A New Reality in 1975

Today we have a blog post written by one of our volunteers, Rod Cooper.

Gateway Magazine, Winter 1975. During my researches into the development of The Children’s Society’s projects during the latter part of the Twentieth Century, one particular issue of Gateway – the quarterly supporters’ magazine published between 1953 and 1993 – was so strikingly different in both content and appearance that it was not misplaced to consider it as some sort of break from the past. When I first came across this issue I was astounded by the abrupt change in tone and content compared with previous issues.

Gateway magazine articles, Winter 1975

“Preventative work with families has been gathering impetus over the last few years and will continue to gain momentum. Keeping families together is the crux of the child care problem.”

Previously, successive editions of the magazine comprised a fairly consistent diet of supporters’ fund-raising efforts, stories from The Children’s Society homes, remembrances of former residents, and general news and competitions.

Whilst it would be quite unfair to label the magazine as “cosy and safe”, it wouldn’t be misplaced to say that by the 1970s the magazine was somewhat out of step both with the changes in society as a whole and the associated changes in the work of The Children’s Society. These changes had already been flagged-up and reported by The Children’s Society in various Annual Reports published during the early-seventies. Chief among these were the declining importance and emphasis of the twin pillars of nursery and children’s homes. The numbers of babies entering The Children’s Society’s nurseries was in steep decline (a combination of the contraceptive pill, the legalisation of abortion, and increasing numbers of “unsupported” mothers choosing to keep their babies). Ten such homes closed between 1966 and 1969, whilst in 1970, Amphlett House, Droitwich, closed as a trainee nursery nurse hostel. As for children’s homes, there was a steady decline in the number of these as the demand for places decreased and more and more House Parents retired. By the end of 1973, for example, there were fewer than 1,000 children residing in The Children’s Society’s homes, whereas as recently as 1968 there were almost 1,500.

Contemporaneous with these trends, there were significant and not-unrelated changes in the emphasis of The Children’s Society’s work. Most – but not all – of these fell within the scope of maintaining children within their families and emphasising the importance of the family unit. Among the consequences of this were the promotion and development of new forms of working with children and young people such as day-nurseries and day-care, and the movement towards family centres. Coupled with these moves The Children’s Society also embarked upon a programme of increased professionalisation of staff and engagement of qualified social workers.

Into this milieu, the Winter 1975 issue of Gateway should not perhaps be viewed as so surprising, and indeed some previous issues had reported on such matters as day-care and an emphasis towards the family unit. However, compared with preceding issues it marks a significant step-change and its impact at the time must have been extraordinary. Noted on the front cover as “Working with families – Special feature”, there are six thematically linked pages and six articles – most authored by qualified social workers – reporting on issues such as urban and rural deprivation, social isolation, child abuse, and the plight of recent immigrants. Furthermore, as a means of branding the feature, there is a banner across each of the six pages comprising a montage of ‘tabloid’ newspaper headlines. Among these, “A Daughter’s Cry for Help”, “Nightmares of Timid Toddler”, and “Wife Beaters Learn Young” provide a flavour. Taken together, these articles and the means by which they were presented, clearly mark a change in direction and a desire to portray the realities borne by some children and their families.

Successive issues continued to concentrate on these ‘new realities’ and throughout 1976, readers were presented with reports on such matters as depression, single-parent families, and problem teenagers.

The final edition of Gateway was issued in Spring 1993, and the themes brought into sharp focus almost twenty years previously, along with The Children’s Society’s stated avowal to provide “a comprehensive child care service” allied to its “privileged position to innovate,” continued to be reflected right through to the final issue, for example, featuring articles on the ‘New Poor’ and Child Prostitution. Allied to this, the necessity and desire to report professionally on events and circumstances – however, distressing or disturbing – was always to the forefront and never shied from.

