Fresh air for epilepsy

William was five years old when his father died in in 1889. By the time William was eleven, at least three of his older siblings were working, two of his siblings were living in children’s homes, and William and his younger brother Sydney were living with their mother in Stepney in East London.

Life was not easy for the family. William’s mother worked by washing clothes. She had poor health, which made it difficult for her to earn much, and so William’s three elder sisters, who all worked in domestic service, sent her money to help with the rent. When their mother went out to work, there was no-one to look after William and Sydney and so they were often left on their own.

In 1895 an application was made for help from The Children’s Society (then known as the Waifs and Strays Society). The application was successful and William was taken into The Society’s Dover Home For Boys in Kent, and was shortly afterwards transferred to Leicester Home for Boys where he would be able to learn a trade.

William had been living in the Leicester Home for about a year when he first started suffering from seizures. As a result, he was returned to London and admitted into the National Hospital for Paralysis and Epilepsy in Queen Square, where his mother was able to visit him.

After over a month in the hospital, and not having had another seizure, William went to stay with his mother. He was there for one month until he was transferred to the Diocesan Home for Boys in Cambridge, which had recently been taken over by The Society.

The following letter was written when William had been in the Cambridge Home for just two days.

Letter from case file 4748, giving an account of the child's epileptic seizure, 1896

Dear Sir,

I am sorry to
tell you that W. [surname]
had another fit last
night. He was rather
sadly on Mony. [Monday] night
when he got in bed, but

yesterday he seemed much
better until he was
going to bed when he
fell down without any
warning. This morning I
sent for the Dr. & he gave
me the enclosed certificate.
Will you let me know
what to do. I should
like to try the boy a
little longer. He has
not been to school yet,
as I thought the air
would do him good.

Yours Obedily. [Obediently]
J Shead

Interestingly, from this letter we see that fresh air was thought to be helpful for people with epilepsy, and another letter states that ‘In cases of Epilepsy, open air work is always recommended.’

The enclosed doctor’s certificate confirmed that William was suffering from epilepsy and stated that the Cambridge Home wasn’t suitable for children with the condition. It was decided, however, that William was well enough to stay in the home for longer and attend school.

William didn’t suffer from another seizure until the next year, and after almost a year at the Cambridge Home, at age 13, it was decided that it would be best for William to leave. He returned to his mother in July 1897 while other arrangements were made for him. We don’t know where William went to afterwards, but there was talk of sending him out of London to a farm, where it was thought that the fresh air would be beneficial for him.

It may seem strange to us now that fresh air was the recommended cure for epilepsy in William’s time. But without the medication and other therapies available to us now, there must have been few options available.

The reality of living with a mental health condition in Victorian London

Today, instead of focussing on a particular child we will be focussing on a particular parent. The case files we hold give the family circumstances of most of the children that came into The Children’s Society’s care and so can go into a lot of detail about the health of the child’s family.

Charlotte came into the care of The Children’s Society (then known as the Waifs and Strays Society) aged 7 in 1895. As with all children that came into The Society’s care, an application form was written for Charlotte detailing why it was thought necessary for her to go into care.

The form states that Charlotte and her family came from Marylebone in London. Her father had been a chimney sweep but had died of bronchitis when Charlotte was around three years old.

The second page of the form, shown below, continues the story.

Part of the application form from case file 4658, detailing the health of the child's mother, 1895

Mrs. [surname] after the birth of a child
went out of her mind for a time & was
sent to an Asylum. On leaving,
the Doctor said she would never
again be fit for work. this hap-
-pened after her husbands death
& was partly brought on by the
shock. The family was very res-
-pectable & well cared for during the
Fathers lifetime. the poor widow
has had 9 children only four now

“Charlotte” is a bright little thing
but has not had food enough
for some time, & is thin, with
the look all hungry children
have. sharing her poor mothers
uncertain fate has given her
an anxious face & way, that
are quite Pitiful

(Miss) Emma E Maingay
Hon. Sec

Elsewhere in the form, we learn that the child’s mother was doing light housework as an occupation and that she and Charlotte had no settled place to live.

This form illustrates quite clearly what could happen to a late-Victorian family if the parent or parents were unable to do much work due to an illness or disability. With few safety nets around, save for the workhouse, parents and their children had to struggle to find enough to eat.

