Convalescing on the sunny Sussex coast

The Children’s Society has run several children’s convalescent homes over the years. These were homes that specialised in medical care for children and young people. Generally, children were transferred to these homes when they needed more medical care than normal but didn’t need to stay in a hospital. In other cases, the convalescent homes looked after children who had been in hospital for an operation and were now recovering.

One such convalescent home was St John’s Home in Kemp Town, Brighton, Sussex, which was large enough to look after around 80 children. This home wasn’t originally run by The Children’s Society. It was opened in 1875 as an independent home by Sister Jane Borradaile.

The exterior of St John's Convalescent Home, Brighton, taken from the home's 1938 annual report

An annual report from 1937 gives more information about the home:

Built on an ideal site on the Downs about 230ft. above sea level, and yet within ten minutes’ walk of the sea, which is seen from most of the windows; the expansive views of sea, sky and country have a most exhilarating effect, and the result of such an environment is quickly seen in the generally rapid improvement in the health of the patients.

Later, the same report says:

Most of the children who come to us, arrive looking ill and miserable, and it is an unending source of wonder and pleasure to see the often rapid, and generally steady improvement shown after the first few days. Every child is medically examined on admission, and is kept under Medical observation during the whole convalescence. Many grateful letters are received from their parents who often keep in touch with the home for years.

Sister Jane Borradaile died in 1918 and she entrusted the management of the home to the Sisters of the Community of the Holy Cross, Haywards Heath, Sussex. From 1921 onwards the Community appointed Sister Helena Mary to run the home.

In 1938, Sister Helena Mary had to stand down due to health reasons and the Community of the Holy Cross found that they weren’t able to replace her. Instead, the home was transferred to The Children’s Society (then known as the Waifs and Strays Society) as its new trustees.

St John’s Home appeared to have had links to the Waifs and Strays Society for several decades before it came under The Society’s management. Looking through the children’s case files from the Waifs and Strays Society before 1938, we see lots of children being transferred to St John’s Home for treatment when they became unwell.

Once St John’s Home was taken over by its new trustees, things appear to have continued as before, with children staying at the home to recover from operations and medical conditions. There was a brief interlude during the Second World War when the children and staff were evacuated to a building in Itchingfield, Sussex. This evacuated home ran from 1941 to 1945, at which point the home returned to Kemp Town in Brighton.

For over ten more years, St John’s continued as a convalescent home. Then in 1957 it was converted by The Children’s Society into a school for disabled children, with places for 55 children over the age of seven. This school ran for around five years. We don’t know the exact date, but it seems as if the school closed in the early 1960s. All in all, St John’s had looked after children for around 90 years.

The records of St John’s Home and the case files for children staying at the home are a great resource for learning about prevalent medical conditions and medical treatments throughout the course of the home’s lifetime. For example, the annual reports for St John’s Home list all of the conditions that the children in the home were convalescing from that year. The below list of conditions comes from the 1937 annual report and shows that common conditions in the home that year included bronchitis, rheumatism, anaemia and pneumonia (click the image to see a larger version):

List of diseases and operations treated at St John's Home for Convalescent Children, Kemp Town, Brighton, 1937, taken from the annual report for the home

For more information, see the history of St John’s as an independent home and the history of St John’s once taken over by The Children’s Society.

Penny dreadfuls and ‘reading mania’

Is it possible to become ill through reading too much? It’s certainly something that was thought possible in Arthur’s case 114 years ago.

Arthur had been living in Newbury, Berkshire, with his mother and his two younger siblings. His father had died and his mother had run away from an abusive second marriage, leaving her struggling to earn enough money to support the family by herself. We are told that her earnings came from needlework and an occasional lodger.

When Arthur was 14 years old, he was sent to the Workhouse for a fortnight, and from there, in the year 1900, an application was made for Arthur to be taken into the care of The Children’s Society (then known as the Waifs and Strays Society). The reason given for sending Arthur into care is rather unusual. See the application form for yourself:

Application form from case file 7456, stating that Arthur was suffering from 'reading mania', dated 1900

Dear Sir

This boy left school
two years ago & as he was a clever promising boy
some friends helped the mother to apprentice him
to a printer. The work appears to have disagreed
with him, being too confined for his health, he is
a delicate lad & easily led & he has been spending
his master’s time & his own money in buying &
reading a number of penny dreadfuls. By this means
he has quite worried & weakened his brain & he
became so unmanageable three weeks ago that
his mother took him to a doctor, who sent him
to the Workhouse for a fortnight on a cerf certifi
cate as suffering from reading mania. No one can
imagine that there is anything whatever the
matter with the boy’s brain, he answers all questions
most intelligently & as you will see the doctor
who examined him yesterday saw nothing wrong
with him. But he had to be returned home & all
the mischief will begin again unless he is put
under proper control. He ought to have plenty
of fresh air & be carefully controlled & train
ed & I think then he would turn out well.