The cover of the Spring edition of Gateway in 1993

The cover of the Spring edition of Gateway in 1993

All quotes are from Walter Horrocks, Working with Families, Gateway, Winter 1975, p.4

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: http://www.hiddenlives.org.uk/unexplored_riches

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: http://youtu.be/SGeDtaBeXYo and the project also features on the Wellcome Trust’s website: http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/Funding/Medical-humanities/Funding-schemes/Research-resources-awards/Projects-funded/index.htm

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


Never Standing Still

Today we have a blog post written by one of our volunteers, Rod Cooper.


Ever wondered about the activities of The Children’s Society and how these have evolved? I have been lucky enough to research a remarkable period in The Children’s Society’s history, and one that reflects significant changes in our society in general.

Annual review for The Children's Society, dated 1977/8, and a magazine sent to supporters of the charity, dated 1975, showing the change in emphasis in The Children's Society's work

Some time ago I was asked to help out with clarifying information in The Children’s Society Archive’s database, and to record the activities of The Children’s Society’s homes from the mid-1960s through to the latter part of the last century.

All very interesting I thought, and shouldn’t be too difficult. Just a few weeks work. But then just how wrong can you be?

Two years on, and after much scouring of The Children’s Society’s annual reports and supporters’ magazines (such as Gateway magazine and Children in Focus magazine), the consequence is a significantly more extensive than anticipated spreadsheet that records the year-by-year activities of The Children’s Society’s various homes and projects. In due course this will be compared against information already stored on the Archive’s database, and any amendments and revisions thus recorded.

Due to constraints in the availability of data, the greater part of the information relates to a period from the late-1960s through to the mid-1990s; the periods either side often lacking information of comparable depth and breadth. But this caveat aside, the period for which I have sourced data has – and I freely admit perhaps more by accident than design – resulted in a time-line charting broad-scale changes in The Children’s Society’s activities over a thirty year period. Changes that reflect significant shifts in the social, cultural and economic fabric of our society as a whole.

During the early part of this project, and as each snippet of information stood in relative isolation, there appeared to be little rhyme or reason behind The Children’s Society’s activities. However, it wasn’t long before developing themes and evolving strategies came much into focus.

Over the thirty year period, for example, I’ve traced declining activities such as the rapid closure of nurseries in the 1960s and the related fall in the number of infants for adoption (put rather succinctly in one article as a consequence of three things: more “unsupported” mothers wishing to keep their babies; the impact of the contraceptive pill; and changes in the abortion law). There was a significant change too in the number of children’s homes. More and more of these were either closed or transferred into local authority management whilst The Children’s Society chose to extend its focus towards the family unit and, more specifically, to help maintain family life and keep families together. Hence the rise of the Family Centre in the 1980s. The focus too shifted away from younger children to “young people” in their teenage years. In the face of rising unemployment and social stresses in the 1980s and beyond, this meant involvement in employment and training projects, hostels for homeless young people and provision of legal assistance. All a far cry from The Children’s Society’s activities of just few short years before, when the emphasis had been on nurseries and homes for younger children.

And this is just a taste of it. There is much more. But that can wait for another time. What started out as a relatively straightforward piece of house-keeping to help sort out a database has taken on a life of its own, and thrown up some revealing and fascinating insights into your organisation’s activities over the years.

St. Nicholas’ Orthopaedic Hospital, Body Braces and Little’s Disease

Today we have a guest post written by a member of our project team, Clare McMurtrie.


Girls at St. Nicholas’ Hospital and Special School, Pyrford, Surrey. Three are in wheelchairs. [1915]

As a volunteer indexing some of the 30,000 case files at The Children’s Society (previously known as the Waifs and Strays Society) and focusing on medical histories referring to children who were admitted into convalescent homes, what seems most prescient is their place in history. Travelling in an archivists’ TARDIS through the case files we discover allusions to mystery diseases and children who suffered lifelong debilitating disability, many of which were unrecognised or untreatable at the time.