Charlotte’s case was accepted by The Society and she went to live in St Hilda’s Home in Marylebone. A few months afterwards she was transferred to a home that wasn’t operated by The Society, St John’s Convalescent Home in Brighton. At this time The Society had no convalescent homes of its own and so often sent children to St John’s Home if they were unwell and needed extra care.

The reason that Charlotte needed to go to a convalescent home isn’t stated, but it seems likely that she was suffering from malnutrition; in other letters in her file she is described as being ‘delicate’ and like a ‘little white ghost’.

After two years at St John’s Home, Charlotte must have been strong enough to return to one of The Society’s children’s homes, this time the Brighton Home for Girls. Charlotte stayed in Brighton until 1903 when she would have been around 15 years old. At this point, a letter from Charlotte’s sister Louisa was received.

Louisa was about eight years older than Charlotte and was married and living in East Barnet near London. She asked if Charlotte could come to live with her; this was agreed and Charlotte went to her sister a few weeks later.

Within the file, we never find out what had happened to Charlotte’s mother after Charlotte was taken into care, as Louisa doesn’t mention her. We can only hope that she was doing well, although her previous circumstances didn’t bode well.

At this distance, it is very hard to discover what condition Charlotte’s mother was suffering from that had required her to enter an asylum for a period of time. As with a number of diseases, the diagnosis of mental health conditions in the late-19th Century was not as sophisticated as it is today. All we can do is go by what we’re told: Charlotte’s mother’s illness had been brought on by the shock of her husband’s death and perhaps by the birth of a child; it had left her unfit for work; and, according to one doctor, ‘she would never be the same woman again’.

What is clear is that she left the asylum with little assistance, despite finding it difficult to work, which meant that being able to care for herself and for Charlotte was an almost impossible struggle, and perhaps one that she was unable to survive.

Caring for a child with scrofula

James was an orphan. He was born in Oxford in 1886 where his father worked as a guard on the railway. James would have been about two years old when his father died from heart disease.

After the death of James’ father, James’ mother found work as a nurse for a family living in East Grinstead in Sussex. Then, when James was about seven years old, James’ mother moved the family to Westminster in London where she started keeping a lodging house.

Unfortunately, two years later in 1895 when James’ was only nine years old, his mother died of bronchitis and pneumonia during a cold winter, leaving James and his brothers and sister as orphans.

James was the youngest of his siblings. His eldest brother, aged 25, was a soldier serving in India, while his three other brothers, aged 21 to 16, worked in Westminster; one as a road sweeper, one as a clerk and the other as an errand boy. Meanwhile James’ sister, aged 12, was adopted by their aunt.

Neither James’ elder brothers in Westminster nor James’ aunt, who also paid money to help his grandmother, were able to look after James. Temporarily, therefore, James was taken into a home for working boys, St Matthew’s Home in Westminster, which was also looking after his 16 year-old brother, Robert.

St Matthew’s Home wasn’t run by The Children’s Society (then known as the Waifs and Strays Society). It was a home for older boys, like Robert, who were working. At only nine years old, James was too young to stay in this home, and so an application was made for him to be taken into the care of the Waifs and Strays Society.

In May 1895, two months after his mother’s death, James entered The Society’s Talbot Home for Boys in Bournemouth.

Three years later in 1898 when James was aged 11 and still living in the Talbot Home, a medical certificate was filled out for him. This stated that he had a tendency to scrofula.

There had been no mention of scrofula in a previous medical certificate for James, which had been completed when he first entered the Talbot Home, so perhaps James had recently contracted the disease or perhaps the symptoms had only just started to show. Scrofula is an infection of the lymph nodes in the neck which leaves them swollen; it is sometimes caused by tuberculous bacteria, but can also be caused by other types of bacteria instead.

James remained in the Talbot Home until he was 12 years old. The Talbot Home looked after younger boys, and when they reached the age of 12 the boys often left the home to start apprenticeships in Bournemouth. It was considered that James wouldn’t do well in an apprenticeship and so instead, in 1898, he was moved to Standon Farm Home for Boys in Staffordshire. This home usually looked after boys until they were 14 years of age and trained them for farm work.

The next we hear of James is five months later in 1899 when James would have been 13. He was examined by the doctor who worked as the medical officer for the Standon Farm Home; the doctor’s report is below.

Medical report from case file 4772, stating that the child is suffering from ‘Tubercular disease of the glands of his neck’, 1899

April 4. 1899.

