Learning about volunteering in Birmingham

Last week David, one of our Unexplored Riches in Medical History project volunteers, and I went on a day out to sunny Birmingham.

Blue skies at Birmingham Moor Street Station

Here in Birmingham The Children’s Society Volunteering Team were hosting a forum for volunteers and their managers, from across the organisation, to get together and share experiences. (As a bonus, for those of you interested in history — and puddings — the forum was held at a place called the Custard Factory, which was the home of Bird’s Custard in the 19th and 20th Centuries!)

The day started with two talks. First up was Justin Davis-Smith, Executive Director of Volunteering at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO). Justin gave us an overview of volunteering across the UK, how it is being recognised by the government and what politicians can do to help volunteering thrive even further. He also talked about exciting new developments and trends in volunteering, such as ‘micro-volunteering’ projects, where people can volunteer online for only 30 minutes at a time, and organised rock concerts that are used to encourage young people to give volunteering a go.

Justin Davis-Smith, Executive Director of Volunteering at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, talks about volunteering in the UK

Next along was Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society. Matthew talked about how vital volunteers are to the work of The Children’s Society and how everything we do would grind to a halt without them. Interestingly, for us archive folks, Matthew highlighted how volunteering has been at the heart of The Children’s Society right from the very beginning. In 1881 our founder, Edward Rudolf, and those that helped him, gave their time freely to set up a charity to help the poor and neglected children they saw around them in Victorian Britain. What motivated them was the drive to improve the lives of children and young people; and over 130 years later, this is exactly the same force that still motivates The Children’s Society and our volunteers today.

Attendees at the Volunteering Forum

After that there were lots of opportunities for us attendees to get together and discuss how we can make volunteering at The Children’s Society better. It was great to meet volunteers and volunteer managers from across the organisation and find out what they do and how they do it. And it was really useful to hear everyone’s views on what they think we do well in terms of volunteering and what we still need to improve. I definitely came away with ideas to use here in the archive.

We were split into regional groups and came up with lots of ideas for how to improve volunteering at The Children's Society

All in all it was a great day. In particular, I enjoyed talking to volunteers from all over the country and hearing what motivates them and how volunteering has changed their lives. It was inspiring stuff!

For those of you interested, we have several volunteers here at The Children’s Society archive. Those volunteers involved in the Unexplored Riches in Medical History project are helping to conserve, repackage and catalogue our children’s case files, ultimately making them usable for medical history research. To find out more, check out our volunteers tag on the blog.

If you’re thinking you’d like to get involved with The Children’s Society as a volunteer, take a look at our volunteering pages for more information on current volunteer opportunities with us and how you can help.

Were many ‘waifs and strays’ underweight 100 years ago?

Sometimes in The Children’s Society Archive you come across things that you weren’t quite expecting. In the comments to the post about diphtheria we’ve been discussing the weight and height of children 100 years ago. Spurred on, I decided to do some research of my own. The results I found were a little surprising.

From 1911 onwards a detailed medical form was created for every child who was taken into the care of The Children’s Society (then known as the Waifs and Strays Society). The forms were filled in before the children came into care so that The Children’s Society could see if they needed any immediate medical treatment. An example form is shown below (click the image to see a larger version):

Detailed medical form from case file 19917, dated 1915

Question number 12 on the form asks for the child’s weight and height. As we know the date the medical forms were created and the date the children were born, this makes it possible to calculate their body mass index (BMI).

I picked out ten case files for children who came into the care of The Children’s Society in 1912 and used the NHS’ BMI calculator to work out the BMI for each of them. My results are below:

Irene – age 11
BMI in the 6th percentile

Norah – age 13
BMI in the 8th percentile

William – age 13
BMI in the 10th percentile

Ronald – age 10
BMI in the 20th percentile

Edith – age 9
BMI in the 45th percentile

Stephen – age 6
BMI in the 52nd percentile

Arthur – age 4
BMI in the 62nd percentile

John – age 8
BMI in the 69th percentile

Ada – age 13
BMI in the 71st percentile

William – age 5
BMI in the 91st percentile

According to the NHS calculator, all of the children were at a healthy weight except for William, age 5, who is classed as overweight. However, if we take a look at the BMI charts from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, we see that these charts would class both Irene and Norah as having low BMI, being below the 9th percentile.

What does this all mean? Well, I have to admit that I was surprised. For children that came into care in 1912, I was expecting far more than 20% to have a low BMI and be underweight, and I certainly wasn’t expecting any of the children to come out as overweight!

Firstly, I have to acknowledge that my sample was very small. If I had looked at 100 or 1000 files instead of 10, I may perhaps have come to a different conclusion.