One of these conditions is cerebral palsy (CP), or spastic diplegia as it was commonly referred to. Historically known as Little’s Disease, spastic diplegia is a form of CP, a chronic condition seen in a high and constant muscle tightness or stiffness, usually affecting the legs, hips and pelvis. Dr William John Little named the condition in the mid-1800s. His first recorded encounter with CP is reported to have been with children who displayed signs of spastic diplegia; this condition is by far the most common type of CP, occurring in around 70% of cases. Little’s personal childhood experience of mumps, measles, whooping cough, polio and clubfoot (all conditions seen in The Children’s Society’s case files) led him to establish pioneering treatments for the condition. Some of these early treatments included the use of a wheelchair or crutches to aid movement, as well as full body braces!

Girls at St. Nicholas’ Orthopaedic Hospital and Special School, Pyrford, Surrey; with a kid goat third from the right [c1910s]

Group photo of a teacher and ten girls, one of whom is in a wheelchair and another is using a crutch; St Nicholas’ Orthopaedic Hospital and School, Pyrford, Surrey [1917]

The Children’s Society has six recorded cases of cerebral palsy, five of whom were received into St Nicholas’ Home, West Byfleet, Surrey or to St Nicholas’ Home when it later moved to Pyrford in Surrey. St Nicholas’ home originally opened in Tooting in London in 1887, the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, after founder Edward Rudolf saw a need for medical centres catering to the countries poorest children. The home moved to West Byfleet in 1893 and then to Pyrford in 1908, with the home in Pyrford also operating as a hospital. In many cases the cost and time needed to care for children with CP meant that children who otherwise would stay with their parents were taken into The Children’s Society’s care.

Cases resulting from poverty include Vera, whose parents also had a small baby and elderly parent to care for, and Mabel, whose father was regularly out of work and then fought France during the First World War. In other cases the loss of income of one parent, through death or absence, caused children with CP to be admitted to St Nicholas’. These include Dorothy, whose father had left, and George, Lora and Phyllis, whose fathers died, leaving families unable to keep them. In a time when men were typically the main money-earners in a household, The Society acted as a short term buffer in many of these cases, offering food and a home for the children, rather than medical treatment. In all cases the children were returned to their family after as little as a year with The Children’s Society. In the case of Mabel, received into St Nicholas’ in 1910, medical treatment was given at the revolutionary Great Ormond Street Hospital, twice (in 1912 and 1913), where she had an operation to straighten one of her feet. Great Ormond Street Hospital opened its doors in Bloomsbury in 1852, as The Hospital for Sick Children, and remains one of the world’s leading children’s hospitals.

The outside of the building of St. Nicholas’ Home, Pyrford, Surrey, c1910s

Overall the case files that refer to children with cerebral palsy reveal more of the lives of the children than of the treatments and conditions that they endured. We are left to fill in the gaps in early-20th century medical knowledge!

Find out more:

Learn more about cerebral palsy: http://www.cerebralpalsy.org.uk

Discover the more about some of the conditions and treatments mentioned in the case files: http://wellcomecollection.org

Learn about the history of Great Ormond Street Hospital: http://www.gosh.nhs.uk/about-us/our-history

Find out why a set of instruments in the Science Museum’s collection is important to the history of cerebral palsy: http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/online_science/explore_our_collections/objects/index/smxg-96574

Neglect, Ambition, Bad Fortune, and the Early Years of Blood Transfusion

Today we have a guest post written by one of our project volunteers, Ella St John-McAlister.


Reading Alfred’s case file left me with the impression that he had been a bright and ambitious boy. He came into the care of The Children’s Society (then known as The Waifs and Strays Society) in 1916. Unlike the subjects of most case files I come across (I am researching children’s illnesses and their medical history) he was a healthy boy. This was in spite of Alfred’s father having passed away when Alfred was five years old and his mother being jailed twice for neglecting her children – although the nature and extent of her “immoral life” is unclear.