Jas. [surname].

This boy I have examined carefully
& I do not consider him to be a fit
inmate of this institution. He is suffering
from Tubercular disease of the glands
of his neck, of some duration, one of
which has ended in suppuration.
I should advise his removal from
this home as I do not consider the
climate here suitable to the case.
It is quite possible that the Tubercular
disease may spread to the lungs.

Thomas Dixon.
M.R.C.S. Eng.
L.R.C.P. Lond.

Reading the report, we see that James’ scrofula was tubercular and that one of the swellings on his neck had become suppurative (meaning that it had become an open wound). It also suggests that the disease could spread, leading to pulmonary tuberculosis, if it was not treated.

As the doctor advised, it was considered best for James’ health for him to be removed from the Standon Farm Home, and arrangements began to be made for James to go to hospital in London for treatment.

At the time, James’ elder brothers were still living in London and it was thought best for James to stay with them while he was receiving hospital treatment. And so in 1899, when James was 13, he was returned to his second-eldest brother William who was then aged around 25 years and was living in Lambeth in London.

A few days later, we find that James went into St Thomas’ Hospital in Lambeth for an operation. Presumably this surgery was to remove the infected lymph nodes. The success of surgery to treat tuberculous scrofula can be variable, but before the use of antibiotics it may well have been one of the only treatment options available.

Unfortunately, James’ case file ends there. Perhaps his brother William arranged James’ stay in hospital and any later care, which could be why the Waifs and Strays Society didn’t create any more correspondence about the case. If we want to know more about how James got on, a search of the records of St Thomas’ Hospital might be able to give us the outcome of his treatment there.

Scarlet fever

One of the diseases we find mentioned in early children’s case files is scarlet fever. In some cases children who contracted the disease recovered and went on to find employment or to return to their families. Sadly, some were not so fortunate.

Alice was five years old in 1890 when her mother died of tuberculosis. Three years later, Alice’s father was admitted into Birmingham Infirmary with the same disease, being described as “in the last stage of consumption” (an old term for tuberculosis). One of Alice’s brothers was admitted into Birmingham Infirmary at the same time suffering from a brain tumour.

With no-one else to look after them, Alice and her remaining brother were sent to Birmingham Workhouse. It was then that an application was made for Alice to enter the care of The Children’s Society (then known as the Waifs and Strays Society).

At seven years of age, in 1893, Alice entered The Society’s new home for girls in Handsworth, Birmingham, known as the Calthorpe Home.

Medical certificates were completed for all children who entered The Society’s care. Alice was seen by the medical officer at Birmingham Infirmary before entering the Calthorpe Home and was described as having good general health. It appeared that Alice had escaped the tuberculosis that had afflicted her parents. Unfortunately, there were many other diseases that could prove fatal to children in the late Victorian era.

One of the questions that the medical certificates asked was if the children had previously had certain diseases, such as whooping cough, measles, small pox or scarlet fever. Alice’s certificate states that she had had whooping cough but none of the other diseases, meaning that she could be susceptible to them not having been vaccinated against them.

The next we hear of Alice is in 1900, when she would have been fourteen years old. The letter from Handsworth is below.

Letter from case file 3916, about the child's death from scarlet fever, 1900

[…] Alice [surname], one of
the first girls to enter the Home
6 1/2 years ago, died last week,
of scarlet fever & complications
at the Fever Hospital. It
is a great shock, as it was
not at all expected & she was
up & convalescent till Monday
when internal haemorrhage
set in & she died on Tuesday

There is no further correspondence about Alice’s illness in her file so it is not possible to know how long she had suffered from the disease or when she had gone to the Fever Hospital. What is clear is that her death from the disease was sudden and unexpected.

The fact that The Society’s medical certificates asked if the children had ever had scarlet fever shows that the disease was a common and a contagious one. Perhaps other children at the Calthorpe Home fell ill at the same time, although we won’t know without further research.

It would appear, then, that Alice’s brief life was beset by illness; both hers and her family’s. We can only hope that her years in the Calthorpe Home before she fell ill had been happy ones.

Ophthalmia and treatment at the Royal Westminster Eye Hospital

The case file for a girl named Ethel (case number 5450) is one that gives us information about turn-of-the-century treatments for ophthalmia, which is an inflammation of the eye.

