Life after polio for a child in care

This week I’ve been tracing lives through the Historic Hospital Admissions Registers Project (HHARP). The HHARP website contains a database of children who went to 19th Century children’s hospitals, and I wanted to see if any of those children were also in the care of The Children’s Society (known as the Waifs and Strays Society until 1946).

I found a few children in the database that could be matched to our case files here at The Children’s Society Archive, and today I’m going to tell you about one of them. John went to hospital with a deformity in his feet, which is described in John’s case file as both club feet and flat feet. He had had polio (also known as infantile paralysis) when he was younger, which is likely what had affected his feet.

In October 1911, the HHARP website lists John as entering Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. He was four years old and had been living at the Home for Sick Children in Battledown, Gloucestershire (this was a home that wasn’t operated by The Children’s Society). John stayed in hospital for about two months to have treatment for his feet.

While in hospital, an application was made for John to enter the care of The Children’s Society. It appears that the whereabouts of John’s parents and family was unknown. They had last been heard of in Winchcombe in Gloucestershire but they hadn’t been in contact while John was in the Battledown children’s home, and it had been assumed that the family had abandoned him.

John was discharged back to the Battledown home in December, and was described as “cured”. One month later, in January 1912, John re-entered Great Ormond Street Hospital in order to have more treatment for his feet. This time he was in hospital for just two days and was discharged back to Battledown with his condition described as “relieved”. In one of his two hospital stays, it seems that John had undergone an operation on his feet. As he was still recuperating from the surgery, the application to The Children’s Society was put on hold for a while.

By August 1912, John was able to “walk splendidly”. His application to The Children’s Society was restarted and in October, aged 5, he went to live in The Children’s Society’s St Nicholas’ Orthopaedic Hospital and Special School in Pyrford, Surrey.

John stayed in this home for about a year and a half and then, in 1914, he went to live in a foster home in Frettenham, Norfolk, along with another boy from St Nicholas’ Home. At this point, John was seven years old and we know that he was attending the local school while he was in foster care. Correspondence in our case file for John tells us that he received a medical examination at school, and that a doctor from The Children’s Society also came to see him. One of the doctors prescribed special boots for John’s feet and the other prescribed exercises for John to do; we don’t know what exercises these were, but we do know that the boots cost 15 shillings, 10 shillings of which were donated by a local person in Frettenham.

For a number of years, there’s little medical information to be found in John’s case file. He stayed in foster care in Frettenham until 1920 when he was twelve years old. It was normal for children at the age of twelve to leave foster care and go live in a children’s home where they could begin to learn a trade. And so, at the age of twelve, John left Frettenham and went to Peckham Receiving Home for Boys in London, which was a home that boys normally stayed in temporarily before moving on to other children’s homes.

At Peckham Receiving Home, John was seen by a doctor, who recommended that he have hospital treatment for his ankle. For a second opinion, John was also seen by the doctor from The Children’s Society who’d gone to see him in Frettenham. Her response after seeing John is below:

Letter about treatments for John's feet and legs, 1920, from case file 17217

Letter about treatments for John's feet and legs, 1920, from case file 17217

Letter about treatments for John's feet and legs, 1920, from case file 17217

March 15 1920

Dear Mr. Swann

Re John [surname]

This boy has had a form of
club foot due to infantile
paralysis which has been
operated on when he was
very young. The condition of
the legs and feet is good
and nothing further can be

done at the present time for

There is no reason why he should
not do a certain amount
of walking but he should
be allowed to take his time.
The condition, of course, will
have to be watched from
time to time in order to see
that the bones of the legs grow
sufficiently as the boy gets
bigger. I should advise letting
the legs be sponged down every
day with Tidmans Sea-Salt –
a tablespoon of the salt

to a washing basinful of
warm water. Massage would
of course, improve the muscular

The boy would like to be a
tailor and this life or that
of a boot maker, would be
very suitable.

With kind regards

Yours sincerely

R Turner

Dr Turner’s recommendations are wonderfully detailed. We see that she recommends massage for John’s legs, which seems like something a child could be prescribed today. She also recommends bathing John’s legs in a salt solution, which is a little more unusual. I’m not sure what the purpose of this salt-bathing would be; let me know in the comments if you have any ideas!

John stayed in Peckham Receiving Home while a place was found for him elsewhere. After a few months he went to St Andrew’s Home for Boys in Matlock, Derbyshire. However, after only three months there it was clear that St Andrew’s Home wasn’t well-equipped to look after a boy like John who had difficulty walking. As a result, John was sent back to Peckham Receiving Home.