As it is, I had to have a look into Irene, Norah and William’s backgrounds to see if there was anything there that might account for their BMI.

Irene, at age 11, was living with her mother. Her parents had separated due to her father’s drinking. Trying to find work, Irene’s mother had moved to London, where she and Irene were staying temporarily with a friend. Job hunting, however, was not easy. With no job and no way to provide for the family, the only option was be for Irene to be taken into care.

Norah, at age 13, was living with her parents and two siblings, with both of her parents in regular work. Norah had been found stealing twice and so was committed by a police court to go to an industrial school for rehabilitation. What Norah had been found stealing and why is not known, but considering that she had a low BMI, poverty and a lack of food may well have had something to do with it.

William, meanwhile, at age 5, was overweight. His parents were separated and his mother was struggling to find work. This makes William’s high BMI a little confusing until we realise that because of his mother’s unemployment, William had been taken into a foster home, where his father and a charity were paying for his upkeep. William came into the care of the Waifs and Strays Society because his foster mother was no longer able to look after him.

So there we have it: ten children and not nearly as many underweight as I would have thought. Cases of malnutrition certainly happened, amongst parents as well as their children, and we have the files detailing their stories, but just how frequent those cases of malnutrition were, we don’t yet know. Time for some more in-depth research with a larger sample of cases. Anybody out there up to the task? Do email us (Hidden-Lives-Revealed@childrenssociety.org.uk) if you are, or if you would like to use The Children’s Society Archive for any other research projects that you have in mind.

Surgery for appendicitis

The story of Phyllis is a particularly sad one. Her father, who had worked on a farm, died of heart failure caused by over-exertion and exhaustion. This was in 1903 when Phyllis was three years old. Her mother was left with six children and another on the way. They were living in Kenton in Middlesex.

A month and a half later and Phyllis’ mother was struggling. Phyllis’ eldest sister, Dolly, was working as a servant and living away from home. Another of Phyllis’ siblings went to live with relatives, but this still left four children for Phyllis’ mother to provide for.

The shock of her husband’s death had made Phyllis’ mother unwell, so much so that the family’s doctor thought she would need to have a serious, and potentially fatal, operation. She wasn’t working and the family was living in temporary accommodation, which they would soon be forced to leave. For all these reasons an application was made for Phyllis and her elder sister, Ida, to enter the care of The Children’s Society (then known as the Waifs and Strays Society).

One month later, both Phyllis and Ida entered The Society’s Lampson Home in Dulwich, London. Here they both stayed until 1908 when Ida returned back to their mother. At this time their mother was unwell again, as was their grandmother who had been helping her. Ida was 15 years old by this point; she returned home to help her mother, and the intention was for Ida to go to work in domestic service once her mother was well again and no longer needed assistance.

As she was only eight years old, Phyllis remained in the Lampson Home. We don’t hear anything more about her until a year later, when there is the following letter:

Letter from case file 10143, giving the news that Phyllis had died of appendicitis following an operation, 1909

500 Lordship Lane. S.E.
May 13/09

Lampson Home

Dear Mr. Rudolf,

It will grieve you to hear that
Phyllis [surname] [died] on the 9th. inst. [instant] at Guy’s
Hospital after an operation for Appendicitis.
She was a very good girl, and we are all much
saddened by her loss. We have arranged for
the funeral at Honor Oak Cemetery at 11.30
on Saturday next.

Yours sincerely
 Ths [Thomas] Douglas.

Another letter tells us something about Phyllis’ character:

… she was one of the nicest little Girls in the Home & a great favourite with us all & also with her teacher & her school-fellows, her teacher was particularly fond of her.

Sadly for Phyllis, it seems that the operation wasn’t able to save her, despite having been treated at the prestigious Guy’s Hospital in London. The causes of her death are given as appendicitis, peritonitis (inflammation of the lining of the abdomen) and heart failure.

Appendicitis was first named in 1886 and surgery to treat the disease started to become more common after that point. Most famously King Edward VII had to postpone his coronation in 1902 in order to have urgent surgical treatment for appendicitis. Edward VII’s operation was successful but, sadly, not everybody survived the new surgical technique. From what we have found so far in the Unexplored Riches in Medical History project, appendicitis was fatal in 40% of cases of the disease. These figures only come from a small sample, so they are likely to change as the project continues, but it does suggest that surgery to treat appendicitis over one hundred years ago was not any way near as successful as it is today.

