Children’s case files

Another part of the ‘Unexplored Riches in Medical History’ project is to catalogue children’s case files.

A case file was created for every child that came into the care of The Children’s Society. These case files were used by The Children’s Society’s head office to store all their forms and correspondence relating to that child; this makes the files a great resource for researching the lives of individual children, the reasons why they came into care, what their lives were like while being looked after by The Children’s Society, and where they went onto afterwards.

1850 case files have already been catalogued as part of a previous project. Now, the ‘Unexplored Riches in Medical History’ project aims to catalogue even more case files and so make them searchable and usable.

In terms of medical history, the case files contain a great deal of information. Application forms found within the files tend to detail the health of the child and their family as well as giving information about the child’s living conditions and family circumstances. If the child became ill while in The Children’s Society’s care, this is often documented in the correspondence found within the case files, especially if the child was sent to hospital or to a convalescent home.

Back page of the application form from case file 419, dated 1885-1894, giving dates for the child's admission to St Bartholomew's Hospital 'to be treated for her eyes'

The above image comes from the application form for case file 419. On the back of each application form, the child’s case history is noted, stating where the child was placed. In this image, it says that in 1893 the child entered St Bartholomew’s Hospital.

The page says:

Boarded out at Slinfold
under the Care of Miss S John
5 Jan[ua]ry 1885

Miss Maitland
please note

noted ERM
Jan 6th 1885

October 1893
To go to Bartholomews
Hospital to be treated for her

22 October 1894
Gone to service at 13 Bartlour
Road Horsham Sussex

Within case file 419 there is further correspondence regarding the child’s visit to hospital.

This is just one example. There are many other case files that can be used to study the history of diseases and treatments. Because of this, it is the aim of the project to catalogue and index more of our case files. The indexing in particular will make it easier to search the case files for specific topics.

Case file 4688

Today’s post is written by Rod Cooper, one of the volunteers helping us with the Including the Excluded project. As part of the project some of the volunteers have been writing summaries of a selection of case files; the aim is to highlight examples of the experiences of disabled children while in The Children’s Society’s care.

The following is an account of a boy who came into The Children’s Society’s care in its earlier years – 1895 – when it was known as the Waifs and Strays Society.


Case File 4688 – John Robert Hall – is interesting as it illustrates the various approaches employed by The Society to help and assist children, and prepare them for a fulfilling and self-supporting adulthood. John was born disabled (he suffered an impairment to his left hip) and into an extensive but immeasurably poor family, supported entirely and solely by the endeavours of their mother, Elizabeth Hall. John’s family lived in Huntingdon.

An unusual aspect of John’s case is the support provided by a local peer. In preparing his application, a supporter solicited the interest of the local Earl of Sandwich. After visiting the child and his family, Edward Montagu, 8th Earl of Sandwich, agreed to bear the cost of John’s care for its duration.

John entered The Society’s St Nicholas Home for Crippled Children at Byfleet, Surrey, in 1895, as a seven year old. He remained there for little more than one year, and because it was deemed that he did not require either specialist nursing or surgical treatment, he was considered a good candidate for boarding out. Consequently, in mid-1896, he became a foster child under the care of a Mrs Hinchley, who lived in the small village of Bunwell in Norfolk. John remained with Mrs Hinchley until late-1902. Throughout the period of his fostering in Bunwell, The Society maintained an interest in John’s progress and development, before deciding in December 1902 – shortly before his 16th birthday – that he was suitable for placing in one of The Society’s industrial schools, specifically for learning the trade of tailoring. Consequently, John was provided with a place at The Society’s Industrial School in Copenhagen Street, Islington.

There is no indication on John’s file of whether or not he was in contact with, or was contacted by, his mother, during the period since entering the care of The Society. However, in early 1903, The Society did hear from John’s mother with the news that she was to marry the following Easter, and that she wished her son to be returned to her. John’s mother had moved to London and was employed as a housekeeper. After consulting with the various interested parties – including John’s benefactor and those who had prepared his initial application – The Society returned John to his mother in February 1903. It is also evident from his file that he had recently commenced his apprenticeship as a tailor.

Volunteering for Including the Excluded

Previously, I talked about how our case files relating to disabled children are being repackaged by a team of volunteers. Today, I thought I’d let our volunteers explain what it’s been like to help with this project.

Here, one of our volunteers describes the repackaging process:
“Firstly I remove the items from the blue folders which they have been stored in. Once the papers have been removed, I clean each item with a sponge and I place them under weights in order to flatten them as much as possible. I label each item with a unique number to make them more accessible. Once they have been left under weights for a few hours, I place them into archive quality folders and then the folders into boxes.”

The photo below shows one of the case files in the process of being cleaned with chemical sponges.

I asked the volunteers what the most difficult part of the repackaging process was, and the response was unanimous. In the words of one volunteer:
“The most challenging part of working with the case files must be to clean and flatten some of the documents which are very fragile and in poor condition.”