Once again enquiries were made as to a suitable children’s home for John. John wanted to become a tailor, and so he was sent to St Benet’s Home for Boys at Emmer Green, Berkshire, where they taught tailoring skills.

Sadly, however, it seems that this home wasn’t suitable for John either. After only a month, John was seen by a surgeon at Berkshire Hospital in Reading, who had the following to say (click the image for a larger version):

Letter about treatment for John's feet, 1921, from case file 17217

The surgeon recommended that John have special boots again, and suggested that John be sent to a home that would provide him with specialist medical supervision. Once again, we find that the home John was currently living in was not equipped to look after boys with conditions like his.

And so, for the third time, John was sent to Peckham Receiving Home. He was there for only a short while this time before being sent to St Martin’s Orthopaedic Hospital and Special School in Pyrford, Surrey. This home was next door to St Nicholas’ Home which John had lived in when he had first entered the care of The Children’s Society. Like St Nicholas’ Home, St Martin’s also specialised in looking after children with orthopaedic conditions; St Martin’s, however, took in older boys and often taught them trades such as tailoring.

Finally, John was able to settle down in a home for a decent period of time. He stayed at St Martin’s for three years until 1924 when he was seventeen years old. By 1924 John’s feet were described as cured and a report states that he had completed his training in tailoring. For a job, however, John had since decided that he would rather work as a servant than as a tailor.

There was initially some difficulty in finding John a job. He had a speech impediment which led some potential employers to turn him down because they didn’t think him suitable for answering the door to visitors.

In order to increase his job prospects, John returned to Peckham Receiving Home, as this home was often used as a temporary home for boys looking for work. It was successful. After just two days in Peckham, John went to work as a hall boy in Pimlico in London, earning seven shillings and sixpence a week.

John stayed in this job for about a month and a half. We don’t know why he left, but he soon went to another job on a farm in Plumpton, Sussex, earning six shillings a week. John started this job in July 1924 and stayed there until Christmas 1924 when he returned to Peckham Receiving Home for a brief holiday. However, when in Peckham, John said that he didn’t want to go back to the farm in Plumpton but instead wanted to go live with his father.

John’s father had just sent John a letter. After a number of enquiries over the previous year, The Children’s Society had finally tracked down John’s family. They found that John’s father and siblings had moved away from Winchcombe in Gloucestershire and had gone to live in Llantwit Fardre in Glamorgan. John’s mother had died, leaving John’s father and John’s eldest sister to look after John’s five other siblings. They were struggling to get by, and when their house was condemned as unfit for habitation, John’s father had become homeless and John’s siblings had been sent to a children’s home nearby. Previously, when John had been struggling to find work, it was suggested that he could go live with his father, but the local vicar of Llantwit Fardre warned that “It would be fatal to send the boy home under the circumstances”.

It is understandable, then, that when John returned to Peckham in Christmas 1924 and said that he wanted to go live with his father, The Children’s Society didn’t let him go straight away.

Instead, in January 1925, John went to work in another job as an under butler in a college in Chelsea, London, earning six shillings a week. Meanwhile, The Children’s Society wrote to the vicar of Llantwit Fardre to see if John’s father’s circumstances had improved and if it would be possible for John to go live with him.

Unfortunately, John’s case file ends there so we don’t know what happened next. Did John stay working as an under butler in Chelsea or did he go to live with his father in Llantwit Fardre? Presumably John thought that he’d be able to help his father earn money to support the family, but it wouldn’t have been easy if they had nowhere to live. And why did John’s family never contact him when he was first put into a children’s home all those years ago? Were their circumstances as dire in 1911 as they were in 1924? It seems that John’s story still has more to tell.

Despite the gaps in our information, what have we been able to learn? Firstly we have seen just how fascinating it is to link our records to those of Great Ormond Street Hospital using the HHARP website. We can follow John’s treatment from surgery in hospital through to orthopaedic boots, to massage and to bathing in salt water. By the end of his file in 1925, it seems that all the treatments had paid off, with John gaining enough mobility to work as a servant.

What seems most clear to me though, is just how difficult it must have been for John and for other disabled children in similar situations. With John’s difficulty walking, it seems that there were many children’s homes which just weren’t able or weren’t willing to look after him. This led to a long period of being shuttled back and forth from one children’s home to another, which for John must have been as disheartening as it was unsettling. Then, when looking for work a few years later, we find that John’s speech impediment was another thing that caused people to discriminate against him.

