Artificial sunlight and sunshine suits

Today’s photos might look a little like something out of a vintage science-fiction film, but they are, in fact, pictures of real early-20th Century medical treatments. These treatments were carried out in some of children’s homes that were run by The Children’s Society (then known as the Waifs and Strays Society) and they both involve light.

You may have heard that exposure to sunlight helps our bodies to synthesise vitamin D, and that a lack of vitamin D can lead to rickets. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that the children’s homes which carried out this light therapy were ones that looked after children with orthopaedic problems.

As well as cases of rickets, The Children’s Society’s orthopaedic homes often looked after children who were suffering from tubercular diseases of the bones and joints. Light therapy could be used to treat these diseases too, as light kills the tuberculosis bacteria.

The most obvious way to carry out light therapy is to expose the patient to sunlight, as in the photo below from 1927.

Photo of children in sunshine suits at St Nicholas' Home, Pyrford, Surrey, taken from the annual report for the Children's Union, 1927

These children at St Nicholas’ and St Martin’s Orthopaedic Hospital and Special School in Pyrford, Surrey, are wearing what the caption calls ‘sunshine suits’. To me these suits look rather like a pair of swimming shorts or underpants (and baggy ones at that!) It would seem that the aim was for the children to wear minimal clothing so that as much of their skin as possible could be exposed to the sunlight while they played outside.

However, as the British weather means that sunlight can’t be relied upon at all times, some of the homes also carried out artificial light therapy using electric lights.

Photo of girls undergoing artificial light therapy at Halliwick School for Girls, Winchmore Hill, London, taken from the school's annual report, 1937

In the above photo from 1937 we see girls at Halliwick School in Winchmore Hill, London, undergoing this ‘artificial sunlight’ treatment. The girls are sitting so that the skin on their backs is exposed to the electric light, while they are wearing goggles to protect their eyes.

From these photos and from others that I’ve come across in the archives, it seems that light therapy, be it natural or artificial, was a very popular treatment in The Children’s Society’s orthopaedic homes during the early-20th Century. When was this treatment first used and how successful was it for the patients? We won’t know without further research. Anyone interested? Please contact us ( if you are, or if you’d like to use the archive for any other research projects.

For more information about light therapy see the following articles from:
The Wellcome Trust
The Science Museum

Learn about our project at the Child Care History Network conference

Here’s a quick reminder that I’m going to be speaking at the Child Care History Network conference next month. It will be held at the Buckerell Lodge Hotel in Exeter on 3 October 2014.

Visit the conference website to book your place:
Healing the Wounds of Childhood – the Medical and Psychological Care of Children: Historical and Current Perspectives

Children and staff at St Denys’ Home, Clitheroe, Lancashire, 1919

Please consider coming along if you’d like to hear more about our Unexplored Riches in Medical History project. It would be great to meet some of you there.

The keynote address of the conference will be given by Professor John Stewart from Glasgow Caledonian University. Other speakers include Jeremy Holmes, Sarah Hayes and Annie Skinner, and I’ve just heard that another exciting speaker may be added soon.

Click here to see the conference programme and book your place.

A further grant for the Unexplored Riches in Medical History project

We are pleased to announce that The Children’s Society Records and Archive Centre has obtained a further £42,180 grant from the Wellcome Trust for the ‘Unexplored Riches in Medical History’ project to continue paper conservation work on the earliest children’s case files. The additional money will allow our two professional paper conservators to work for a further eight months to better preserve the files and make them accessible to the public and researchers.

The project, including the launch of an online catalogue of case files and children’s homes records, is due to be completed in March 2015.

By creating an online archive catalogue and through conservation work, the records will be widely accessible to The Children’s Society, medical, social and academic researchers and the general public.

To find out what we’ve discovered during the project recently, take a look at some of our blog posts:

For more information, the project’s homepage can be found here:

And check out our Facebook page for updates:

Lining fragile documents (aka I hope you like jigsaw puzzles)

Today, we have a guest post written by one of our Project Conservators, Lianyu Feng.


Lining is used to give support to an original paper document or artwork. When paper deteriorates, it gradually loses its strength, thus becoming brittle and weaker. Any unsuitable handling can cause further damage such as tearing, and could even cause the paper to fall to pieces. In our Unexplored Riches in Medical History project, such weak documents cannot be handled or read and so can’t be used for research. In order to repair these torn and fragmented documents and make them usable again, we line them with a supporting material.

The document below had many small fragments before it was repaired. These fragments needed to be re-attached to the document. Lining is a good method to do this in a fast way and give the whole document more support.

A typed letter with fragments before lining

Below is another example showing severe deterioration, which has made the document fall to pieces. It would be impossible for anyone to read this easily.

Deteriorated document that has broken into pieces

A light box, such as the one below, helps us to place the fragments into the right position. It makes it easy to see where the gaps are, and then we can align the fragments into the exact positions.

Fragments are re-joined to the typed letter on the light box

If the object contains ink which is not sensitive to water, wet lining using Japanese tissue and special conservation adhesive is one of the most common methods. As lining should not obscure the information on the object, the back of the document or the side which contains the least information is the most suitable for lining. For example, the document below has had Japanese tissue placed on the back of it so as not to obscure the text on the front.

Typed letter, which has been lined on the back

When wet lining has been carried out, the document will then need to dry. The document is dried under tension; this means that the document stays flat as it dries. This flattens existing creases and prevents new ones from appearing.

Once a document has been lined, the object will be stronger, and completely flat, with all the fragments having been re-attached and any tears stabilised. A lined document is both easier to handle and looks better aesthetically.

Below, we return to the document we saw earlier, which had completely fallen to pieces. Here it is after lining. All the pieces have been placed in the right position, although unfortunately some parts are still missing, such as the line in the middle. However, we can now handle and read this letter without difficulty.

Same document after lining