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volunteers said they value the practical experience they are able to gain when it comes to cleaning and handling the historical documents, and some volunteers said they particularly enjoy the atmosphere in the office.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!

Halliwick Penguins

One of the series of records that have been catalogued as part of this project are the minutes of the Halliwick Penguins, a swimming club based at Halliwick School For Girls, Winchmore Hill, London.

The home started out life as the Cripples and Industrial School on the Marylebone Road in London, being established by Miss Caroline Blunt in 1851. The school relocated to Winchmore Hill in 1911, and was transferred to The Children’s Society (then known as the Waifs and Strays Society) in 1927. Under The Children’s Society, the home changed its name to Halliwick School For Girls and was certified with the Ministry of Education as a special school for disabled children.

In its early years, Halliwick School For Girls took in around 60 girls from ages five to sixteen. These girls would be taught skills such as dressmaking and needlework.

As with other disabled children’s homes in the early 20th century, Halliwick carried out treatments and therapies for certain conditions, such as artificial sunlight therapy to help children with rickets and forms of tuberculosis. In the early 1950s, staff at Halliwick School For Girls began experimenting with swimming therapy; their aim being to help children with mobility difficulties to learn to swim and gain a freedom of movement.

The swimming therapy went so well that in 1951 the school opened its own swimming club, known as the Halliwick Penguins.

Matron’s report to the Halliwick Penguins Swimming Club, c1951

Above is a report by the matron of the home, which has been found among the minutes of the Halliwick Penguins, dated 1951. In this report the matron notes the affect of the swimming therapy on some of the girls in the home; from the sounds of it, the swimming therapy was very successful in giving the girls more mobility and in boosting their self-esteem.

The Halliwick Penguins went from strength to strength. In 1952 the Association of Swimming Therapy was established at Halliwick with the aim of setting up similar swimming clubs throughout the country and teaching disabled people to swim using the ‘Halliwick Concept’.

Halliwick School For Girls had closed down by the 1980s as The Children’s Society moved towards more innovative forms of childcare. However, the Halliwick Association of Swimming Therapy is still going strong and continues to use the Halliwick Concept to teach disabled people to swim, giving them a sense of freedom and mobility in the water.

More information about Halliwick School For Girls can be found here.
The website for the Halliwick Association of Swimming Therapy can be found here.

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.