at our volunteering pages for more information on current volunteer opportunities with us and how you can help.

Rickets returns

Today, we have a guest post written by one of our project volunteers, David Lamb.


Earlier this month, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health released guidance for healthcare staff on identifying the symptoms of rickets. This is in response to the rise in rickets, a condition common in Victorian times, but that had largely disappeared through the 20th century. Rickets is a bone-deforming disease caused by vitamin D deficiency, stunting growth and inhibiting walking.

Hospital admissions with rickets in England increased from 561 in 2008/09 to 702 last year. January and February are the worst months because of the low levels of UV light. Observations suggest a link with some children not playing outside. The issue was covered recently in the [London] Evening Standard (13.1.14).

Over 5% of the children who passed through The Children’s Society’s care between 1881 and 1917 had rickets recorded in their case files. Below are extracts from various cases to illustrate the situation in which rickets developed and a range of its impacts.

Three year old Lydia “lives in unhealthy street (in Hackney), and never goes out during the last three months I have known it. She sits with her feet under her, not attempting to walk, and seems to require nourishment and care. The room constantly is so close and smelly it is not conducive to the child’s health, and the mother is too deformed to do her own scrubbing. I think it one of the saddest cases I have ever known”.

The medical certificate for Annie aged six records rickets resulting in bowed legs and curvature of the spine, but “with proper care she is said to be curable”. Almost ten years on, boarded out in Suffolk, she is not considered “capable of carrying heavy weights or doing much hard work. … She takes great pleasure in, and does needlework nicely”.

With six year old Allan from Teesdale, rickets in both legs and wrists had left him “hopelessly crippled unless the deformity is corrected by operation”. The file does not record whether he had that operation. After seven years in Bradstock Lockett Home in Southport, he returned to his mother.

Some children did have their ‘rickety’ condition alleviated by surgery, as in this case below. (Like all the images in this blog, click on the image below to see a larger version.)

Letter from case file 9953, mentioning proposed treatments for two children with rickets at St Thomas' Hospital, London, 1903

Others required special medical or ‘surgical’ appliances, for which funding had to be secured, as in this Welsh case:

Letter from case file 7207, discussing the funding required for a medical boot and leg support for a child with rickets, 1911

Lily from Richmond, Surrey had genu valgum [knock knees] resulting from rickets when younger.

Another rickets case, Sarah, originally from Beverley, Yorkshire was “close upon 15 – but no bigger than a child of 8 – and thus quite debarred from domestic service as she is almost a dwarf”.

With Margaret from Oxfordshire, her rickets developed soon after birth deformities, such that as an eight year old she could not use her legs beyond standing a little. However, she could use her arms well and do needlework. At nearly 16, “she is deformed, height 4ft 3in – not a girl suitable for service – does housework very nicely but her height and limbs are very much against her. She has been through our laundry, but complains of her legs hurting her, after standing or walking far.”

Hopefully, raising the alert about rickets will avoid our generation of children any of the pain, discomfort and disabilities suffered in Victorian and Edwardian times.

A visit to Lambeth Palace

Last week as a thank you to our project volunteers, many of whom have now been with us for six months, we went on a trip to Lambeth Palace Library and Archive.

The main gate of Lambeth Palace

The staff at Lambeth Palace Library very kindly gave us a tour of the Palace and told us about the work they do. We heard about the history of Lambeth Palace and the history of its Library, both of which are very interesting.

The Great Hall at Lambeth Palace

The tour took us behind the scenes to the Library’s conservation studio and store rooms. We also had a look at the exhibitions in the Great Hall, including some volumes that have recently been conserved; the most unusual being a book about the types of beer found in Yorkshire!

Finally, we were given a tour of the gardens at Lambeth Palace, which were lovely, especially given the sunshine we’ve been having in London recently.

Part of the gardens at Lambeth Palace

Many thanks to Lambeth Palace Library for a great afternoon, and many thanks to our volunteers for their help with this project!

For more information about Lambeth Palace Library, please see their website.

Our volunteers in their own words

The Unexplored Riches in Medical History project is currently being supported by eight enthusiastic volunteers who kindly give their time to help conserve and preserve the oldest and most delicate of the children’s case files.