In many cases, it was not the surgery itself but complications of the disease that proved to be fatal. Mortality rates were high for people, like Phyllis, who were also suffering from peritonitis, which is an infection of the lining of the abdomen. Surgery to treat appendicitis would remove the infected appendix, but if the infection had already spread to the rest of the abdomen, there was little that could be done. Mortality rates only began to drop when antibiotics started to be used alongside surgery in the 1940s and 1950s.

Unfortunately for Phyllis, in 1909, with her complications her prognosis wouldn’t have been good. Surgery would have been her only hope for treatment, but it seems that her disease was so far gone that even that wasn’t enough to help her.

Burning books, toys and clothes?

Diphtheria can be fatal, and before 1940 it was one of the leading causes of death in children. It’s an infectious bacterial disease that affects the upper respiratory tract and instances of it were common in the early-20th Century before vaccination against it became widespread.

Due to the infectious nature of the diphtheria, it could spread quickly through children’s homes if any of the residents caught it, and a number of our records mention outbreaks of the disease.

The letter below sent to head office from St Nicholas’ and St Martin’s Orthopaedic Hospital and Special School in Pyrford, Surrey, dated 1927, shows some of the measures taken to try to combat outbreaks of diphtheria.

Letter discussing the need to burn school books thought to cause an outbreak of diphtheria at St Nicholas' and St Martin's Orthopaedic Hospital and Special School, Pyrford, Surrey, 1927

Dear Dr. Westcott

Dr. Hardy is of the opinion that
all suspect school books & material should also be
burnt at S. Martins, in view of Diptheria [sic] which
is still going on there. Miss Hutchinsons estimates
that to replace these would cost from £30-£35.

As we are £15. in hand, on the £35. sanctioned
by you at your last meeting, on S. Nicholas School,
may we please be allowed to add £15.0.0
to our expenditure for S. Martins.

My Cttee. [Committee] recommend this for your approval.

Yrs sincerely
K.A. Tringham. Hon Sec

Other letters in the file show that it was thought, in this instance, that the disease had entered the home through books and toys that had been donated by the public for the children to use. As they were thought to be the cause of the outbreak, the books and toys were burned in an attempt to stop the disease from spreading further. The rest of the letter asks The Children’s Society (then known as the Waifs and Strays Society) for further funding for new replacement books and toys to be bought; which later letters show was granted.

As a result of the incident, it was decided that used toys and clothes should no longer be donated to St Nicholas’ and St Martin’s due to the risk of infection. At first glance, this may seem like a strong reaction, but things become more clear when you realise that St Nicholas’ and St Martin’s specialised in looking after children with conditions such as tuberculosis, polio and rickets. These children would have been very susceptible to diphtheria and other infectious diseases and the managing committee didn’t want to put their health at further risk.

Rickets returns

Today, we have a guest post written by one of our project volunteers, David Lamb.

***

Earlier this month, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health released guidance for healthcare staff on identifying the symptoms of rickets. This is in response to the rise in rickets, a condition common in Victorian times, but that had largely disappeared through the 20th century. Rickets is a bone-deforming disease caused by vitamin D deficiency, stunting growth and inhibiting walking.

Hospital admissions with rickets in England increased from 561 in 2008/09 to 702 last year. January and February are the worst months because of the low levels of UV light. Observations suggest a link with some children not playing outside. The issue was covered recently in the [London] Evening Standard (13.1.14).

Over 5% of the children who passed through The Children’s Society’s care between 1881 and 1917 had rickets recorded in their case files. Below are extracts from various cases to illustrate the situation in which rickets developed and a range of its impacts.

Three year old Lydia “lives in unhealthy street (in Hackney), and never goes out during the last three months I have known it. She sits with her feet under her, not attempting to walk, and seems to require nourishment and care. The room constantly is so close and smelly it is not conducive to the child’s health, and the mother is too deformed to do her own scrubbing. I think it one of the saddest cases I have ever known”.

The medical certificate for Annie aged six records rickets resulting in bowed legs and curvature of the spine, but “with proper care she is said to be curable”. Almost ten years on, boarded out in Suffolk, she is not considered “capable of carrying heavy weights or doing much hard work. … She takes great pleasure in, and does needlework nicely”.

With six year old Allan from Teesdale, rickets in both legs and wrists had left him “hopelessly crippled unless the deformity is corrected by operation”. The file does not record whether he had that operation. After seven years in Bradstock Lockett Home in Southport, he returned to his mother.

Some children did have their ‘rickety’ condition alleviated by surgery, as in this case below. (Like all the images in this blog, click on the image below to see a larger version.)

Letter from case file 9953, mentioning proposed treatments for two children with rickets at St Thomas' Hospital, London, 1903

Others required special medical or ‘surgical’ appliances, for which funding had to be secured, as in this Welsh case:

Letter from case file 7207, discussing the funding required for a medical boot and leg support for a child with rickets, 1911

Lily from Richmond, Surrey had genu valgum [knock knees] resulting from rickets when younger.

