The Children’s Society Archive Completes Major Wellcome Trust Funded Project

The Children’s Society Archive has just celebrated the completion of its Wellcome Trust funded ‘Unexplored Riches in Medical History Project’. The project was funded by a major grant from the Wellcome Trust and has shed a whole new light on aspects of the well-being and health of children up to the 1920s, as well as their care and social circumstances.

Thanks to the funding, the project has conserved and catalogued a significant part of the archive collection, helping to preserve it for the future and open it up for social history and medical history research, while making it more accessible to others, such as schools, universities and community groups.

A boy who was in the care of The Children's Society over 100 years ago. Modern photograph by: Wellcome Trust | Thomas S.G. Farnetti]

A boy who was in the care of The Children’s Society over 100 years ago. Modern photograph by: Wellcome Trust | Thomas S.G. Farnetti

Looking at children’s case files from the 1880s to the 1920s they found a huge body of evidence for the diseases and treatments of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. This included: high rates of tuberculosis and rickets, and high rates of malnutrition in children coming into care.

Documents from The Children’s Society’s homes that ran from the 1880s to the 1980s show how The Children’s Society set up homes to treat orthopaedic conditions and diabetic children, as well as creating swimming techniques for children with mobility difficulties.

The project has created an online catalogue of these case files and residential home records. You can explore the completed catalogue here:

Nearly 9,000 of the earliest case files were in very poor condition, and the project has conserved and strengthened these files for the future.

Archive ref: CF08464 Admission Form

Archive ref: CF08464
A 114 year-old document from a case file – before conservation

Archive ref: CF08464 Admission form The same document - during conservation

Archive ref: CF08464 Admission form
The same document – during conservation

Archive ref: CF08464 Admission Form  The same document - after conservation

Archive ref: CF08464 Admission Form
The same document – after conservation

The project was carried out by a professional team consisting of an archivist and two conservators, along with a team of volunteers.

Ian Wakeling, Head of The Children’s Society Archive, said: “These records are vitally important for studying changes in medical knowledge over the past 130 years because they show us how those changes affected real people. The children in the care of The Children’s Society came from some of the poorest and most disadvantaged families in the country, and we can now see what this meant for their well-being and how their families struggled to provide for their healthcare.”

Simon Chaplin, Director of Culture and Society at the Wellcome Trust, added: “The records held by The Children’s Society chart the impact of more than a century of turbulent change on some of the poorest members of society, disadvantaged children and their families. By cataloguing and maintaining this important archive, we hope that these medical histories will be the subject of further research and that their stories will continue to be told.”

Further information about the Unexplored Riches in Medical History project, including the project blog showcasing items found within the collection, can be found on the project webpages:

There is also a video that has been produced by the Wellcome Trust that gives a really great introduction to the Unexplored Riches in Medical History project: and the project also features on the Wellcome Trust’s website:

The final product: conserved, catalogued, indexed and re-boxed children's case files

The final product: conserved, catalogued, indexed and re-boxed children’s case files


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

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.

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!

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