John’s story is not an easy one to read. It does, however, give us an insight into social attitudes at the time.

Find out more
Have a search of the Historic Hospital Admissions Registers Project (HHARP) website for yourself and discover the children’s stories there.

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

Find out more about our project at the Child Care History Network conference – Exeter, 3 October 2014

Today I am excited to announce that I will be giving a talk about our Unexplored Riches in Medical History project at this year’s Child Care History Network conference. The theme of the 2014 conference will be Healing the Wounds of Childhood – the Medical and Psychological Care of Children: Historical and Current Perspectives, and it will be held at the Buckerell Lodge Hotel in Exeter on 3 October 2014.

Click here for the conference website, where you can find the conference programme and details of how to book your place.

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

For my talk I’ll be discussing the Unexplored Riches in Medical History project in more detail. As we’re coming closer to the end of the project, it’ll be a great chance to look at what we’ve achieved so far and what medical information has been unearthed in the archive of The Children’s Society. I’m looking forward to sharing some of the great resources and stories we have here in our archive.

Alongside myself, there will be speakers covering various aspects of the history of children’s health and healthcare. This includes keynote speaker John Stewart, Emeritus Professor of Health History at Glasgow Caledonian University, who will be talking about the history of child guidance.

For more information and to book a place, please click here.

Humidification: water in the archive… on purpose

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


During this project the conservators frequently come across severely crumpled or tightly folded documents within the children’s case files. Sometimes the documents have been squashed in this shape for over a hundred years. They need to be flattened so that they can be read by researchers and archivists. Documents which have to be repaired are also flattened first as this makes the repair process quicker, simpler and more effective.

Many of the documents are very fragile and brittle so this flattening process needs to be done slowly in order to prevent further damage. One of our most commonly used methods is called ‘humidification’. This entails placing the documents in an enclosed container, raising the moisture levels of the air inside the container slightly, in a controlled way, and waiting for the documents to relax sufficiently before unfolding and flattening any distortions.

Trays of documents being humidified

Trays of documents being humidified

Close-up showing the fine water vapour entering the humidification tray

Close-up showing the fine water vapour entering the humidification tray

The opened documents are then allowed to dry out completely while under pressure. Here you can see this being achieved using a traditional nipping press:

Humidified documents being pressed

The documents in the press are protected from surface damage by being sandwiched between layers of heavyweight blotting paper and a special inert plastic material which prevents the damp documents from sticking to the blotting paper.

This document was found wedged at the bottom of an envelope. It was extremely brittle and hard and impossible to unfold even slightly:

Crumpled document at bottom of envelope

Crumpled document removed from envelope

Here is the same document after humidification and pressing.

The once-crumpled document after humidification and pressing

It turned out to be a foster mother’s note about the child in her care. She describes her as a nice girl who is fond of her foster sister.

This photograph shows what can happen if the humidification process is omitted. At some point in the past, these fragile, brittle documents were forced flat. Unfortunately the resulting severe damage is only too evident.

Historical damage to brittle case file

In contrast, here is a case file, after conservation treatment during this current project, where all the brittle documents were humidified before pressing:

Brittle case file after conservation

The case file is now stabilised and easy to handle and read. It has become once more a useful and interesting historical resource.

Making connections at the Society for the Social History of Medicine Conference 2014

Things are rather busy here at The Children’s Society Archive, as we’ve just returned from attending the Society for the Social History of Medicine’s 2014 conference. The theme for this year’s conference was Disease, Health and the State. It was held at St Anne’s College in Oxford over three days, and it hosted a multitude of speakers and attendees from across the world, all of whom had an interest in medical history.

St Anne's College, Oxford

Myself and the head of The Children’s Society Archive, Ian Wakeling, attended to run a stand in the conference marketplace. On our stand we had lots of information about the Unexplored Riches in Medical History project, including some facsimile case files and some posts from this blog that I’d printed out. See the stand and a few of our leaflets below.

Janine and Ian at The Children's Society Archive stand

Some of leaflets we took to the conference

It was my first time running a stand at a conference and I have to say that I really enjoyed it. Our aim was to promote The Children’s Society Archive and its wealth of medical information to the conference attendees. This was a big success. We spoke to a lot of people, most of whom hadn’t heard of The Children’s Society before and certainly wouldn’t have realised how useful our archive is for medical history research. They all seemed to be pleasantly surprised!