We know little about Alfred’s life before he entered The Children’s Society except that he had six brothers and sisters, one of whom was the illegitimate child of a “sergeant who was called to France and killed”. It was for neglecting this child that Alfred’s mother was first jailed in 1916. We also know that all of Alfred’s brothers and sisters were in the workhouse: a desperate, destitute sanctuary for those who were unable to support themselves. Something of Alfred’s character comes across in the application form submitted to The Children’s Society, where it states that Alfred played truant despite being “quick and sharp”.

Alfred was admitted into The Children’s Society’s care at the age of eight in 1916, and at the age of 14 he applied for an apprenticeship on a Navy training ship called the Arethusa, indicating a desire to travel and a willingness to “obey his [the Commander’s] and [his successors’] lawful commands”.

Alfred’s acceptance letter from the Arethusa Navy Training ship, 1922 (case number 20702)

The fact that he was allowed to join the ship indicates that he must have been at a certain level of health because there were strict requirements on the height and health of those who joined:

Age: 13½-15   Height: At least 4ft. 8 in. (without boots.)
Age: Over 15   Height: At least 4ft. 10½in. (ditto.)

Once on board a typical daily menu aboard the Arethusa might have looked something like this:

  • 1lb soft bread
  • 8oz biscuit
  • 7oz fresh meat
  • 8oz potatoes
  • 3/4oz cocoa
  • 1/8oz tea
  • 2/3oz sugar

A pretty meagre and dour menu by today’s standards. After he joined the Arethusa Alfred vanishes from view. Sadly, it is a letter from Alfred’s mother reporting his death in 1926 at the age 18 that enables us to piece together an idea of his last years.

A letter from Alfred’s mother informing The Children’s Society of his death, 1926 (case number 20702)

A letter from Alfred’s mother informing The Children’s Society of his death, 1926 (case number 20702)

Dear Sir,

I feel I must write to tell you the sad news of
my poor boy, Albert [middle initial, surname], he went out to America 2 ½
yrs. ago. I was Expecting him home last Easter, I received
news a fortnight ago to-day to say he met with an accident
on Jan 11th and died Jan 19th it is a terrible shock to me,
I shall never, never get over it, he had an operation and
transfusion of blood, but they could not save him.

When the snow was about, he was in a sled coasting
down a steep hill, when the sled struck a stick, causing it
to swerve into the gutter seriously injuring him, they took
him to St. Vincent’s Hospital, West New Brighton, he was
provided with a private room and two trained nurses, at the
expence [sic] of the New York Telephone Coy. [Company] where he had been
employed only two months, previous to that, he
served 12 months in the U.S Army, so ten of his soldier
friends acted as ball [sic] bearers and firing squad over his
grave, he put his age on 3 years, by letters I have had his
friends were surprised at his correct age, he was a fine
fellow. The British Society and his firm gave him a good
burial, plenty of flowers, in fact, he was far better
treated than he would have been in England, I hope you don’t
mind me writing, but I felt I must.

I don’t know what I shall do without him, he
was always a man in his ways, I would not mind so much if
I could have seen him the last of him, or if I only I could see
his grave.

I hope this will find Matron quite well,

I am,

Yours Truly,

(Sgd. [Signed]) Alice [middle initial, surname]

It is a sad ending to what looked as if it could have been a very promising future, but this letter also holds some fascinating information. The reference to a blood transfusion is the first instance we have found of this procedure in The Children’s Society’s case files. The technology behind the procedure for extracting, storing, and transfusing blood was still developing at the time Alfred received his transfusion.

The first recorded, successful attempts at blood transfusions happened in the 1600s, although these experiments used animals. Even in the late 1800s blood transfusions were shunned by medical professionals and considered extremely risky. In fact, in Britain in the early 20th century, surgery textbooks referred to blood transfusions as a quaint relic of medical history. If only they had known! However, just as the idea of blood transfusions was being cast aside, the discovery of different blood types was made. The medical and surgical needs brought on by World War I also acted as a catalyst for the idea of blood transfusions gaining respectability within the medical field.

Click here for more information about blood transfusions (including an interesting image) from The Science Museum.