Born in London, Ethel’s early family life had not been a happy one as her father was said to have ill-treated her mother. Her father then left the family shortly after Ethel’s younger brother, Ernest, was born and was not heard from again. Ethel at this time was one year old. It was 1894.

Things were not easy in the late-19th Century for a single mother trying to raise a young family by herself. Ethel’s mother found work in domestic service as a cook in Holloway, London. She was earning £18 per year, which was not enough for her to support two children. And so, with the help of money from a relative, Ethel had gone to live with a tailor and his family in Surbiton, Surrey, leaving Ethel’s mother to look after Ernest.

Unfortunately, the relative paying for Ethel’s upkeep was on a low wage and in 1896 she could no longer afford to pay any more money. It was at this point that an application was made to The Children’s Society (then known as the Waifs and Strays Society), who agreed to help.

In August 1896, at the age of three, Ethel was taken into The Society’s Receiving Home in Byfleet, Surrey. After a short stay there, Ethel went to live with a foster family in Clapham, Surrey.

Ethel’s new foster-parents were already fostering a boy when they took Ethel in, but Ethel wasn’t to stay there for long. Only a week and a half after she arrived, it was discovered that Ethel was suffering from an inflammation of the eye, or ophthalmia. The condition was clearly contagious as it had been caught by Ethel’s foster-brother in this short space of time.

Quickly, Ethel was sent back to the home in Byfleet where she could be seen by a doctor. The result of the examination is detailed in the letter below (where she is referred to as Edith by mistake).

Letter from case file 5450 regarding treatment for the child's ophthalmia (inflammation of the eye), 1896

Dear Mr Jackson

I sent Edith
[surname] to the our doctor at
Weybridge for his opinion
& he says she has opthal-
mia badly & must not
mix with any of our

children. And she should
be sent to-morrow to an
Opthalmic Hospital.

I have told Mr Neat
who has brought [other children]
and I have ar-
ranged with him to
meet her at to Waterloo
& take her to the Op.
Hospital. I will send her
by the train ar. at Water –
10.59 – & he will go to the
Office for instructions

yrs very truly
L. Carr

Ethel was taken to the Royal Westminster Eye Hospital in London. After staying there for almost two weeks, she was doing well and was discharged. Due to the contagious nature of the disease, it was recommended that Ethel should be kept separate from other children for a further few weeks.

It was decided that it would be best for Ethel’s health if she left London and went to live in the countryside. Therefore, she was sent to a foster home in Knebworth, near Stevenage in Hertfordshire.

Sadly, we find that in 1898, when Ethel was then five years old, she began to suffer from ophthalmia again. She was taken to hospital in London to be examined and her foster-mother was told that Ethel would need to return to the hospital once every fortnight for treatment. As Ethel’s foster-mother couldn’t afford to take her to London so frequently, Ethel was instead transferred to St Hilda’s Home in Marylebone, London.

Presumably Ethel’s treatment was successful although there are no letters about it in her case file. She stayed in the Marylebone home until 1900 when she was 7 years old. At this point she was returned to the care of her mother, who was living near Euston Station in London. Even though Ethel’s mother was likely still working in domestic service, her letter makes it clear that she missed her daughter and wanted to have her home.

We don’t know if Ethel ever went to hospital with ophthalmia again. As ophthalmia, being an inflammation of the eye, could be caused by a number of conditions, it is not possible to tell what exactly Ethel was suffering from. What we do know is that the disease was contagious, could recur after a number of years, and was serious enough to require frequent hospital treatment. If you have any idea as to what could have caused Ethel’s ophthalmia, please tell me; I’d be interested to know!

Caring for a child with a hernia

Harry was 9 years old when he entered the care of The Children’s Society (then known as the Waifs and Strays Society) in 1903. The application for him to go into care, found within Harry’s case file, gives us information about his family.

Harry’s father had died of typhoid fever when Harry was 7 years old. Since then, Harry and his two younger brothers had been looked after by their mother in Easingwold in Yorkshire. Harry’s mother suffered from a heart condition which left her unable to work. She received money for the family from the local Board of Guardians, but her poor health meant that she found it very difficult to look after her children despite this. It was decided, therefore, that Harry as the eldest son should be taken into foster care.

The application form states that Harry, at 9 years old, was himself suffering from a ‘rupture of the bowels’. In later correspondence we find that this was an inguinal hernia; these are hernias in the groin and are one of the most common types of hernia found.

