Our research volunteers

In a previous blog post I talked about our volunteers who are helping to conserve the children’s case files. Today it’s the turn of our volunteers who are helping to research into and document the medical information in those case files. Starting in the middle of last year we’ve had five volunteers and one work-placement student helping with this research task, and together they’ve unearthed a large amount of medical information, which has now been documented in CALM, our catalogue database.

But that’s enough of me talking; here’s what the volunteers have to say themselves:

“The majority of my time involves working with and handling the case files, which go back to the 1880s! Our job is to extract medical notes and information from the case files in order to build up an online database of medical conditions that the Society dealt with.”

“I extract pieces of information from the case files and upload the information onto CALM where all the records are kept. For instance, if a record on CALM says a child went to Hospital; my role is to try and find out why that child went to Hospital. Once I have found the information needed I update it onto CALM.”

“By going through the correspondence and other documents contained in each case file, it will (hopefully!) become apparent why each child’s stay in a hospital or convalescent home was deemed necessary. This information is then added to the ‘case history’ section of the case file’s CALM record, along with relevant medical index terms. The index terms are taken from archival thesauri to ensure that they are the most suitable names for medical conditions and help researchers find the records they are interested in.”

Collecting case files from the store

The volunteers are a diverse and motivated bunch. I asked them why they wanted to volunteer with us:

“I felt that I needed some work experience in a history related job and I discovered The Children’s Society was offering this wonderful opportunity to archive medical documents from the 19th century. I was motivated to apply for the volunteering as it seemed such an interesting role and I thought it would be great to volunteer for such a prestigious organisation.”

“I’ve always thought that we have a lot to learn from history and projects such as this are invaluable in teaching us about people and disease. I jumped at the chance to learn from hundred year old documents, many of which have remained untouched!”

“I’d helped out TCS [The Children’s Society] with street collections previously and happy to contribute to a good cause.”

“I was hoping to broaden my experience of archives prior to applying for paid work and postgraduate course in archives. Learning about indexing on CALM is a valuable accompaniment to the cataloguing skills which I have acquired in other voluntary roles.”

Updating the CALM catalogue database

This project isn’t always easy. For some volunteers the most challenging part is the condition of the documents. Our conservation team is doing a stellar job of making the files easier to handle, but those documents that haven’t been conserved yet can be tricky to use.

“You have to be flexible when dealing with the case files. From one minute to the next you can be looking at completely different files – some have mould, some are in newer formats, some are small – and you have to respond respectively.”

[The most challenging part of the role is] “Handling some of the files which are in poor condition.”

For other volunteers, the handwriting and the language from 100 years ago can take a bit of getting used to. It seems like some doctors’ handwriting is hard to read no matter when it was written!

“The variety of handwriting and how sometimes letters can be difficult to read make this the most challenging part of the role.”

“The most challenging aspect of the role is trying to read the documents correctly. The majority of the documents I read are hand written, so it takes time and focus to read the documents accurately and find the relevant information.”

“Another minor difficulty which I occasionally face is encountering antiquated names or spellings for illnesses, which can make decisions about indexing the case files more tricky.”

And then there’s the information in the files itself, which can be very moving at times:

“Inevitably, given the medical nature of the project, there are some case files which detail sad stories of children suffering and dying from diseases. It is notable how many children a century ago were afflicted with conditions such as tuberculosis and scarlet fever, which are much less prevalent in Britain today due to advances in medical technology and people’s living conditions.”

A case file for research

Thankfully, despite the difficult parts, the volunteers have been finding the project enjoyable:

[I’ve enjoyed] “Getting an insight into the lives of the poor and disadvantaged 100 years ago.”

“One of things I love most about my role is that no one day is the same as you deal with different children’s case files who have their own unique personality and life. Moreover, as I am currently studying modern British History, the case files really bring history to life as there is real life evidence of a number of things I have studied.”

“It is also rewarding to come across positive stories recorded in the case files, when children have overcome medical problems. A memorable example involved a boy who, having already been in hospital frequently, was accidentally hit in the eye by some putty thrown out of a window by a builder. Despite this incident permanently damaging his eyesight, he was still able to find a job and work successfully in The Children’s Society head office a few years later.”

“I have enjoyed learning about the lives of the children that were under the societies care and getting a glimpse of what life was like for them at the time.”

“I have enjoyed handling the documents and reading peoples’ personal histories. I have found reading documents that are nearly 100 years old something quite special and rewarding.”

“I have really enjoyed working with the Society. Before I started I knew little about the Society’s history or the work it does today. Handling original case files has been a fascinating window onto decades of social history and the role the Society has had in it.”

Many thanks to the volunteers for taking the time to answer my questions and, not least, for being such a great asset to this project! Thanks to their help, our knowledge of the medical information in our collection is coming on in leaps and bounds.

If you would like to learn more about volunteering for The Children’s Society, please take a look at our volunteering pages.

A Legacy of Fun

The Children’s Society has many legacies left to it by people in their wills.  An example of such a gift was that left by a gentleman in recognition of the benefits provided to him for the period he spent in care at Hatton Home for Boys (1913-1944), a Children’s Society Home in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire.

Hatton Home for Boys, Wellingborough

Hatton Home for Boys, Wellingborough

Following a reunion of boys who were at the Home in the 1940s and that was held in Wellingborough in the 1990s, he wrote:

“As can be imagined, when this exciting reunion became a reality, floods of memories flowed and were exchanged.  There was special praise for our beloved Master and Matron Arthur and Kathleen Silverwood.

Mr & Mrs Silverwood, c1940

Mr & Mrs Silverwood, c1940

He continues:

“Memories of nights spent huddled in the Home’s huge cellar during air raids; helping Home Guards Units practice in the event of an invasion; pillow fights in the dead of night; summers spent under canvas at a nearby swimming resort”.

It’s wonderful to know that the gift this particular gentleman left was for the explicit purpose of being used to fund pursuits which were ‘fun and recreational’.  What a lovely gesture and idea!  In 2012 an award to this effect was set up and Programmes run by The Children’s Society can apply to it for grants.  So far funds have been awarded to Children’s Centres and Projects for activities and pursuits such as:

  • football training
  • music sessions
  • horse riding lessons
  • gym session
  • judo sessions
  • Easter fun sessions
  • swimming
  • an environmental play project
  • monthly youth club

and even an outing to a wildlife park, and a trip to the cinema.  Fun activities and recreational pursuits of which I’m sure our donor would have approved!

We know that the boys at Hatton Boys Home often went on Scout camp, where they would learn skills and have plenty of outdoor exercise.  The Home’s Scout troop had their own Latin motto ‘Vive ut vivas’, which means ‘Live that you may live’.  It could be that experiences such as these prompted our donor’s specific choice of legacy.

Although the following photograph is not of boys from Hatton Boys Home it’s a good example of the fun our donor and his friends might have had at camp.

Group of boys from the Harvey Goodwin Home at a Scout camp 'making straw mattressess', c1913.

Group of boys from the Harvey Goodwin Home at a Scout camp ‘making straw mattressess’, c1913.

For more history about The Children’s Society, and to see more images from the archive please visit Hidden Lives Revealed.

Click on the links to find out more about Hatton Home for Boys and Harvey Goodwin Home for Boys.


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.