The late nineteenth century saw the shift from putting orphaned or destitute children in the workhouse to housing them in cottage homes. Aston Union Cottage Homes (Erdington Cottage Homes as it became better known) is one of the largest and longest standing cottage homes in the country, and, as such, is perhaps an ideal illustration of the journey council-run residential childcare has taken from the workhouse to the current mix of fostering and residential unit placements. A new book, The Children of the Homes, looks at this journey in the words of the people who spent all or part of their childhood in the cottage homes.Birmingham, as we now know the city, had three sets of cottage homes. Marston Green to the east of the current city, near the airport; Shenley Fields to the south-west of the city and Erdington in the north. Marston Green was the first to be built by Birmingham Union but it was closed relatively early in 1933. Shenley Fields was built by Kings Norton Union in 1897 and lasted for a century until 1987.
Aston Union built cottage homes in Erdington in 1897, moving the first 70 children in straight from the workhouse next door in 1899.
The Layout of the Homes
The cottage homes were built on an avenue – a kind of early cul-de-sac. With iron gates at the top of the avenue, the porter’s lodge was the first building on the right. The porter’s lodge was where children were initially taken on their arrival at the homes. Former residents remember feeling that they were being assessed and a particularly strong image is taking a bath.
The houses were initially single sex: girls were on the left, boys on the right, with sixteen houses in all initially each having accommodation for 15 – 20 children. Half-way down the avenue was the Superintendent’s House; he was appointed as a couple with his wife who took on the role of Matron. This large house incorporated the only grassed gardens of the Homes and had a tennis court for the staff members. The children’s houses had asphalt yards.
At the end of the avenue was the chapel which incorporated a nursery school, the infirmary (staffed by a nurse and a visiting doctor), a school for infants, a swimming pool and workshops in which older boys received industrial training. The girls were trained in domestic service.
Older children went to Slade Road School, a short walk from the Homes but otherwise the children lived an insular life with their needs being met on site. There were few visits from family members and few regular trips outside the Homes. Insularity was not total, however, and, certainly in the 1910s and 1920s, there were some trips out and visits to the homes of school friends.
After the Homes
The turn of the century saw not only the development of the cottage homes but also what were known as service girls’ homes and boys’ homes – the forerunners of working girls’ and boys’ hostels. Most were started by independent organisations to be taken over by the Guardians of the Poor.
The service girls’ home on Moseley Road , for example, was initially run by a voluntary association and was used by the Board of Guardians to place older girls coming out of the cottage homes in return for a £175 annual fee paid by the Board to the voluntary association. In June 1912, the Board of Guardians took over the home.
The Impact of War
The first period of major change in the cottage homes was brought about by the Second World War. It appears that Erdington Cottage Homes took in more children during the war and in the years immediately following it. The workhouses, for example, were themselves turned into a house for children, as was the former porter’s lodge. Some of the younger children were evacuated to residential nurseries in North Wales.
But the nature of the cottage homes changed in the years following the war. The single live-in foster mothers who took care of each house in the pre-war years were replaced by married couples who were the live-in houseparents, often bringing their own children with them and encouraging all the children to call them mum and dad. Visiting by parents was increased in 1949 to three times a month from the once every three months it had been in the 1930s.
The houses, previously known by what was effectively a street number were given names in an attempt to obviate institutionalisation. Names such as Sunnyside, The Haven and Orchardside were now how the houses were officially known, although former residents were still using the numbers into the late 1950s.
Annual holidays to Wales or the south coast were now part of the routine of the Homes and children were given some freedom to go to the local parks or the High Street.
The memories of children in this time are mixed. Some remember being unfairly taken away from their families and put into a harsh environment of abuse and cruelty. Others feel they were rescued from unhappy home circumstances and found a happy ‘family’ life in the Homes. Did the regime work for some children and fail others? Were there some rogue houseparents, and other staff members, who, left largely to their own devices, chose to mistreat the children in their charge? What is certainly true is that many former residents have been left not understanding their time in care – not knowing why they were taken into care, or why they were separated from siblings. Without the answers to these and other questions it was much harder to come to terms with the whole experience.
A Period of Growth
From the 1950s, the number of children in council-run residential accommodation in Birmingham grew significantly. In 1955, for example, there were 1,308 children in care and 686 of these were in council-run children’s homes. In 1975, the figures were 3,848 and 2,123 respectively. The council had dealt with this massive increase over the two decades both by building new children’s homes and opening homes in other buildings. For example, 27 family group homes were built in the 1950s and 1960s in Birmingham’s new council estates. Several purpose-built working children’s hostels were opened and several homes were opened in large old houses. By the mid-1970s, there were in excess of 100 council-run children’s homes in Birmingham.
Residential nurseries were also opened in the city, several having started life as war-time nurseries offering short-term care for children whose parents were away, injured or working shifts.
The cottage homes were also going through changes of their own. In 1966, the decision was taken to change the structure of the Homes. No longer were the cottage homes to be a single large institution overseen by a Superintendent and Matron. Instead, the houses were each made independent of each other and were managed by their own Houseparents. Spending decisions, placement decisions etc. were now made by the individual homes, and not the cottage homes as a whole. Effectively, the cottage homes became a street of children’s homes called The Gardens. The Lindens and then Ravenhurst became the Reception Centres, placing children not only into homes on The Gardens but in any of the children’s homes in the area.
Some former residents were aware of this change, others were not. Some tell of having less contact with the children of the other homes on The Gardens. Others, when meeting children from the other homes, were keenly aware of the differences between the homes and had a strong sense of whether they were being treated fairly or not in relation to how other children were being treated. In general, it is perhaps fair to say that there was more movement between the homes on The Gardens and the other council-run homes of the city.
The 1970s saw the move away from live-in Houseparents and towards teams of shift-working staff members led by an Officer-in-charge. The numbers of children in each home was reduced down to twelve (having reached a peak of 18 in 1948) in line with the thinking that smaller homes were more appropriate for children.
Finally, in the early 1980s, the homes on The Gardens began to close. The houses were too large, draughty and inflexible (still having dormitory bedrooms for example) for use as modern homes. Most of the homes on The Gardens were closed by the mid-1980s. The former Probationary Home, however, continued in use as a children’s home until the late 1990s.
An Oral History
There is little publicly available about life in Erdington Cottage Homes. The information that does exist, such as the minutes of committee meetings and registers of admission and discharge are generally not available to the public because of concerns about Data Protection and give away little of daily life in the Homes. The Children of the Homes was a one year project to find out the history of the Homes through the memories of people who spent all or part of their childhood in the Homes. People were interviewed in their homes, on the telephone or by email and lively discussions were had on the project’s Facebook site. The result is a book of the history of the Homes, largely in the words of the former residents, a rare insight into how former children in care view their time in the cottage homes and how the changes in residential childcare affected them and their perceptions of their care.
The Children of the Homes: A Century of Erdington Cottage Homes
by Gudrun Limbrick BA Hons Oxon MA Bham
Published June 2012