Click here to read more about the case file conservation process.

Repairing the case files

Repairing the case files

In today’s post, several of the volunteers explain what it is like to volunteer here at The Children’s Society archive and tell us more about what they’ve been doing.

‘The first part of the job is removing the case file contents from their pale blue linen envelope – sometimes, they are so tightly packed this can be a bit of a struggle.’

‘Once the items have been removed, I clean them with a chemical sponge and a soft brush, place them in between clean blotter and retain the original order of the items as found.’

‘Whilst cleaning I inspect for damaging materials such as metal paper clips or rubber bands as well as unstable documents such as acidic, brittle paper and torn postcards.’

‘Any document that is in a bad condition and cannot be flattened or is badly torn may be humidified or repaired.’

‘Each item is then flattened under weights for a few days, before being packed into a new file folder, tied with cotton ribbon and boxed.’

Filing the case files

When asked what they enjoyed most about volunteering, many of the volunteers agreed that the highlight was the case files themselves.

‘[I enjoy] getting a feel for some of the cases and the individuals involved, with some fascinating insights into social history.’

‘I find the case files fascinating to work on. […] They are only individual peeks in to a wealth of an archive, but it has inspired me to look in to my own family history.’

‘The most exciting part of working with case files must be removing the items from the envelope, because you will never find a repeat one and each of them contains a different story.’

‘There is a great satisfaction in knowing you have helped preserve somebody’s history as well as making a small contribution to the cleaning of such a vast amount of case files and making them accessible.’

‘The most rewarding aspect is probably the sense of achievement that comes from knowing that the case files are now going to survive for much longer thanks to the preservation and conservation work that we’re doing. And knowing that in the future researchers will be able to access the information the files hold much more easily is very satisfying.’

It’s not always easy though. The delicate condition of some of the case files often poses problems.

‘[The most difficult part is] avoiding tearing documents when cleaning.’

‘Personally, I find handling and cleaning the variety of different types of paper quite challenging, as it requires different levels of accuracy with the cleaning sponges and you could lead to damaging the works more.’

‘[The most challenging part] must be to clean some documents which are of poor condition.’

‘I find the assessment of a document the most testing. For example, if I miscalculate the stability of a papered document and put it under the strain of pressing, the piece could split and cause irreversible damage.’

Despite the challenges posed by the fragile state of some of the documents, the project is progressing well, thanks to the help of our volunteers.

Preparing cleaning sponges

The team of volunteers is a varied one, with some currently studying for courses in paper conservation, some retired, and some wanting archive experience. This means that they each have different skills and interests that they can bring to the project.

‘[My motivation for volunteering here was] a combination of wanting to contribute to a worthwhile organisation and looking for a new experience with social contact.’

‘Volunteering is an important asset for a conservator, as through this experience you are allowed to observe and work with people of our profession and more, develop old and new skills, as well as learn new techniques.’

‘To work alongside professionals at such close quarters is an important aspect for my development as a paper conservator.’

‘Because the tasks that I’ve been doing as a volunteer were so well defined I was able to start doing useful work right from the very first day. Everyone has been very friendly and helpful. Also, knowing that I’m going on to study archives, everyone has taken the time to explain more about what they do, which has been great.’

‘It’s been a really great learning experience. I’ve learnt more about how to handle documents correctly, about preservation problems and conservation techniques, and also started to get a feel for how the archives and records fit within the organisation.’

I would like to take the time to say thank you to all our volunteers, not only for their help with the case files, but also for kindly answering my questions for this post.

Here in the archive we’re lucky to have the dual benefit of eight extra hands to help preserve our important case files for the future, plus eight friendly people to help to make the office a brighter place!

Conserving children’s case files

Today, we have a guest post written by one of our Project Conservators, Rebecca Regan.


Hello, blog readers. My name is Rebecca and I am one of the paper conservators currently working on the Unexplored Riches in Medical History project at The Children’s Society Records and Archives Centre. As Janine, the project archivist, has described in a previous posting, the project has the twin goals of both cataloguing and indexing parts of the archive that can be used to study medical history as well as of preserving the case files to prevent deterioration of the documents. Both these objectives aim to increase access to these records for researchers.