We are anxious he should be received into
the Hedgerley Farm Home, for which the Guardians
are willing to pay, we have a great opinion of the
training there, as exemplified by a lad from here
who was at Hedgerley for a year & has since done
very well. His mother has been married twice & was oblig
ed to leave her 2nd. husband he became mad & threatened her life &
his own & now she ekes out a spare livelihood for herself & the three
children & she cannot control this big boy of 14

yrs. truly (Miss) Caroline A Talbot ‘Lady Gdns [Guardians]’

I’m sure you’d agree that the main reason given here is a strange one! Nowadays, I doubt anyone would complain that a young person was reading too much. Not only that, but that ‘reading mania’ would be diagnosed by a doctor as a certifiable medical condition seems really quite strange over 100 years later.

An important point to note is that it is not just any books that Arthur was reading but penny dreadfuls. These books were so called because they were cheaply printed and not thought to be very good for the reader. They usually contained sensationalised, escapist stories that were popular with young people like Arthur. The fact that a doctor could diagnose Arthur as suffering from ‘reading mania’ suggests that penny dreadfuls were widespread enough in the early 20th Century to cause general public concern.

If this moral panic at reading sensational stories sounds a little odd to our ears, we could instead try to consider a modern equivalent. Today, for example, there is a lot of concern about video games, particularly violent ones. If a doctor in 2014 certified that a young person was suffering from some sort of mental illness brought on by playing too many violent video games, we wouldn’t necessarily think it was so unusual.

After all this talk of ‘reading mania’, it’s only when we read on to the bottom of the application form that we find what was, most probably, the real reason Arthur needed to be taken into care: his mother was trying to support three children by herself, while earning very little money. If this was the case, then why spend over half the page talking about the penny dreadfuls?

It’s important, when reading this or any document, not just to take it at face value. Instead we need to consider why the document was being written and if the person writing it had an agenda that they wanted to get across. In this case, the form was an application for Arthur to be taken into the care of the Waifs and Strays Society. However, not all applications were successful; the Waifs and Strays Society only had limited funds and so weren’t able to help every child that came to them. Instead, they used the application forms to decide who needed their help the most. In Arthur’s case, we can almost imagine that Miss Talbot, writing the form, was really emphasising the ‘reading mania’ to play on social fears current at the time, which she thought would help to get Arthur accepted into care.

Whether or not the ‘reading mania’ played a large part when Arthur’s case was considered by the Waifs and Strays Society, we don’t know; but we do know that his application was successful. In February 1900, Arthur was admitted into the Hedgerley Farm Home in Buckinghamshire. This home specialised in farming and the boys living there were trained in agricultural skills. Arthur stayed in the Hedgerley Farm Home for one year, after which he returned to his mother.

Overall, the medical diagnosis of ‘reading mania’ probably says far more about the social fears prevalent at the time than it does about Arthur’s health. What are your views on this? If penny dreadfuls were common today, do you think we’d still be worried about young people reading them?

For another example of the public fears surrounding penny dreadfuls and ‘cheap literature’, see this 1895 newspaper cutting at the British Library website.

Tuberculosis in the bones

Today’s case highlights a condition that was fairly common in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, although it’s not very well known today: tuberculosis, but not as you might expect.

It’s easy to think of tuberculosis as purely a lung disease, but in some cases the infection can affect other areas of the body instead. Children’s files in the archive give us examples of tuberculosis in the digestive system, the nervous system, and scrofula (being tuberculosis in the lymph glands in the neck). One of the most common tubercular diseases we’ve found, after tuberculosis in the lungs, is tuberculosis affecting the bones and joints. Often this type of infection occurred after an injury or breakage, with tuberculosis developing in the damaged bone.

Grace was living in Dinas Home For Girls in Brecon, Powys (then in Brecknockshire), when it was taken over by The Children’s Society (then known as the Waifs and Strays Society) in 1909. At this time, Grace would have been 12 years old. She was from London and had entered Dinas home through another charity, the Fulham branch of the Rescue Society, after her parents had separated. Her father had been described as “very unsteady”, with Grace and her three siblings having been neglected when under his care.