Harry’s application to go into care was accepted. He was taken into Islington Home for Boys for four and a half months and then sent out to a foster home in Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire.

In 1904, a letter from Harry’s mother reveals that Harry wore a truss to support his hernia and that it had broken. This had caused Harry’s mother to ask for Harry to be returned to her, but on finding that the Board of Guardians had threatened stop their financial aid if he returned, Harry’s mother agreed for Harry to stay in care.

Foster homes were inspected regularly by The Society to ensure that the children were well cared for. An inspection carried out at Harry’s foster home, shortly after the date of the letter from Harry’s mother, reveals the same information: the truss that Harry wore for his hernia was nearly worn out. The doctor inspecting the home suggested that Harry’s hernia should be treated with surgery, as can be seen in the letter below.

Letter from case file 9903 regarding treatment for the child's hernia, 1904

After gaining consent from his mother, Harry was returned to Islington Home for Boys in the summer of 1904 and from there he went to Charing Cross Hospital. At the hospital Harry underwent an operation for his hernia and was described as ‘doing well’ a few days later. Then, three weeks after first being admitted to hospital, Harry returned to Islington Home for Boys. It was recommended that on his return, Harry was to ‘keep a prone position’ for three more weeks.

As Harry was now nearly 11 years old, it was considered that he was too old to return to his foster home in Sawbridgeworth. And so, after two months spent recovering from his operation in Islington, Harry was transferred to St Andrew’s Home for Boys in Reading.

The next we hear of Harry is in 1907, when The Society opened St Boniface’s Home for Boys in Sampford Peverell, Devon. The master of St Andrew’s Home in Reading transferred to this new home in Sampford Peverell and we find that Harry (and presumably a number of other boys) had transferred to the new home with him.

Around this time, with Harry soon to turn 14, another letter was received from Harry’s mother, asking for him to be returned to her in Easingwold. With one of Harry’s brothers at school and the other about to leave home, Harry’s mother was anxious that she would be left with no-one to care for her in her illness or to earn any money. Further correspondence in the file reveals that it was decided not to return Harry to his mother; no work could be found for him in Easingwold except for casual labour and it was thought that it would be best for Harry to go to a permanent job elsewhere.

And so instead, in 1908, Harry went to work in domestic service at St Mary’s in the Scilly Isles. Harry worked there for a year an a half until we hear from Harry’s mother again. She had since remarried but was worried for Harry as he had written to her complaining of being unhappy in his job and wanting to go to work at sea. Further correspondence suggests that Harry was persuaded to give his current job another chance.

It appears, however, that Harry continued to be unsettled in his job and in 1910, after working for two years, he returned to St Boniface’s Home in Sampford Peverell. Harry still wished to go to work at sea and so, after one month in the home, Harry returned to his family in Easingwold while the staff at the home attempted to find him work on a ship.

Surprisingly, we don’t hear anything further about Harry until 1911 when he was 18 years old. In this year he writes a letter back to St Boniface’s Home stating that he has not gone to sea but has instead stayed near his family, and has been working on a farm near Easingwold for the past year. It is clear from the letter that Harry remembers his time at St Boniface’s Home with affection. This, unfortunately, is the last we hear of him. Whether Harry remained on the farm and what happened to him from then onwards is unknown.

This case file is interesting on two counts. Firstly, it tells us how hernias were treated over 100 years ago, with the two treatments given to Harry, being a truss and surgery, still used to treat hernias today. It is worth noting that Harry was kept in hospital for nearly three weeks after his operation; far longer you might expect to stay in hospital these days. This may reflect on the differences in surgery techniques over the years as well as changes to the way hospitals operate.

The other interesting part of the story lies with Harry’s mother. From the correspondence in the file we see that Harry’s mother, and her requests for her son to return home, were considered an unsettling influence on Harry. For the staff of The Society, what they wanted was to ensure that Harry had a bright future with a stable job; they didn’t want Harry to return to Easingwold unless there was a job there for him to go to.

Looking at things from Harry’s mother’s point of view, we get a glimpse of what it was like for a single parent living with a long-term illness in the early 20th Century. Despite the money Harry’s mother was receiving from the Board of Guardians, it appears to have been hard for her, without a carer, to look after herself and the two children she had remaining with her. Reading her letters, it’s easy to see the conflict she feels between trying to do the best for Harry’s future while wanting him to return home to help with the family.