Janine talking to conference attendees

Not only were we able to give out our details to lots of people who were interested in the archive for research (for themselves or for their students, colleagues and friends), but we were also able to discuss people’s research interests, which were fascinating. It was really interesting to hear about all the research into medical history that’s going on, and to discuss how The Children’s Society archive collection can help.

I hadn’t quite realised, until I started discussing it, what a broad range of medical topics our archive covers. To help me write this blog post, while at the conference I was jotting down the subjects of all the conversations I had with attendees. It turns out that my list is so long that there’s no way I can put it all down here; instead, here’s just a highlight of some of the interesting topics we were talking about:

  • Nursing
  • Convalescent homes
  • Mental health
  • Hygiene
  • Foster care
  • Institutional healthcare
  • Rickets
  • Phototherapy
  • Diabetes
  • Deafness
  • Drug use
  • Funding for medical treatments

Not to mention, there were many times where we discussed how The Children’s Society started and how it got to where it is now, including the whole range of records it created during that time, from children’s case files to records from the individual children’s homes.

I could go on for a lot longer, but I’ll leave it here to say that Ian and I are both really glad that we went along. It was great to talk to medical historians about their research and introduce them to an archive that they may never have considered using before. Thanks to the conference organisers for a great event!

Conference attendees enjoying the sunshine

More information about the conference can be found on the 2014 conference website.

The website of the Society for the Social History of Medicine can be found here:

Sea air and tuberculosis (TB beside the seaside)

Today we have a guest post written by one of our project volunteers, George Cooban.


It’s the time of year when lots of us go to the seaside. The case files tell us that many of the children in the care of The Children’s Society in the late-19th and early-20th centuries also visited the coast. But, unlike today, it was often for medical reasons, rather than a holiday.

Previous posts on this blog have highlighted cases where various health conditions led to children spending time by the sea. The coastal convalescent homes run by The Children’s Society at Hurstpierpoint and Broadstairs, established to facilitate the care of sick children sent there, have also been researched in detail. However, I was keen to find out what the case files can tell us about the thinking behind this formerly commonplace practice.

Photograph of matron, staff and children outside 'Coronation Cottage', St David's Home, Broadstairs, Kent, c1912

Tuberculosis features very prominently in the case files, and the medical rationale behind the way it was dealt with is often quite clearly recorded. Therefore I decided to focus on cases relating to this condition in this blog post.


One thing we notice when examining many of these case files is that seaside convalescent homes were viewed as a means of preventing tuberculosis. (So not all the children who stayed at them were, strictly speaking, convalescent). This is illustrated by reports such as this one, dated 19 June 1910.

“There is a delicate girl aged 13, May [surname], who has been [at the Leamington Home for Girls] for many years, but has to be sent annually to the sea for her health. She probably has a tendency to tuberculosis, but no disease has developed owing to care. She now looks well having just returned from the sea. As she is now at a critical growing and developing age, it would be desirable to move her if possible to Felixstowe before winter for the next two or three years before she goes out. Leamington is relaxing and she needs bracing sea air.”

Another case file contains a medical certificate, written on 7 June 1905, which states that a child, a seven year old girl named Dorothy, has “a tendency towards consumption [tuberculosis]” and recommends moving her to the coast. Later correspondence says that she was treated with a special diet including new laid eggs.

Terms like “delicate” and “a tendency to tuberculosis” appear regularly in the case files. The health of the children referred to in this way was not good, but there is evidence to suggest that sending them to the seaside was seen as a preventative measure, stopping the development of more serious problems.

Several case files, such as those quoted above, give the impression that “sea air” was seen as healthy. But a letter from another case file provides a bit more detail. Dated 3 December 1913, it reports on the condition of a 13 year old girl, Annie, who was staying at St. David’s convalescent home in Broadstairs, Kent:

Letter reporting on the condition of Annie, who was staying at St. David’s convalescent home in Broadstairs, Kent, 3 December 1913 (Case number 13819)

Dec. 3rd. 1913.

Dear Sir – I am sorry to
inform you that
Annie [Surname]
has been examined by the
doctor today & he asks me
to write at once to you so
that she may be removed
to a sanitorium [sic] as early
as possible.

Owing to high winds & rain
I was obliged to remove her
bed indoors a fortnight
ago, & since then she has
gone down rapidly &

Dr. Brightman considers
it unsafe for her to be
in a room with other children
owing to her Tubercular

We have no proper place
for out of door patients
in the winter.

I am very sorry indeed
she is such a nice, willing
& gentle child.