Another rickets case, Sarah, originally from Beverley, Yorkshire was “close upon 15 – but no bigger than a child of 8 – and thus quite debarred from domestic service as she is almost a dwarf”.

With Margaret from Oxfordshire, her rickets developed soon after birth deformities, such that as an eight year old she could not use her legs beyond standing a little. However, she could use her arms well and do needlework. At nearly 16, “she is deformed, height 4ft 3in – not a girl suitable for service – does housework very nicely but her height and limbs are very much against her. She has been through our laundry, but complains of her legs hurting her, after standing or walking far.”

Hopefully, raising the alert about rickets will avoid our generation of children any of the pain, discomfort and disabilities suffered in Victorian and Edwardian times.

Lotions, ointments and eczema

Thomas’ father died from congestion of the lungs in 1891 when Thomas was 7 years old, leaving a widow and four young children. The family lived in Islington in London and the situation must have been hard for Thomas’ mother who was a cleaner, earning 4 shillings per week, which equates to only around £12 per week in today’s money.

With an extended family who couldn’t afford to help, the only option for Thomas’ mother was for her to place her children into care so that she would be able to work full-time in domestic service.

That year, Thomas’ case was accepted by The Children’s Society (then known as the Waifs and Strays Society) and he went to live in the recently-opened St Michael’s Home for Boys in Lyme Regis.

A medical form completed when Thomas entered St Michael’s home suggests that Thomas was suffering from a ‘condition’. The exact nature of this condition isn’t stated on the form, although the doctor’s opinion was that it wouldn’t need medical treatment.

Everything becomes clearer in the following letter from St Michael’s home to The Society’s head office, dated 1893:

Letter from case file 2965, mentioning the benefit of inland air for eczema, 1893

Letter from case file 2965, mentioning the benefit of inland air for eczema, 1893

Dear Mr. Rudolf.-

Mr. Peek is much vexed at the
intrusion of the 21st. for which I enclose
a cheque from The Hone. [Honourable] Mrs. Cuthbert Peek
for £5. I must therefore ask you as
soon as possible find a vacancy for
Thomas [surname]. He is a sharp
boy. & would do well in learning
an industry such as printing or carpentering

& is not of the sort to make a
good indoor servant. I am truly
grieved to part with any of them
just yet. for they are all doing
well in every respect. Thomas
[surname] suffers constitutionally
from excima [sic] & perhaps inland
air would be better for him than
sea. for these two reasons I decide
on asking you to make arrangements
for his being received elsewhere.
I will send you the tax papers
early in the week. you will be aware
of course that I have not received
a cheque from you since Oct 11th.

I remain
Yours very truly
J Waring

From this letter, we see that Thomas was suffering from eczema. For a reason that is not entirely clear, it appears that one or more boys had to leave the home. In particular, it was thought that living near the coast wasn’t helping Thomas’ condition and that the air found further inland might be better for him.

Instead of moving inland, however, we find next that Thomas was moved to another home on the South Coast; this time to Bognor Home for Boys in Sussex. Sadly, no correspondence about this move survives, so we don’t know if this move to another costal home was due to conflicting medical advice or not.

Thomas was still having problems with eczema in 1895 when he would have been 11 years old. In order to help him, he was sent to the Hospital for Skin Diseases at Blackfriars in London.

After staying in hospital for two weeks, Thomas was discharged back to the Bognor Home. A letter from the hospital states that he was ‘quite cured’.

Sadly, this prognosis appears to have been overly-optimistic, as two months later there is the following note from the Bognor home:

Could lotion & ointment used
by [Thomas' surname] in “Skin Hospital”
be sent us?

In response, Thomas returned to London to be seen by the doctor who had treated him at the hospital. We don’t know the exact outcome of this visit, but it is possible that the doctor gave Thomas a prescription for more medicine.

The next year, when Thomas was 13 years old, he was transferred to the Diocesan Home for Boys in Cambridge, which had recently been taken over by The Society. While he was in this home, a letter tells us that he was visiting hospital once a fortnight for treatment for his eczema, which was described as ‘getting better’.

Thomas was now of an age where he could begin to learn a trade. It was thought that Thomas would be well-suited to farm work and so in 1897 he was sent to Standon Farm Home for Boys in Staffordshire, which specialised in agricultural teaching. His training appears to have gone well as just over a year later, when Thomas was 15 years old, he went to work for a farmer in Market Drayton in Shropshire.