This case file, then, appears to have a happy ending. Harry, no longer encumbered by his hernia, was eventually able to find a job close to his family. Whether things remained as bright for Harry in the years afterwards is something that only further research will tell.

Our volunteers in their own words

The Unexplored Riches in Medical History project is currently being supported by eight enthusiastic volunteers who kindly give their time to help conserve and preserve the oldest and most delicate of the children’s case files.

Click here to read more about the case file conservation process.

Repairing the case files

Repairing the case files

In today’s post, several of the volunteers explain what it is like to volunteer here at The Children’s Society archive and tell us more about what they’ve been doing.

‘The first part of the job is removing the case file contents from their pale blue linen envelope – sometimes, they are so tightly packed this can be a bit of a struggle.’

‘Once the items have been removed, I clean them with a chemical sponge and a soft brush, place them in between clean blotter and retain the original order of the items as found.’

‘Whilst cleaning I inspect for damaging materials such as metal paper clips or rubber bands as well as unstable documents such as acidic, brittle paper and torn postcards.’

‘Any document that is in a bad condition and cannot be flattened or is badly torn may be humidified or repaired.’

‘Each item is then flattened under weights for a few days, before being packed into a new file folder, tied with cotton ribbon and boxed.’

Filing the case files

When asked what they enjoyed most about volunteering, many of the volunteers agreed that the highlight was the case files themselves.

‘[I enjoy] getting a feel for some of the cases and the individuals involved, with some fascinating insights into social history.’

‘I find the case files fascinating to work on. […] They are only individual peeks in to a wealth of an archive, but it has inspired me to look in to my own family history.’

‘The most exciting part of working with case files must be removing the items from the envelope, because you will never find a repeat one and each of them contains a different story.’

‘There is a great satisfaction in knowing you have helped preserve somebody’s history as well as making a small contribution to the cleaning of such a vast amount of case files and making them accessible.’

‘The most rewarding aspect is probably the sense of achievement that comes from knowing that the case files are now going to survive for much longer thanks to the preservation and conservation work that we’re doing. And knowing that in the future researchers will be able to access the information the files hold much more easily is very satisfying.’

It’s not always easy though. The delicate condition of some of the case files often poses problems.

‘[The most difficult part is] avoiding tearing documents when cleaning.’

‘Personally, I find handling and cleaning the variety of different types of paper quite challenging, as it requires different levels of accuracy with the cleaning sponges and you could lead to damaging the works more.’

‘[The most challenging part] must be to clean some documents which are of poor condition.’

‘I find the assessment of a document the most testing. For example, if I miscalculate the stability of a papered document and put it under the strain of pressing, the piece could split and cause irreversible damage.’

Despite the challenges posed by the fragile state of some of the documents, the project is progressing well, thanks to the help of our volunteers.

Preparing cleaning sponges

The team of volunteers is a varied one, with some currently studying for courses in paper conservation, some retired, and some wanting archive experience. This means that they each have different skills and interests that they can bring to the project.

‘[My motivation for volunteering here was] a combination of wanting to contribute to a worthwhile organisation and looking for a new experience with social contact.’

‘Volunteering is an important asset for a conservator, as through this experience you are allowed to observe and work with people of our profession and more, develop old and new skills, as well as learn new techniques.’

‘To work alongside professionals at such close quarters is an important aspect for my development as a paper conservator.’

‘Because the tasks that I’ve been doing as a volunteer were so well defined I was able to start doing useful work right from the very first day. Everyone has been very friendly and helpful. Also, knowing that I’m going on to study archives, everyone has taken the time to explain more about what they do, which has been great.’

‘It’s been a really great learning experience. I’ve learnt more about how to handle documents correctly, about preservation problems and conservation techniques, and also started to get a feel for how the archives and records fit within the organisation.’

I would like to take the time to say thank you to all our volunteers, not only for their help with the case files, but also for kindly answering my questions for this post.

Here in the archive we’re lucky to have the dual benefit of eight extra hands to help preserve our important case files for the future, plus eight friendly people to help to make the office a brighter place!

Tuberculosis and child mortality

Unfortunately, not every story has a happy ending. Today’s post is about a child named John (case number 9825), who died of tuberculosis at the age of ten.