Yours faithfully
Elsie Philip-Smith

The most surprising thing about this letter is the time of year it was written. It is implied that the only suitable place to treat tuberculosis patients is outdoors, even in winter. Open-air treatment for conditions including tuberculosis was fairly common a century ago. By arranging beds out in the open, as can be seen in the picture from The Children’s Society’s St Martin’s Home in Pyrford below, patients would be exposed to lots of air.

The open-air ward at St Martin’s Home, Pyrford, Surrey, 1928

From the letter about Annie we discover that open-air treatment was practiced all year-round. The need for weather which allowed it to take place is also evident. It can be said, in fact, that the weather conditions were of greater importance than how close the patients were to the sea. This is certainly suggested by a letter from another case file. A doctor writing in 1909 advises that a girl “threatened with phthisis [tuberculosis]… would be much benefited by removal to a warmer & more equable climate in the South of England.” Since the girl was living at that time in the St Barnabas’ Home For Girls, New Brighton, Cheshire – a place right by the sea – we can say that sea air on its own was not seen as especially important for health.

The prioritisation of fresh air, together with an “equable climate”, features in medical writing from the time. An article in the British Medical Journal from July 1898, for example, advises that an open-air sanatorium for tuberculosis sufferers should be situated “where the prevailing breezes sweep over the sea, or over moorland, or, better still, where these two conditions are associated, and fresh, pure air comes from all quarters of the compass.”

Similar thinking appears in another case file. A doctor’s report from 1927 on a 16 year old boy, Leslie, who had been working at The Children’s Society’s head office in London, states that he is “obviously predisposed to tuberculosis, especially as he works in London”, and recommends for him “an outdoor occupation, preferably in the country or at sea, as this will probably prevent any active tuberculosis developing”. The Society helped Leslie find work as a steward on the SS Baltic. This was quite different to the career previously envisaged for him: earlier correspondence highlights Leslie’s aptitude for draughtsmanship.

This case, like the others, shows the impact contemporary medical opinion had on the lives of children who had tuberculosis or were at risk of contracting it. Nowadays the condition can be treated with antibiotics. But a century ago the dangers were much greater, and the response was often to move children long distances for the good of their health, even if they were only considered susceptible to tuberculosis.

At a time when urban air pollution in Britain was severe, sea air was valued for its quality. However, simply being by the coast was not essential: the objective was fresh air. But the convalescent homes established on the coast did offer other benefits besides sea air. The staff were better trained to look after children with health problems. There were opportunities for the children to get exercise, which may have been limited in more urban homes. There is also evidence in some case files that children were given more or better food to build them up while they were staying in the convalescent homes. Finally, a modern study has suggested that there may be health benefits to be gained from living on the coast, but they are psychological ones, and not related to the air there. The case files show that, in the absence of today’s more effective treatments, a proactive approach to tuberculosis was taken, and this surely saved many lives.

Want to find out more?
Click here to read another blog post on sea air and health, featuring a case where the avoidance of sea air was recommended.

Historic articles from the British Medical Journal discussing open-air treatment of tubercular cases can be found here:

A visit to Westminster Abbey

Here at The Children’s Society Archive we have eight volunteers, and they’ve been a great help in the Unexplored Riches in Medical History project and with other projects at the archive. The time the volunteers give really helps to enrich what we do, so we’re always looking for ways to say thank you. This week, as one way of saying thank you, we took the volunteers on a trip to the archives at Westminster Abbey.

The north front of Westminster Abbey

The Keeper of the Muniments at the Abbey, Matthew Payne, gave us an excellent tour of the library and archives, telling us about their history and the history of the Abbey.

We heard that the library was originally kept in the Abbey cloisters, although most of those early books were dispersed at the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th Century.

The cloisters in Westminster Abbey

The archives and ‘muniments’, however, have been kept intact, with some of them, and the chests they were stored in, dating back to the earliest days of the Abbey, nearly 1000 years ago. Most of the archives document the work of the Abbey, including records of the work of the monks that used to live at the Abbey, and records of the property and land that the Abbey used to own.

As well as getting to see some of the documents, highlights of the trip included seeing architectural features of the Abbey buildings, particularly in the muniment room. We saw heraldic floor tiles from the 13th Century, ornate, painted ceiling bosses, and a large mural of a white hart, dating back to the time of Richard II.

The west front of Westminster Abbey

All in all it was a fascinating afternoon. Many thanks to Matthew and to Westminster Abbey for allowing us to visit and, of course, many thanks to our volunteers for everything they do.

More information about Westminster Abbey Library and Muniment Room can be found here.

More information about the history of Westminster Abbey can be found here.