Thomas stayed in this job for one year, then left to go live with his mother who had moved to Huddersfield. Whether he was still continuing his hospital visits at this time, we don’t know.

This case, like so many of those that mention medical treatment, is tantalisingly vague. We know that Thomas was visiting hospital and that he had been given lotion and ointment to help with his eczema, but we don’t know exactly what those lotions, ointments and hospital treatments were.

Most intriguing for me is the fact that sea air was thought to be bad for eczema. In the late-19th Century so many diseases and conditions were treated with exposure to fresh sea air that it seems strange to find a case where it was recommended that sea air be avoided. If you know why this recommendation might have been made, I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts.

(The records of the Hospital for Skin Diseases at Blackfriars are held at London Metropolitan Archives. Click here for more information.)

Green dresses and white caps: nursery nurse training in Windsor

Page from a prospectus for HRH Princess Christian's Nursery Training College, Windsor, including a photograph of the exterior of the college, c1950s

In the mid-20th Century The Children’s Society had a number of colleges and hostels where students could train to become nursery nurses. The records of these places give an insight into the skills that nursery nurses were required to have.

One of the training colleges was HRH Princess Christian’s Nursery Training College based in Windsor. A prospectus for the college from around the 1950s tells us what student nurses were expected to learn:

  • Care and handling of children from birth to 5 years
  • Management of premature infants
  • Artificial feeding
  • Needlework and laundry
  • Knitting
  • Hygiene
  • Children’s ailments and infectious diseases
  • Cookery
  • The physical and mental development of the child

Page from a prospectus for HRH Princess Christian's Nursery Training College, Windsor, including a list of the subjects on the curriculum, c1950s

Once students had completed the training they were allowed to sit exams for a range of qualifications:

  • The National Nursery Examination Board Certificate
  • The Certificate of the Royal Sanitary Institute Examination for Nursery Nurses
  • The college’s own certificate

Further pages of the prospectus give us a glimpse of what it would have been like to study at the college. The image below shows photographs of a student bedroom and the corridor leading to it.

Page from a prospectus for HRH Princess Christian's Nursery Training College, Windsor, including photographs of a student bedroom and the corridor leading to it, c1950s

The final page contains details of the uniform that students were expected to wear. (As with all photographs on this blog, please click the image for a larger version.)

Page from a prospectus for HRH Princess Christian's Nursery Training College, Windsor, including details of the students' uniform, c1950s

Delving further into the records of this college, and the others like it, may unearth more information about just how nursery nurses were trained and what they were taught, particularly with regards to children’s medical care at the time.

Four nurses, wearing face masks, feeding babies, c1940s

If you want to find out more, take a look at this page from the 1952 Handbook for Workers, which explains what the aims of The Children’s Society’s nurseries were.

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.

Swimming lessons in Cumbria

One of my favourite documents in our collection is about swimming. Within the records of the children’s homes that were run by The Children’s Society, there are a number of documents that mention physical exercise. This suggests that exercise was something that the children in the homes were encouraged to participate in.

The boys living at St Mark’s Home for Boys in Natland, Cumbria, in the early-20th Century were known for swimming, and a number of boys from the home had been awarded swimming certificates by the Royal Life Saving Society.

The secret of St Mark’s Home’s swimming success was down to the way the boys were taught to swim. In fact, their method was seen as so effective that the home published a manual for other swimming instructors to learn from.

St Mark’s Home was three miles away from the local swimming pool, which meant that they weren’t able to use the pool very often. Instead, they decided on a method of teaching that may seem unusual to us now. The swimming manual states:

The method now adopted is to instruct and drill our beginners in class on land until they are at home with every position and movement for breast stroke, and the positions for floating and diving; at least a dozen drills, occupying a quarter of an hour each drill, are necessary before taking the class to the baths at all.

Helpfully, the manual comes with photographs of the boys doing their land drills for different swimming strokes, showing the positions they needed to learn and the numbers they had to call out while doing the drills.

Photograph of boys learning to swim at St Mark's Home, Natland, Cumbria, 1914

Photograph of boys learning to swim at St Mark's Home, Natland, Cumbria, 1914

For the boys at St Mark’s Home, this method of teaching seemed to work very well. I can’t help but wonder, though, if it wasn’t the method itself but instead the attitude of the instructors that helped the most. As the manual says:

Confidence is all-important to the learner, so no ducking is allowed, and we think the method of teaching by throwing a water-shy boy or any other boy into deep water is the last effort that should be resorted to.

Lying beneath these words is a hint at how other instructors were teaching children to swim at the time. I don’t know about you, but I certainly know which method I’d prefer!

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
living.

“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.