Feature: The Domesticity of Victorian Children’s Homes

Our September feature is an edited version of the winning CGAP student prize paper at the VAHS’s summer 2013 fifth international research conference. ‘Institutional Homeliness: Charitable Initiatives of Domesticity in the Victorian Children’s Welfare Insitution’ by Claudia Soares of the University of Manchester.

Historical research on Victorian children’s welfare organisations has focussed on systems of reform, discipline and regulation that underpinned institutional childcare practices, which sought to domesticate apparently ‘savage’ children and transform ‘street arabs’ into productive citizens.[i] As such, the institutional lives of welfare dependants in the nineteenth century have often been presented as totalising experiences. Whilst research has highlighted that the institutional provision of children’s basic material needs could be superior in quantity and quality than that afforded within the familial setting,[ii] basic emotional care, individual attention, and affection have been presented as absent or wholly inadequate for child inmates.[iii] By moving the focus of analysis away from a preoccupation with institutional reform and discipline, this paper revises the significance of ideologies of homeliness, sociability and nurture in the children’s welfare institution. Examining the childcare practices of The Waifs and Strays Society (WSS) – a charitable institution founded in 1881 that provided homes to destitute, outcast and friendless children – the paper argues that ideals of homeliness and friendship were at the heart of WSS ideology. Drawing on a range of photographs, fundraising literature in monthly magazines, donation lists and inventories, the paper examines how institutional space and material culture was shaped by a rhetoric of domesticity. Analysis of representations of leisure, play and celebrations within the institution further highlights the models of sociability that the Society promoted to shape interpersonal relationships amongst institutional residents.

Notions of homeliness

One issue of the Society’s monthly magazine highlighted the domestic policy that underpinned their childcare ethos that sought to create ‘a permanent environment of brightness, warmth, and “homeliness”’ in their residential homes.[iv] The Society’s notion of ‘homeliness’ was based on the reproduction of middle-class ideals of organised space, material and domestic comfort that facilitated the creation of sociable, family-like home environments in which to nurture poor children. The Society contributed to late-nineteenth century reformist discourse that emphasised the importance of family models of childcare,[v] by promoting the need to produce a creative homely interior. This homely, family environment was positioned in contrast to the ‘bare monotonous white surroundings’ encountered in oppressive, unfriendly Poor Law workhouses. Poor Law environments, the Society argued, were responsible for creating institutionalised children who, having been subjected to harsh treatment for too long, were often unable to express sentiments of love and care. Instead, the WSS stated:

Do put a dash of pink into the distemper-pail; do at least keep an open mind as to the relative cheeriness of a bright bed rug; do split up the acreage of bare walls with here and there a text and a picture.[vi]

Physical environments that added interest and variation to the appearance of the home could provide children with a sense of familiarity, comfort and stimulation. The cheerful, interesting and homely environment, achieved through interior decoration, was also believed to psychologically reassure inhabitants. The WSS acknowledged that home-sick children often considered their new surroundings strange, awkward or frightening, and every attempt to reproduce a homely atmosphere might alleviate such anxiety, even though these environments were unlikely to have reflected the domestic conditions that poorer children were familiar with.[vii]

Size and spatial layout of the Society’s homes were also significant elements in creating a sense of homeliness for inmates. Whilst Barnardo’s cottage homes usually housed between twenty and forty children, Waifs and Strays’ cottages were often smaller in size with some homes housing fewer than ten children.[viii] The Society believed that the smaller size of their homes would create a more intimate and familial setting for the emotional development of children than those larger institutions that massed a great number of inmates together. However, space was also shaped by middle-class domestic values and organised to guide, instruct and reform children morally, to promote ideals of order, privacy and authority. In some of the Society’s homes, efforts were made to ensure that as few children slept together in a room as possible: in one home, 3 bedrooms accommodated a maximum of 8 boys.[ix] The choice for separate bedrooms instead of one larger dormitory for the children may reflect the Society’s attempts to reproduce a sense of familial intimacy for inmates, but also it indicates their concern for the prevention of contagion, both in terms of physical illness and immoral or disruptive behaviour. When these arrangements were impossible, however, as Lydia Murdoch argues, larger dormitories were rarely compared to the overcrowded sleeping areas that reformers lamented in urban slums.[x] Bedrooms and sitting rooms also divided children and adults.[xi] As Jane Hamlett argues in her research on the middle-class home, the division of adults and children did not necessarily preclude the formation of interpersonal and familial bonds between inhabitants.[xii]

Mrs. Bailey and her dog, c. 1901. Reproduced from Hidden Lives Revealed

Mrs. Bailey and her dog, c. 1901. Reproduced from Hidden Lives Revealed

Although the private and more luxuriously furnished rooms for the Society’s staff members reinforced hierarchy and authority within the home, permission for children to access these spaces was, in all likelihood, understood as a special privilege that could enhance affective bonds between inmates and their carers. Although children’s presence in these sites was probably supervised and regulated, these spaces offered a setting in which affective and intimate bonds could be strengthened.