John came from Lambeth in South London. He was an orphan. John’s father had died when John was five years old and John’s mother had died when John was eight; both had succumbed to tuberculosis. This left John in the care of his grandmother, a retired school teacher who appeared to have little money to look after him, and so, shortly after the death of his mother, application was made for John to enter the care of The Children’s Society (then known as the Waifs and Strays Society).

In 1903, John (aged eight) and his brother Reginald (aged six) entered a receiving home in Byfleet, Surrey, and were quickly transferred to Messing Cottage Home in Kelvedon, Essex.

Looking through John’s case file, the next we hear of him is in April 1905. A letter from the Messing Home states that John had been ‘ailing’ and that he had been treated with cod liver oil. Further letters say that John had been under the care of a doctor and was staying in a foster home nearby; this was presumably to quarantine him from the other children in the Messing Home to prevent any disease from spreading.

It was thought best for John to be transferred to the Waifs and Strays Society’s Nayworth Cottage Home in Hurstpierpoint, Sussex. This home was a convalescent home on the South Coast and it was hoped that the change in atmosphere and the extra care John would receive there would help him to recover.

When John arrived at the Nayworth Home in May 1905, he was described as being ‘undoubtedly tubercular, he has a bad cough & seems very weak & emaciated‘. He was prescribed port wine, brandy and ‘a very generous diet‘ in the hopes of building up his strength. We also learn that the Matron of the home had taken it upon herself to nurse him.

Unfortunately, John continued to get worse and in July 1905 there is the following letter:

Letter from case file 9825 about the state of the child's health, 1905

Letter from case file 9825 about the state of the child's health, 1905

Nayworth Home.
July. 13th. 1905.

Rev. & Dear Sir.
I am sorry to tell you that
John [surname] is in a very serious
condition, & the doctor has
just told me that I might
expect a change within the
next twenty four hours.
He might rally for a few

days, but I hardly expect it.
Everything possible has been
done for him. The poor child
is now in a very prostrate
Dr Meyer is from home but
his locum. has been most
I am, yours faithfully.
Elsie P. Smith.

The next item in the case file is a telegram from the Nayworth Home, 14 July 1905, saying that John died at 10:30 that morning. He was ten years old.

A further death certificate confirms that John died of phthisis (an old term for tuberculosis) and the remaining correspondence in the file relates to arrangements for his funeral.

John’s story is sad but was not, I am sorry to say, an uncommon one. The number of children suffering from tuberculosis was high in the early 20th Century, and prior to the discovery of antibiotics to combat it, the disease was often fatal. Of all the case files catalogued so far, 347 relate to children who had tuberculosis, and 133 of those children died while in the care of the Waifs and Strays Society. Doubtless more instances of tuberculosis will appear as more case files are catalogued.

The large amount of case files that mention the disease means that they make a very valuable source for research. It would be worth looking to see how the different cases compare with each other. Did children with tuberculosis often come from families where the parents had died of the disease, as had John’s, and was this related to their living conditions? How did different treatments for the disease compare with each other? In 1905, it was thought best to give John cod liver oil, port wine, brandy, a good diet, and fresh sea air. Would these still be prescribed in earlier or later cases? A study of the case files could reveal the answer.

Caring for a child with lupus

In 1902, an 11 year-old girl called Ethel entered the care of The Children’s Society (then known as the Waifs and Strays Society). Ethel and her mother were homeless; they were found by police in West London and taken to a police court, where Ethel was placed in the Waifs and Strays Society’s Beckett Home in Meanwood, Leeds.

When Ethel arrived at the Beckett Home, it was discovered that she was suffering from lupus.

Letter from case file 9103 about the health of the child, 1902

Dear Sir

I am enclosing
warrant etc for [another child]
& I thought I had better
mention that Ethel [surname] 124
is suffering from lupus
though there was no mention
of it on the doctor’s certificate
that came with her

yours faithfully
L. J. Verren

Lupus is an autoimmune disease, where a person’s immune system can start to attack other parts of the body. Symptoms are wide ranging and can be either mild or severe.

Ethel was given case number 9103, and in her case file, there is a lot of correspondence relating to her health and her numerous stays in hospital.