What makes Alfred’s story so exciting is that in 1926 when he received his blood transfusion, the first hospital blood bank in the United States had not even been established. Whilst blood was donated voluntarily in Britain from the early 1920s onwards, donors were being paid up to $100 for a pint of blood in the U.S., meaning Alfred’s procedure could have been quite a costly one.

Although Alfred’s case file is fairly slender, it contains useful information on what it was like to be a child at that time and a child under The Children’s Society’s care, and also on an important medical advance, one many of us might take for granted today.

Volunteering: embracing diversity and inclusion

How can we improve our volunteering programme at The Children’s Society? A couple of weeks ago myself and two of our volunteers, Hilary and Rod, went to find some answers to that very question when we attended a volunteering forum at the St Alban’s Centre in London.

St Alban's Centre in London on a bright October morning

I’d been to a previous volunteering forum in Birmingham in March. These events are a chance for volunteers and volunteer managers from across The Children’s Society to get together and share ideas on how to make our volunteering programme better.

The theme for October’s volunteering forum was “Embracing Diversity and Inclusion”. We spent the day discussing how we can embed diversity and inclusion into our volunteer programme here at The Children’s Society. This means working out what barriers there might be that prevent people from volunteering with us and finding ways to remove those barriers.

What we’re striving for is to have a diverse range of people volunteering for The Children’s Society, with all the skills, experiences and insights that they can bring with them. Not only that, we want our organisation to reflect society as a whole and the children we work with so that we’re able to do the best we can to help those children.

A break for tea after some interesting discussions

It was a packed day. First we heard from The Children’s Society’s Volunteering Team who explained what we’re doing now, how diverse our volunteer base is and where we need to improve. Then we heard from a panel of guest speakers from different charities and organisations across the country, who talked to us about what they are all doing to improve diversity and inclusion. We picked up lots of ideas from the panel, ranging from making it as easy as possible for volunteers to get their expenses reimbursed, to providing different ways for people to apply to volunteer roles so that they can choose the way that is easiest for them.

After lunch we heard a talk about unconscious bias: the ways in which we can be biased for or against certain things without even knowing it. We learnt about the different ways we can be biased, whether that’s by our own expectations and stereotypes or through being influenced by the opinions of others. It was sobering and thought-provoking stuff, but really fascinating as well.

Thankfully we were shown how to avoid being swayed by our biases. One way is to avoid making important decisions when there’s little time or when you’re tired and stressed, as these situations are when you can be most influenced by your biases. Another way is to find out what biases you have; that way you can make an extra effort to not be swayed by them. To help with this last one, we were told about the Harvard bias tests which you can take to discover what unconscious biases you may have. Warning: the results of these tests can be surprising, as you may be more biased than you think!

Finally, the last part of the day was a group session where we discussed the different things we could do to embed diversity and inclusion within volunteering at The Children’s Society. This was a really productive session and there were lots of ideas and actions to take away.

Overall, it was a really interesting day. There was a lot of food for thought, and I certainly have some ideas for how we can improve the volunteer experience here at The Children’s Society Archive.

They also had some copies of our snazzy new volunteer handbook at the volunteering forum, so I brought a few back with me

Want to get involved? If you’re thinking about volunteering with us at The Children’s Society, take a look at our volunteering pages to see our current volunteer opportunities.

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: http://www.bmj.com/archive

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.

A budding artist

Today we have a guest post written by one of our project volunteers, Leonora Fane-Saunders.


Some of the most interesting documents found in the case files are letters written by the children in care to family and friends. They reveal much about life in the homes and about a child’s interests, talents and character.

Edward Gurt was eight years old when an application to The Children’s Society (then the Waifs and Strays Society) was made by Miss Bessie Peacock, the former employer of Edward’s mother. Edward’s father had died, which left his mother struggling to support him.

On the twenty fifth of March 1907 Edward was initially admitted into St Martin’s Home for Crippled Boys, Surbiton, Surrey, due to talipes varus, a congenital deformity of the foot. However, after to a successful operation, Edward was deemed fit for an ordinary home and was transferred first to the Islington Home in London and then to St Michael’s Home in Chislehurst, Kent.