The conservation part of this project started at the beginning of January. Since then my colleague, Julie, and I have been ordering materials and tools, recruiting volunteers, establishing project protocols and, of course, making a start on the practical work.

Cleaning the case files

Cleaning the case files

Cleaning the case files

Cleaning the case files

The earliest case files consist of bundles of folded documents; almost all of them being stored in blue envelopes. Many of these envelopes are in a very poor physical condition. Usually each envelope contains one case file, although sometimes siblings’ files share one envelope.

Rusty paper clip

Rusty paper clip

The contents might be a single piece of paper or several hundred. Once we found an empty envelope; we don’t know why. The documents have almost all been sharply folded, most of them multiple times. Some are fastened with rusty pins or clips.

A few bear the hardened traces of what was once a rubber band. Most of the documents are very dirty. (They are now stored in boxes with lids but clearly that has not always been the case.) Many of the papers are poor quality substrates: innately brittle and acidic. It is difficult to remove the documents from the historical blue envelopes and usually impossible to replace them.

Case file with remains of degraded rubber band

Case file with remains of degraded rubber band

In the short space of time allotted to the project, Julie and I aim to improve the condition of, and accessibility to, as many of these case files as possible. Each case file is treated in this way: we remove the documents carefully from the envelope and then we unfold, surface clean and press each sheet, if it is possible to do so safely. Some documents we have to relax through humidification before we can press them, because they are too brittle to press when dry. Documents written on parchment (the prepared skin of an animal, e.g. sheep, goat or calf) also require this humidification process before flattening as this material is thicker and less flexible than paper is.

Most of the case files contain only textual documents but we have also found a few photographs which allow us to see the faces of the children described in the files.

Charles North who was in the care of The Children’s Society from 1884 to 1892

Charles North who was in the care of The Children’s Society from 1884 to 1892

We have also come across a few red wax seals with patterns on them. They provided authentication of an official document at the time, but to us today they also look rather decorative. We do not press any document which contains a wax seal as it would, of course, crack the wax.

Wax seal

Wax seal

Wax seals

Wax seals

Once the documents have been pressed, we put them in archival folders which are stored in acid free boxes. So far we have processed over 700 case files.

Case files in old housing

Case files in old housing

Case files in new housing

Case files in new housing

Case file 4688

Today’s post is written by Rod Cooper, one of the volunteers helping us with the Including the Excluded project. As part of the project some of the volunteers have been writing summaries of a selection of case files; the aim is to highlight examples of the experiences of disabled children while in The Children’s Society’s care.

The following is an account of a boy who came into The Children’s Society’s care in its earlier years – 1895 – when it was known as the Waifs and Strays Society.


Case File 4688 – John Robert Hall – is interesting as it illustrates the various approaches employed by The Society to help and assist children, and prepare them for a fulfilling and self-supporting adulthood. John was born disabled (he suffered an impairment to his left hip) and into an extensive but immeasurably poor family, supported entirely and solely by the endeavours of their mother, Elizabeth Hall. John’s family lived in Huntingdon.

An unusual aspect of John’s case is the support provided by a local peer. In preparing his application, a supporter solicited the interest of the local Earl of Sandwich. After visiting the child and his family, Edward Montagu, 8th Earl of Sandwich, agreed to bear the cost of John’s care for its duration.

John entered The Society’s St Nicholas Home for Crippled Children at Byfleet, Surrey, in 1895, as a seven year old. He remained there for little more than one year, and because it was deemed that he did not require either specialist nursing or surgical treatment, he was considered a good candidate for boarding out. Consequently, in mid-1896, he became a foster child under the care of a Mrs Hinchley, who lived in the small village of Bunwell in Norfolk. John remained with Mrs Hinchley until late-1902. Throughout the period of his fostering in Bunwell, The Society maintained an interest in John’s progress and development, before deciding in December 1902 – shortly before his 16th birthday – that he was suitable for placing in one of The Society’s industrial schools, specifically for learning the trade of tailoring. Consequently, John was provided with a place at The Society’s Industrial School in Copenhagen Street, Islington.

