The Rise of the Orphanage

Daisy Driscoll, the heroine of The Officer’s Wife, is brought up in an East End orphanage. She remembers it as a lonely and unhappy place and that is the image many of us still carry in our minds – that of a bleak Dickensian establishment. Nineteenth century institutions could certainly be as miserable as those Dickens depicted, and when Daisy arrives in Cobb Street in 1920, the Victorian influence is still very much in the ascendant. The picture below was taken in the early 1900s and is a good example of how Daisy’s orphanage might have looked from the street.

The interior would have been only marginally more cheerful. Below is a picture of the dining hall in the Alexandra Orphanage, Haverstock Hill, London.

The children are fed and clothed but there is a dreary uniformity to the picture, emphasised by the black and white image. Boys eat in regimental lines, seated on hard benches, and those waiting to sit down are also assembled in a strict line. The attendants you can glimpse are dressed in black and white uniforms, a stark echo of the grey and black of the boys’ clothes. A few pictures adorn the walls – one looks as though it’s about to fall to the ground – but there are no curtains, no floor covering, no comfort.

Many Victorians considered that poverty was the result of a lack of effort and to intervene would simply encourage more people to fall into debt. But a contrary strand of Victorian thought held it was incumbent on Christian charity to provide at least basic support, and that included caring for orphaned children. ‘Basic’, of course, was the key word. Below is the kind of dormitory that Daisy would have shared with dozens of other children.

Jews’ Hospital and Orphan Asylum dormitory in 1912-1919

For centuries it was the Church’s role to look after the most vulnerable in society, but by the time the first Poor Law was passed in the late sixteenth century attitudes were changing. It became seen as a public responsibility. The law made it the duty of every parish to support its poor inhabitants when their families could not provide. It was low level support but while England remained a primarily rural country with strong family ties, the system worked reasonably well. Industrialisation, however, brought mass migration to towns and cities and with it a huge growth in visible poverty.

By the early years of the nineteenth century, the problem of abandoned children in urban areas, especially London, had reached alarming proportions. As the century moved on, hordes of urchins eked out a hand-to-mouth existence, fending for themselves while their parents worked fourteen hour days in the factories and docks. A third of households were without a male breadwinner and women were forced to go out to work, leaving children as young as six to look after their younger siblings. Older children ran errands, swept the streets, cleaned windows or helped to make matchboxes and paintbrushes. It was poorly paid, exhausting work, especially for malnourished children.

This was happening at a time when, thanks to the Empire, Britain was prospering and bringing immense wealth to factory owners and traders. But for these children, life was a constant struggle for survival. Diseases such as diphtheria, cholera and measles flourished on streets littered with rubbish, excrement and dead animals. Rent, even for hovels, was so high that when parents were unable to find work, they quickly fell into arrears and were thrown onto the street.

Between 1821 and 1851, the population of London doubled and then doubled again before the end of the century. Much of this increase was concentrated in the East End, leading to overcrowding, bad housing, unemployment and disease.

A typical classroom in a Ragged school

The Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury was established in 1741 by the philanthropic sea captain, Thomas Coram. It was a children’s home founded for the education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children, and by the mid nineteenth century had become a large and well-supported orphanage. Handel had been one of its early benefactors, dedicating to its upkeep the profit from performances of The Messiah.

The Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury, 1741. When babies were left at the Foundling Hospital, the only things identifying them were tiny scraps of fabric left by their mothers.

 During the 1950s British law moved away from the institutionalisation of children towards adoption and foster care and the Foundling Hospital ceased most of its operations. It changed its name to the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children and currently uses the working name Coram.   Another colossus of the orphanage movement was Thomas John Barnado, founding a charity that provided homes for vulnerable children across the country, including those with parents. Poverty and unemployment meant many families could not afford to look after their children and handed them over to the charity’s care. Barnardo and his staff were also active in removing children from parents whom they deemed cruel or neglectful. Residential homes were seen as places where the child could grow up away from corrupting influences and learn to lead a useful life. The image of secure homes was popular with the public and attracted substantial donations, enabling the charity to expand its provision of residential care.

By the time Thomas Barnardo died in 1905 the charity he founded ran 96 homes caring for more than 8,500 children. From the 1950s, Barnardo’s, like the Thomas Coram foundation, changed its name and its focus, concentrating on lobbying on childhood issues, running an adoption service and campaigning to raise public awareness of the diverse work the foundation undertakes for vulnerable children.

To modern eyes, the old style orphanages could be harsh. My heroine has bad memories of her time at Cobb Street that will forever be part of her. But real life experience is not always as black and white as successful journalist, Peter Paterson, shows. He died in 2011 at the age of 80 but grew up in Spurgeon’s Orphans Home in Stockwell. Paterson arrived there in 1935 as a child of four and this is part of what he had to say in his memoirs:

Classroom at Spurgeon’s Orphan Homes, Stockwell. @Peter Higginbotham

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