Little is heard about Edward until May 1911 when there is a letter from the head teacher of his school stating that Edward suffered from a heart condition and poor eyesight and would not be allowed to return to school until a doctor pronounced him fit to. As a result Edward was transferred to the Devon House Home in Margate, Kent; this home wasn’t run by The Society, but it specialised in looking after ‘delicate’ children. It was from here that he wrote two very interesting letters to his mother.

Letter from Edward to his mother, 1911 (case number 12589)

Letter from Edward to his mother, 1911 (case number 12589)

July 2nd 1911.

Dear Mother,

I am writing to
tell you that I am getting
used to this new home, here
in Margate. It is a nice
place but I shall be (able) glad
when I can come home and
get some work. I am sorry I
did not write before. How are
Kate, and Harriett getting on.
I don’t suppose you will be able
to come and see me, because
I am too far away from you.
We are having very fine weather
here, and I enjoy myself.

At the Coronation we saw some
races in the park, and at night
when it was getting dark we
saw some fireworks. Please will
you send me six penny stamps.
Last Wednesday the master gave
us all a treat and we had
races and tea up in the field.
Every Saturday we have a
game of cricket.

I remain your
loving Son Edward xxxxx

To Harriett & Kate xxxx xxxx.

Please write soon.

Letter from Edward to his mother, 1911 (case number 12589)

Letter from Edward to his mother, 1911 (case number 12589)

November 12th 1911.

Dear Mother,

I hope you are
still well & happy. I have
not heard from Jack yet
but when I have I will
let you know. If I come
home it will cost 3s 1d
but I shall have to out

how long I can stay. I
shall be glad when I can
come home. Could you send
me some stamps. My stamp-
-album is nearly full. I
have a page of United States,
Austria, France & Germany.
We all had a magic-
lantern last night and

I enjoyed it very much.
I shall be glad when
I can live in London again.
As Jack come home from
Canada yet, or, is (his) he
coming at all. Give my love
to Kate & Harriett. I should
like to see you and Kate
again soon & also Gladys.
I hope Stanley still likes

living in Surrey. I think
I must close now.

I remain your loving
Son Edward xxxx.

These letters reveal a budding artist and avid stamp collector who may be a little home-sick and missing his family. They show he has a tendency to write in dialect: as instead of has. The letters also depict a little of what life was like for Edward and the other boys in the Margate Home. It is clear that sports were encouraged in the form of a weekly cricket game. A picnic and a magic-lantern (an early projection system and forerunner to movies) were provided as treats for the boys. Interestingly, these letters mostly describe special events in Edward’s life, such as the fireworks in celebration of the coronation of King George V.

Sadly due to Edward’s heart condition The Society found it difficult to obtain either training or a job for him. After several fruitless enquiries Edward was eventually returned to his mother in 1912. No further information is given in his file, which leaves us wondering if he ever built up the artistic talent shown in those letters.

Our research volunteers

In a previous blog post I talked about our volunteers who are helping to conserve the children’s case files. Today it’s the turn of our volunteers who are helping to research into and document the medical information in those case files. Starting in the middle of last year we’ve had five volunteers and one work-placement student helping with this research task, and together they’ve unearthed a large amount of medical information, which has now been documented in CALM, our catalogue database.

But that’s enough of me talking; here’s what the volunteers have to say themselves:

“The majority of my time involves working with and handling the case files, which go back to the 1880s! Our job is to extract medical notes and information from the case files in order to build up an online database of medical conditions that the Society dealt with.”

“I extract pieces of information from the case files and upload the information onto CALM where all the records are kept. For instance, if a record on CALM says a child went to Hospital; my role is to try and find out why that child went to Hospital. Once I have found the information needed I update it onto CALM.”