In the words of another volunteer:
“Although not common, some files – especially if the covering jacket is missing or torn – can be very dirty and fragile. Regrettably, as it’s typically the initial document in the case file, it is the originating application form which takes the brunt of the damage.”

Thankfully, not all the case files are so badly damaged, but it just goes to show how valuable the repackaging process is. Placing the files into archival folders protects the documents from all sides, which prevents them from sustaining further damage.

When it comes to what the volunteers enjoy most about the project, the answers varied. Some of the volunteers said they value the practical experience they are able to gain when it comes to cleaning and handling the historical documents, and some volunteers said they particularly enjoy the atmosphere in the office. For most of the volunteers, though, it is the stories found in the case files that are the really interesting part.

“[I enjoy the] sense of being only one step removed from decisions and actions that have such a pivotal bearing on the life chances of children who would otherwise face a life of poverty, suffering and deprivation. Occasionally, you come across letters written by the children themselves – sometimes well into their adulthood many years after they have left the care of The Children’s Society. As well as bringing the files ‘to life’, as it were, such documents are evidence of the education and support that The Society has provided for individuals who might otherwise have faced lives of poverty and neglect.”

I would like to thank all our volunteers for taking the time to answer my questions and for helping to preserve our case files for the future!

Repackaging children’s case files

A few weeks ago, I talked about our plans to catalogue the case files of disabled children. Today, I’d like to explain what we’re doing to physically preserve these case files and keep them readable and accessible for the future.

Above are some photos to show what our early case files look like now. They’re stored in archival-quality boxes, which help to give them some basic protection, but as you can see, inside the boxes the files are in a bit of a sorry state.

The blue covers are the original covers that the case files were stored in when they were created at the end of the 19th century. They’re quite small, which means that the case papers have been folded a number of times to fit inside them. For smaller case files, this doesn’t create too much of a problem, but for larger case files, the papers can be wedged in so tightly that it’s quite hard to get them out. In the photo above, you can see that the case file was so large that the cover has split and someone has tied it back on with red legal tape. Problems like this leave the documents unprotected and vulnerable, which has led to a number of the case files becoming battered and fragile over the years.

Left as they are, these case files aren’t very easy to use and are likely to only get more damaged over time.

As part of the Including the Excluded project, we’re rectifying this by repackaging the case files into new, archival-quality folders with the help of a team of dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers.

Above are photos of some case files that have been repackaged. To get to this stage, the case papers are taken out of their original covers and individually cleaned to remove the dust and soot that has built up on them over the years. They are then numbered and placed under weights for a time to help them unfold from their tight bundles. Finally, they’re put into new folders to better protect them.

I can say from experience that the case files that have been flattened and repackaged are far easier to use, so many thanks to our volunteers for their help!

Case files

One of the aims of the Including the Excluded project is to catalogue the case files of disabled children who were in The Society’s care during the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

A case file was created for each and every child who came into The Society’s care and was used to file documents created in the course of The Society’s work with that child. These documents often included correspondence detailing the children’s homes and foster homes that the child stayed in, and correspondence relating to the child leaving The Society’s care, either to go to work when old enough, or to be adopted or reunited with family members. There may also be other snippets of information in the case files, including medical certificates, birth certificates, and correspondence with the child as an adult. Rare case files even contain photographs.

In my opinion though, the star item in each case file is the application form. These forms were filled in and kept for almost every child in The Society’s care. They describe, in detail, the child’s family circumstances, and include information about the child’s birth, home, parents, siblings, relations and schooling. Each form also contains a statement from someone who knew the child, describing why they think the child would benefit from being taken into The Society’s care.

The above image shows a statement, dated 1890, in the application form for a girl from Tunbridge Wells. In the statement, we’re told that the girl lost an arm when her father threw both himself and her in front of a moving train. Luckily, both survived, but the father was sent to an asylum, which left the mother struggling to bring up their children by herself. The girl was placed in a home in Brighton, and the application was made for her to be taken in by The Society.

A transcript of the above image can be found here, and the rest of the application form and the other documents in this case file can be found here.

Each application form also contains a summary of the homes that the child stayed in while in The Society’s care. Using the above example, we can see that the girl was accepted into The Society’s home for disabled children (this was St Nicholas’ Home in Tooting), and after five years was returned to her mother, where she was then placed in a training home to learn to be a servant.

As the above example shows, the case files can contain some astounding stories. They allow us to get a rare glimpse into the lives of individual children, and so form a valuable resource to help us understand how disabled children were treated and cared for at the turn of the last century.

I will be cataloguing the case files in detail as part of this project, capturing information about where each child came from and went to. The aim is to make the case files searchable so it will be possible to locate specific files, making it easier to examine and compare the experiences of different children.