Book Review: By David Lane

Children’s Homes: A history of institutional care for Britain’s young

by Peter Higginbotham

Pen and Sword Books Ltd, Barnsley (2017)

Review by David Lane


Peter Higginbotham has packed a massive amount of information into his 285 pages of text. I know of no other book covering the subject so comprehensively, and it deserves to become the standard text on the subject.

The book has twenty-five chapters, covering the subject matter under a variety of themes, but broadly in chronological order, from the first institutions for children in Tudor times through the major innovations of the eighteenth century and the burgeoning of institutions in the nineteenth century to the replacement of residential care with fostering during the twentieth century, and the closures of homes, ending with a summary of the twenty-first century inquiries into abuse. The volume of material is breath-taking, and it is clearly well researched.

All the major charities are mentioned, such as Dr Barnardo’s, the Waifs and Strays Society (established by Edward Rudolf), the National Children’s Homes and Orphanages (set up by Thomas Stephenson), all of which have changed their names but are still providing services for children and young people. The impact of outstanding individuals comes through the text, and some gave their names to the homes they initiated or ran, such as the Earl of Shaftesbury, James Fegan, James Quarrier and George Muller

There is a chapter on homes which specialised in meeting the needs of children with disabilities. The chapter provides an excellent example of the way language has changed over time. In the nineteenth century these children were given labels such as blind, deaf and dumb, crippled or mentally defective. There is virtually no mention of services for children with mental health problems, which is an unfortunate omission, as adolescent psychiatric units have played an important role, not only in offering care and treatment but also in keeping children out of adult hospitals.

Occupational homes are the subject of a chapter. Soldiers, sailors, police, railway workers, clergy, teachers and actors all raised funds to provide residential care for the children of members of their respective trades and professions who were orphaned.

Another chapter describes the migration of children and young people to Canada and Australia, mainly during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The advocates of these schemes saw them as providing opportunities for the children to start new lives in healthy surroundings away from the slums and social problems of Britain. Critics, even in the late 1800s, saw the transporting of children as uprooting, and sadly, many were abused or exploited in their new surroundings, though some did well.

The title of the book betrays one of the problems faced by Peter Higginbotham. There have been many types of residential care for children and young people, and the children’s homes of the title are only one important type of establishment, which is presumably why the subtitle is more of a catch-all. A title describing the whole range of provision would have been very cumbersome. Peter has included reformatories, ragged schools, industrial schools, emigration homes, approved schools and foster care.

Considerations of space may have led him to exclude residential special education, which is unfortunate, as for many children it was the chance of which professional dealt with them first which determined how their problems were defined and which type of establishment they were allocated to. A child with disturbed behaviour could end up in a children’s home, a special school, an adolescent psychiatric unit or an approved school, for example, depending on the system through which they were referred for help. Furthermore, when children’s homes were closed in the latter part of the twentieth century there appeared to have been a corresponding growth in special residential education. The special education sector was also the provider of most therapeutic care, and much of the best and most influential writing was generated there, by people such as David Wills and Barbara Dockar-Drysdale.

The book is really well illustrated, with some copies of documents, a few prints and a large number of photographs from the nineteenth century onwards.

There are chapters on fund-raising, aftercare, life in children’s homes, the abuse of children and the future of residential child care. These are all important subjects, but it would also have been helpful to have chapters on the inspection of homes and the training of staff, to give the full picture. Peter mentions the early pioneering training offered by Barnardo’s and the National Children’s Homes, but not later developments. Qualifying training was developed in the latter half of the twentieth century and it had a real impact on the quality of care.

For readers interested in family history the last chapter gives a helpful description of sources of information, where archives are held and how to access them. This is a major problem, as they are held in a wide variety of places, and sadly much documentation has been destroyed. The major charities and local authorities have staff who can help identify material, but smaller charities do not have the resources to archive their records, and unfortunately this has been a low priority in many organisations.

In writing this book and identifying the main sources of material Peter Higginbotham has done a real service for researchers, and people who want to know what life was like for any relatives who experienced residential care in the past. The book will also be of interest to general readers and of considerable value to students and people interested in the history of specific homes and organisations.

By covering the whole history of the homes Peter implicitly raises questions about the sorts of provision we should be offering to children and young people in the future. He devotes a chapter to this subject, which is based on recent reports and policy developments; he does not tell us what he thinks. This is perhaps the subject for another book.

This volume essentially reports the facts; a companion volume focusing more on the ideas underpinning residential child care would be helpful – what motivated people setting up the homes is mentioned, but there is little on residential child care theories, as seen in therapeutic establishments for example, on the serious rift between some sections of the field social work profession and residential child care workers, on the impact of professionalisation and training, or on an evaluation of the effectiveness of the services offered. Peter Higginbotham’s contribution is that he has given us a wealth of systematic information to use in such debates, and we are indebted to him.




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