Photographs of larger dormitories at the Bradstock Lockett and Byfleet Homes for disabled children depict the Society’s attempts to construct homely interiors. Natural light afforded by numerous windows, picture hangings, patterned bedspreads, electric lighting and a stove heater placed centrally would have ensured some comfort, warmth and cheeriness for children and especially for those suffering from ill health. The congregation of girls seated around the stove heater also indicates its role as a feature around which comfortable informal sociability of the home occurred. A similar arrangement is evident in the Byfleet dormitory. The Christmas tree visible in the background suggests the room also offered an environment in which social engagement between residents occurred. The photograph also reflects the Society’s recognition of the importance attached to representing ‘home-life’ beyond the usual daily routines of the institution to a public audience.

The dormitory at the Bradstock Lockett Home, c.1910. Reproduced from Hidden Lives

The dormitory at the Bradstock Lockett Home, c.1910. Reproduced from Hidden Lives

Whilst institutional photographs functioned as valuable propaganda material that reflect how the Society wanted the public to imagine and understand their residential homes, children’s attitudes towards the realities of the environments they encountered are difficult to ascertain. Donation lists suggest that children’s sense of homeliness and belonging might be fostered through a range of personal and shared possessions. Donations supplied children with a basic range of clothing, influenced by the Society’s guidelines, which appear to have been more generous in quantity than Poor Law provision.[xiii] The Society argued that the rejection of uniforms in their homes helped to foster inmates’ sense of self-esteem and identity, and this reflected a broader move amongst children’s homes to eliminate some of the more totalising features associated with institutional life, such as uniforms and identification numbers.[xiv] The Society’s decisions about clothing also highlight anxieties regarding inmates’ behaviour within the institution. Individuality in clothing eliminated the risk of stealing clothes, which was noted to occur where items were too similar in appearance.[xv] Musical instruments such as harmoniums and pianos also frequently appear in donation records.[xvi] Although the playing of musical instruments within the homes was probably consigned to specific times outside the daily routines, the ability for inmates to create noise by playing instruments suggests that an oppressive rule of silence and order that historians have associated with the workhouse environment did not necessarily govern the entirety of daily life in the Society’s homes.

Ceremonies, celebrations and other practices within the institution offer a more varied portrait of inmates’ institutional experiences and reflect the Society’s attempts to facilitate the establishment of interpersonal relationships, a sense of intimacy, sociability and ‘family-time’ amongst inmates that might bind the household together. The Society’s focus on the notion of family within the institution in their fundraising material suggests that nurture and affection were primary concerns that underpinned their childcare ideals. Staff handbooks indicate that matrons and masters were expected to act as children’s ‘life-long mother and father’,[xvii] whilst the Society’s accounts of the relationships between children and their carers claimed that children did imagine and acknowledge staff as family members. Mrs B., the matron of St Agnes’ Home, the Society stated for example, ‘was always called “mother” by the children’.[xviii] These life-long mothers and fathers, the Society hoped, would teach children the value of a network of dependable figures that could be turned to in later phases of the life cycle for emotional, material and financial support. Other practices within the homes, the Society hoped, would encourage inmates to foster sociable bonds with their co-residents. The celebration of each child’s birthday for example, not only contributed to a sense of homeliness beyond daily household routines, but rituals including the giving of presents, birthday cakes and birthday parties also served as markers of individuality, belonging, self-esteem and identity for children.

The dormitory at the Byfleet Home during Christmastide, c. 1908. Taken from Our Waifs and Strays, February 1908, p. 271. Reproduced from Hidden Lives Revealed

The dormitory at the Byfleet Home during Christmastide, c. 1908. Taken from Our Waifs and Strays, February 1908, p. 271. Reproduced from Hidden Lives Revealed

Christmas, the Society stated, was a time of relaxed authority and freedom from routine in which the ‘family union’ was most important as ‘children’s abounding source of happiness’.[xix] Accounts of Christmas at the homes published in monthly magazines depicted this: stories spoke of children’s excitement of decorating Christmas trees and adding threepenny bits to the Christmas pudding. In another home, each child lined up to stir the Christmas pudding three times and make a wish. The magazine also depicted Christmas as a time when interpersonal relationships between inmates and staff were strengthened through a variety of festive rituals: in some homes, carol singing outside bedrooms doors to awaken matron/master on Christmas morning became annual customs for some inmates.[xx] Other children had their photographs taken, which the Society hoped would serve as nostalgic reminders of the home festivities. Meanwhile, other accounts and correspondence contained in case files spoke of the pleasures and excitement of receiving toys and other Christmas gifts presented from staff and donors. Such treats, as Daniel Miller has argued, individualised family members as the recipient of something special, and thus reaffirmed a sense of self-worth and importance within the household or family unit.[xxi]

Analysis of photographic representations of institutional homes, alongside donation records and representations of a range of childcare practices that this paper has offered highlights that notions of homeliness, sociability and family shaped the Society’s ideologies and practices. Whilst the validity of the Society’s representations of their childcare provision is indeterminable, the examination of case file material which has been beyond the scope of this paper, offers in some cases, comparable narratives of the Society’s endeavours to create a sense of homeliness and family for inmates. Some correspondence between former inmates and the institution, for example, recounted cherished memories of childhood and affirmations of positive experiences in the Society’s care. Meanwhile, expressions and tokens of gratitude from children and their relatives can provide a greater understanding of dependant’s attitudes and responses towards institutional welfare provision.