“By going through the correspondence and other documents contained in each case file, it will (hopefully!) become apparent why each child’s stay in a hospital or convalescent home was deemed necessary. This information is then added to the ‘case history’ section of the case file’s CALM record, along with relevant medical index terms. The index terms are taken from archival thesauri to ensure that they are the most suitable names for medical conditions and help researchers find the records they are interested in.”

Collecting case files from the store

The volunteers are a diverse and motivated bunch. I asked them why they wanted to volunteer with us:

“I felt that I needed some work experience in a history related job and I discovered The Children’s Society was offering this wonderful opportunity to archive medical documents from the 19th century. I was motivated to apply for the volunteering as it seemed such an interesting role and I thought it would be great to volunteer for such a prestigious organisation.”

“I’ve always thought that we have a lot to learn from history and projects such as this are invaluable in teaching us about people and disease. I jumped at the chance to learn from hundred year old documents, many of which have remained untouched!”

“I’d helped out TCS [The Children’s Society] with street collections previously and happy to contribute to a good cause.”

“I was hoping to broaden my experience of archives prior to applying for paid work and postgraduate course in archives. Learning about indexing on CALM is a valuable accompaniment to the cataloguing skills which I have acquired in other voluntary roles.”

Updating the CALM catalogue database

This project isn’t always easy. For some volunteers the most challenging part is the condition of the documents. Our conservation team is doing a stellar job of making the files easier to handle, but those documents that haven’t been conserved yet can be tricky to use.

“You have to be flexible when dealing with the case files. From one minute to the next you can be looking at completely different files – some have mould, some are in newer formats, some are small – and you have to respond respectively.”

[The most challenging part of the role is] “Handling some of the files which are in poor condition.”

For other volunteers, the handwriting and the language from 100 years ago can take a bit of getting used to. It seems like some doctors’ handwriting is hard to read no matter when it was written!

“The variety of handwriting and how sometimes letters can be difficult to read make this the most challenging part of the role.”

“The most challenging aspect of the role is trying to read the documents correctly. The majority of the documents I read are hand written, so it takes time and focus to read the documents accurately and find the relevant information.”

“Another minor difficulty which I occasionally face is encountering antiquated names or spellings for illnesses, which can make decisions about indexing the case files more tricky.”

And then there’s the information in the files itself, which can be very moving at times:

“Inevitably, given the medical nature of the project, there are some case files which detail sad stories of children suffering and dying from diseases. It is notable how many children a century ago were afflicted with conditions such as tuberculosis and scarlet fever, which are much less prevalent in Britain today due to advances in medical technology and people’s living conditions.”

A case file for research

Thankfully, despite the difficult parts, the volunteers have been finding the project enjoyable:

[I’ve enjoyed] “Getting an insight into the lives of the poor and disadvantaged 100 years ago.”

“One of things I love most about my role is that no one day is the same as you deal with different children’s case files who have their own unique personality and life. Moreover, as I am currently studying modern British History, the case files really bring history to life as there is real life evidence of a number of things I have studied.”

“It is also rewarding to come across positive stories recorded in the case files, when children have overcome medical problems. A memorable example involved a boy who, having already been in hospital frequently, was accidentally hit in the eye by some putty thrown out of a window by a builder. Despite this incident permanently damaging his eyesight, he was still able to find a job and work successfully in The Children’s Society head office a few years later.”

“I have enjoyed learning about the lives of the children that were under the societies care and getting a glimpse of what life was like for them at the time.”

“I have enjoyed handling the documents and reading peoples’ personal histories. I have found reading documents that are nearly 100 years old something quite special and rewarding.”

“I have really enjoyed working with the Society. Before I started I knew little about the Society’s history or the work it does today. Handling original case files has been a fascinating window onto decades of social history and the role the Society has had in it.”

Many thanks to the volunteers for taking the time to answer my questions and, not least, for being such a great asset to this project! Thanks to their help, our knowledge of the medical information in our collection is coming on in leaps and bounds.

If you would like to learn more about volunteering for The Children’s Society, please take a look at our volunteering pages.