There is no indication on John’s file of whether or not he was in contact with, or was contacted by, his mother, during the period since entering the care of The Society. However, in early 1903, The Society did hear from John’s mother with the news that she was to marry the following Easter, and that she wished her son to be returned to her. John’s mother had moved to London and was employed as a housekeeper. After consulting with the various interested parties – including John’s benefactor and those who had prepared his initial application – The Society returned John to his mother in February 1903. It is also evident from his file that he had recently commenced his apprenticeship as a tailor.

Volunteering for Including the Excluded

Previously, I talked about how our case files relating to disabled children are being repackaged by a team of volunteers. Today, I thought I’d let our volunteers explain what it’s been like to help with this project.

Here, one of our volunteers describes the repackaging process:
“Firstly I remove the items from the blue folders which they have been stored in. Once the papers have been removed, I clean each item with a sponge and I place them under weights in order to flatten them as much as possible. I label each item with a unique number to make them more accessible. Once they have been left under weights for a few hours, I place them into archive quality folders and then the folders into boxes.”

The photo below shows one of the case files in the process of being cleaned with chemical sponges.

I asked the volunteers what the most difficult part of the repackaging process was, and the response was unanimous. In the words of one volunteer:
“The most challenging part of working with the case files must be to clean and flatten some of the documents which are very fragile and in poor condition.”

In the words of another volunteer:
“Although not common, some files – especially if the covering jacket is missing or torn – can be very dirty and fragile. Regrettably, as it’s typically the initial document in the case file, it is the originating application form which takes the brunt of the damage.”

Thankfully, not all the case files are so badly damaged, but it just goes to show how valuable the repackaging process is. Placing the files into archival folders protects the documents from all sides, which prevents them from sustaining further damage.

When it comes to what the volunteers enjoy most about the project, the answers varied. Some of the volunteers said they value the practical experience they are able to gain when it comes to cleaning and handling the historical documents, and some volunteers said they particularly enjoy the atmosphere in the office. For most of the volunteers, though, it is the stories found in the case files that are the really interesting part.

“[I enjoy the] sense of being only one step removed from decisions and actions that have such a pivotal bearing on the life chances of children who would otherwise face a life of poverty, suffering and deprivation. Occasionally, you come across letters written by the children themselves – sometimes well into their adulthood many years after they have left the care of The Children’s Society. As well as bringing the files ‘to life’, as it were, such documents are evidence of the education and support that The Society has provided for individuals who might otherwise have faced lives of poverty and neglect.”

I would like to thank all our volunteers for taking the time to answer my questions and for helping to preserve our case files for the future!

Repackaging children’s case files

A few weeks ago, I talked about our plans to catalogue the case files of disabled children. Today, I’d like to explain what we’re doing to physically preserve these case files and keep them readable and accessible for the future.

Above are some photos to show what our early case files look like now. They’re stored in archival-quality boxes, which help to give them some basic protection, but as you can see, inside the boxes the files are in a bit of a sorry state.

The blue covers are the original covers that the case files were stored in when they were created at the end of the 19th century. They’re quite small, which means that the case papers have been folded a number of times to fit inside them. For smaller case files, this doesn’t create too much of a problem, but for larger case files, the papers can be wedged in so tightly that it’s quite hard to get them out. In the photo above, you can see that the case file was so large that the cover has split and someone has tied it back on with red legal tape. Problems like this leave the documents unprotected and vulnerable, which has led to a number of the case files becoming battered and fragile over the years.

Left as they are, these case files aren’t very easy to use and are likely to only get more damaged over time.

As part of the Including the Excluded project, we’re rectifying this by repackaging the case files into new, archival-quality folders with the help of a team of dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers.

Above are photos of some case files that have been repackaged. To get to this stage, the case papers are taken out of their original covers and individually cleaned to remove the dust and soot that has built up on them over the years. They are then numbered and placed under weights for a time to help them unfold from their tight bundles. Finally, they’re put into new folders to better protect them.

I can say from experience that the case files that have been flattened and repackaged are far easier to use, so many thanks to our volunteers for their help!