Letter from case file 9103 about the child's visit to Leeds Infirmary, 1904

Letter from case file 9103 about the child's visit to Leeds General Infirmary, 1905

Dear Sir,

Ethel [middle name and surname] (124)
has today been admitted
(free of charge) into the
Leeds General Infirmary
as she is suffering from
tuberculous ulcers on her
finger & instep & the bone
requires scraping. I will let
you know when she returns

yours faithfully
L. J. Verren

As you can see, Ethel was also suffering from tuberculosis, although it is not known if this was related to her lupus.

Ethel’s health improved and by 1906, when she was almost 16 years-old, it was thought that she would be able to do ‘light’ work. A suitable job was found for her and she started working in domestic service in Halifax.

Unfortunately, Ethel was not in work for long. It appears that her health declined, making the work very hard for her. In 1908, aged 17, Ethel left the job and went to the Waifs and Strays Society’s Nayworth Cottage Home in Hurstpierpoint, Sussex.

Nayworth Cottage Home was a convalescent home and it was thought that Ethel would be able to regain strength there. However, the medical officer at the home declared that Ethel’s tuberculosis meant she wasn’t suited to a home with other children.

Unable to stay in children’s homes any longer, Ethel went to live with her grandparents and her aunt in London, with the Waifs and Strays Society providing the family with money for Ethel’s medical treatment. The last we hear from her, she is in hospital in Paddington, London.

Ethel’s story is an interesting one. The Waifs and Strays Society tried their best to help her but the correspondence in her file suggests that they struggled with her medical care, especially as they had little experience of looking after children with lupus. Ethel’s experiences were probably not uncommon for the time. As lupus is such a complicated disease, it would be very interesting to compare Ethel’s story with the experiences of people with lupus today to see how medical care for the disease has changed in the intervening years.

Further information about Ethel’s story is detailed in her case file (number 9103).

Conserving children’s case files

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


Hello, blog readers. My name is Rebecca and I am one of the paper conservators currently working on the Unexplored Riches in Medical History project at The Children’s Society Records and Archives Centre. As Janine, the project archivist, has described in a previous posting, the project has the twin goals of both cataloguing and indexing parts of the archive that can be used to study medical history as well as of preserving the case files to prevent deterioration of the documents. Both these objectives aim to increase access to these records for researchers.

The conservation part of this project started at the beginning of January. Since then my colleague, Julie, and I have been ordering materials and tools, recruiting volunteers, establishing project protocols and, of course, making a start on the practical work.

Cleaning the case files

Cleaning the case files

Cleaning the case files

Cleaning the case files

The earliest case files consist of bundles of folded documents; almost all of them being stored in blue envelopes. Many of these envelopes are in a very poor physical condition. Usually each envelope contains one case file, although sometimes siblings’ files share one envelope.

Rusty paper clip

Rusty paper clip

The contents might be a single piece of paper or several hundred. Once we found an empty envelope; we don’t know why. The documents have almost all been sharply folded, most of them multiple times. Some are fastened with rusty pins or clips.

A few bear the hardened traces of what was once a rubber band. Most of the documents are very dirty. (They are now stored in boxes with lids but clearly that has not always been the case.) Many of the papers are poor quality substrates: innately brittle and acidic. It is difficult to remove the documents from the historical blue envelopes and usually impossible to replace them.

Case file with remains of degraded rubber band

Case file with remains of degraded rubber band

In the short space of time allotted to the project, Julie and I aim to improve the condition of, and accessibility to, as many of these case files as possible. Each case file is treated in this way: we remove the documents carefully from the envelope and then we unfold, surface clean and press each sheet, if it is possible to do so safely. Some documents we have to relax through humidification before we can press them, because they are too brittle to press when dry. Documents written on parchment (the prepared skin of an animal, e.g. sheep, goat or calf) also require this humidification process before flattening as this material is thicker and less flexible than paper is.

Most of the case files contain only textual documents but we have also found a few photographs which allow us to see the faces of the children described in the files.

Charles North who was in the care of The Children’s Society from 1884 to 1892

Charles North who was in the care of The Children’s Society from 1884 to 1892

We have also come across a few red wax seals with patterns on them. They provided authentication of an official document at the time, but to us today they also look rather decorative. We do not press any document which contains a wax seal as it would, of course, crack the wax.

Wax seal

Wax seal

Wax seals

Wax seals

Once the documents have been pressed, we put them in archival folders which are stored in acid free boxes. So far we have processed over 700 case files.

Case files in old housing

Case files in old housing

Case files in new housing

Case files in new housing