(Image from: http://www.hiddenlives.org.uk/unexplored_riches/about.html)
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.