While in the Dinas Home, an abscess was found on Grace’s hand, which was identified as being the result of tuberculosis. In early 1911, with Grace around the age of 13, she had an operation to remove the abscess and was then sent to the coast for a month to recuperate. Unfortunately, the operation wasn’t as successful as had been hoped; by December another abscess had appeared on Grace’s wrist.

Grace was seen by a doctor, who recommended that her hand should be bandaged up and that she should be given complete rest and sea air. Because of this recommendation, Grace was sent to The Children’s Society’s new convalescent home, St David’s Home in Broadstairs, Kent.

In St David’s Home, Grace could receive the medical care she needed. Her hand and wrist were treated with poultices and with boracic lotion, which was an antiseptic. Grace was also found to be suffering from head lice, which was treated with sassafras. These treatments seemed to be successful and, in time, the abscess started to clear up and the swelling on Grace’s wrist went down.

After three months in St David’s Home, Grace was transferred to St Audrey’s Home in Bedford. When she arrived at St Audrey’s Home, it was found that Grace was not able to use her hands much. The healed abscess on her right wrist had left it swollen and weak, while the doctor at the home found that she also had a “poisoned” finger on her left hand. After enquiries it was found that just before Grace had left St David’s Home she had pinched her finger in an accident. It was thought that underlying tuberculosis might have caused Grace’s injured finger to go bad.

As it had been discovered that Grace was still suffering from tuberculosis, she quickly returned to St David’s Home in Broadstairs for further treatment.

By September 1912, having been in St David’s Home for a further four months, Grace was described as having put on weight and being in good health. She was now 15 years old and it was thought best to send her to a home where she could start to learn a trade to allow her to go to work when she was well enough.

In October, Grace was sent to St Barnabas’ Home in Newark, Lincolnshire. She didn’t remain in this home for long, however. By January the next year, the doctor at the home had sent on a medical certificate saying that Grace was still suffering from tuberculosis in her wrist, with the disease now in an active state.

And so, in March 1913, Grace was sent to St Anne’s Home in Clapham Park, London, where she could be examined by a doctor. The result of this visit can be seen in the letter below:

Letter from case file 14799, mentioning Grace's visit to a doctor in Harley Street followed by an x-ray at Charing Cross Hospital, 1913

March 28th. 1913

Re Grace [surname]

I took this girl today
to Mr. Boyd, 134 Harley St W, to meet Dr.
Rose Turner there for an interview. Dr. Boyd
sent us to X Ray Dept. Charing X
They gave me no messages (although we
waited for the same) as to when to go
there again, nor whether she was
to be made an in-patient at that

E A Bailey
Travelling Matron W. & S. Society

Dr. Turner has case in
hand. 29.3.13

The x-ray must have shown signs of tuberculosis because it wasn’t long before Grace returned to Charing Cross Hospital to have an operation on her wrist. After this she would need extra medical care while recuperating, but the active condition of the tuberculosis meant that she couldn’t return to St David’s Convalescent Home in Broadstairs where the children there, already ill, might be put at further risk of infection.

Instead, in April 1913, Grace was transferred to the Westminster Union Infirmary in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London and then to the Strand Union Infirmary in Edmonton, London. Here it is said that Grace was staying in a small ward and that “… the Doctor has ordered her special diet, extra milk &c [etcetera]”. When visited by one of The Children’s Society’s travelling matrons, Grace was found to be doing well, with her wrist weak but healed up.

This is all we hear about Grace until November 1913. By this point we find that she had been transferred to the Isolation Hospital in Ramsgate, Kent, but there are no updates as to her condition. With no further correspondence in Grace’s file, we can only guess at how she was doing. The operation on her wrist may perhaps have healed, but the fact that she was still in hospital suggests that her tuberculosis hadn’t cleared up completely and was potentially still active. The prognosis for Grace, then, didn’t look good, and without the option of the antibiotics we have today, it seems like further surgery may have been Grace’s only hope.

As sad as it is, Grace’s file gives us some interesting information about medical treatments in the early-20th Century. We find out that boracic lotion was used as an antiseptic and that sassafras was used to treat head lice. Not to mention, we have evidence of x-rays being used as a tool for diagnosis, and this only 18 years after x-rays had first been discovered.

Most importantly, Grace’s file shows us what it would have been like to live with a tubercular infection in the joints and bones. This was a disabling condition that left Grace living in convalescent homes and hospitals, unable to continue the training she had started. Even invasive surgical treatment, it seems, wasn’t able to stop the infection fully, leaving potential for the disease to return and spread to other parts of the body.

(For more information about the early use of x-rays, see this page from the British Library.)