Thursday, 29 May 2014

Sisterhood, Family and World War One: The Children's Society

As an anthropologist one question particularly steadfast question about humanity is family. What does family mean? Why do we have them? Often, why do we put up with them? In my past two weeks at The Children's Society I have been particularly struck by family and siblings relationships, particularly in relation to the First World War. Family is a delicate topic in relation to adoption, fostering and charities such as The Society. Often notable for it's absence in case files, families can be estranged or in some cases pull together at times of grief or war. 

Maud's father died serving in the British Navy during World War One, on HMS Research in 1918. He left behind eight children and a wife in an 'asylum'. Far from being one of the heart-wrenching case files, Maud's is cheerier as her siblings rallied round to help each other after their father's death. In a touching and rare hand-written correspondence Maud's sister Clara writes to her when she is convalescing following influenza: "you can come and live with me until you get strong". She says: "I can look after you and be a mother to you". 

Another wartime child, Violet, lost her father as a soldier in the War. Estranged from her family, she emigrated to Canada when she turned eighteen. This was an eventful time as she was hit by a car and fractured several bones. Becoming pregnant whilst in Canada relatives sent for her to come back to England, where she was pronounced "immoral", before subsequently giving birth, the child dying 5 hours after birth. Reflecting thoughtfully in a letter, Violet said she had learnt a lesson!

About the Unexplored Riches in Medical History project:

The Unexplored Riches blog: 

My other blog: 

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Poverty, Child Prostitution and The Children's Society

Much of the classical tale of charity is based upon the child saved from the extremes of poverty who goes on to have a prosperous, respectable life. Many of the case files in The Children's Society archives describe in detail the families and poverty in which these children were living before they went to the Society. Case File A described concern that the child should never "return to the miserable court and life of starvation" and that all of the children in the family were "ill-kempt half fed and very dirty". The majority of the Society's cases were born into poverty related either to unemployment, alcoholism, disease or death, and the work of charities such as the Society helped usher in the sea change of prosperity in these children's lives. 

Case Files B and C are a severe example of the situation many of the children had been living in. These Case Files are for two young sisters, under the age of 10, and describe them as being "found residing in a house for the purpose of prostitution". Whilst shocking in our time these two girls were part of the "veritable slave trade" ( of child prostitution in Victorian England. Attitudes to sex and prostitution at the time are mirrored by the fact that the age of consent was only raised from 12 to 13 in 1875, and finally to 16 in 1885. The extensive sex trade in Victorian England was a daily reality for many, especially city dwellers, and these changes in law doubtless helped to change the situation.

To find out more about the Unexplored Riches in Medical History project see the website:

Or the project blog:

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Victorian Morality and Disease in The Children's Society

(Image from:

The recent financial crisis and the 'working poor' crisis, highlighted in particular by Sport's Relief's Famous, Rich and Hungry (featuring Jamie Laing and Rachel Johnson), has brought into sharp focus the reality of poverty and malnutrition in the UK. I have been working with The Children's Society, for eight weeks now, on their Unexplored riches in medical history project. Helping to delve into their records and archives centre, trawling through case files that go back to the 1880s, I have been looking detailing the medical histories of children looked after in Society homes into a database. In working on this project I have come across fascinating cases and details of life in Victorian England that I wish to share. This post is to signpost my initial thoughts and feelings on the project:

1) Firstly, there is a strong dynamic between the old Children's Society and the new Children's Society. The Victorian Society focused largely on housing children born into poverty in children's homes, often training them for domestic service. Today the focus has shifted to fostering and adoption services.

2) Secondly, aside from the medical history revealed within the case files, archives and case histories are gold dust for social historians and anthropologists alike. As historians know, it's one thing to learn the facts of historical events from a history textbook, but the real life cases are far more revealing, of emotion and suffering.

3) Malnutrition and poverty often come hand in hand. Largely unmentioned in the case files in the fact that many of the children taken into the Society's care were suffering from malnutrition. As my job is to discover what illnesses and diseases the children were suffering from it can feel frustrating when many are merely described as 'weak' or 'in need of a change'. The likelihood is that if they were fed a better diet and had healthy weights, then they would be less susceptible to disease. 

4) The Christian ethos and backbone of the Society also shines through in the letters and reports of the case files. Notes were made on the children's characters and moral background, and they were taught trades and social values in order to teach them good old fashioned Victorian morality. This is doubtless one of the ways in which the Society has changed.