Yet, for many inmates the sense of home and family that the Society aimed to establish in residential homes was, in all likelihood, perceived as a poor substitute for the affection, intimacy, sense of belonging and identity associated with the biological family unit. Records of children’s behaviour within the institution present narratives of inmates’ agency and resistance to the Society’s authority, and demonstrate that a sense of home and family in the institution was an unstable entity, which depended on inmates’ co-operation to actively participate in its construction. Children’s decisions to defer to authority and acknowledge staff as their carers, as well as to respect home rules often became highly contested performances. The yearning for the family home and biological relatives proved too much for numerous children, who did their best to abscond from the Society’s care.[xxii] Punishment records also draw attention to the frequency of children disobeying the rules or challenging the Society’s authority by behaving in ways considered inappropriate.[xxiii] Records are difficult to interpret, however, and indicate a range of meanings, feelings and experiences behind the actions. It is likely that persistent offenders continually challenged established rules as a means to undermine authority, express their own agency and struggle for their own power to be recognised. For some more isolated individuals, bad behaviour may have been a product of a perceived lack of care and nurture, thus functioning as a means to gain attention from staff. Nevertheless, the representation of institutional ideologies and practices of homeliness, family and sociability that the paper has drawn attention to have important implications for revising histories of emotion and interpersonal relationships within the institution. Moreover, this analysis begins to provide significant counterpoint to historical narratives that have repeatedly drawn attention to the punitive, disciplinary and reformatory experiences of institutional care in the nineteenth century.


[i] Lynn Abrams, The Orphan Country, (Edinburgh, 1998), pp. 96-98, 102-105, 182, 230-232, 249-250; Lydia Murdoch, Imagined Orphans, (London, 2006), pp. 1-11, 121-130, 131-142, 154-156; Shurlee Swain and Margot Hillel, Child, nation, race and empire. Child rescue discourse, England, Canada and Australia, 1850-1915, (Manchester, 2010), pp.  58, 72, 129-130, 131, 134, 138-139, 169-170.

[ii] Ginger Frost, ‘Under the Guardians’ Supervision: Illegitimacy, Family, and the English Poor Law, 1870-1930’, Journal of Family History 38, (2013), p.123; Murdoch, Imagined Orphans, pp. 87-99. See also Frank Prochaska, Christianity and Social Service in Modern Britain, (Oxford, 2006), p. 39.

[iii] Abrams, The Orphan Country, pp. 59, 105-117, 122-126, 170-177; Shurlee Swain, ‘Child Rescue: the migration of an idea’ in Jon Lawrence and Pat Starkey, (eds.) Child welfare and social action in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: international perspectives, (Liverpool, 2001), pp. 115-117; Murdoch, Imagined Orphans, p. 161; Swain, Child, nation, race, and empire, (Manchester, 2010), pp. 16-40, 159-194; Frost, ‘Under the Guardians’ Supervision’, p. 123.

[iv] ‘The Home Beautiful’, Our Waifs and Strays, (February 1908), p. 274.

[v] Murdoch, Imagined orphans, p. 43.

[vi] ‘The Home Beautiful’, Our Waifs and Strays, (February 1908), p. 274.

[vii] ‘The Home Beautiful’, Our Waifs and Strays, (February 1908), p. 275.

[viii] For details of Barnardo’s cottage homes, see in particular, Murdoch, Imagined Orphans, pp. 43-66.

[ix] ‘Appleton Boys’ Home, Yorkshire’, Our Waifs and Strays, (July 1897), p. 117.

[x] Murdoch, Imagined Orphans, pp. 61-63.

[xi] ‘Appleton Boys Home, Yorkshire’, Our Waifs and Strays, (July 1897), p. 117.

[xii] Jane Hamlett, Material Relations, (Manchester, 2010), p. 114.

[xiii] For Poor Law provision of clothing, see for example, David Pam, A Parish Near London: A History of Enfield, Volume 1, (Enfield, 1990), p. 194; Beverly Lemire, Fashion’s Favourite: The Cotton Trade and the Consumer in Britain, 1660-1800, (Oxford, 1991), p. 108; Steven King, ‘Reclothing the English Poor, 1750-1840’, Textile History 33, (2002), pp. 37-47; Steven King, ‘The Clothing of the Poor: A Matter of Pride or a Matter of Shame?’ in Andreas Gestrich, Steven King, and Lutz Raphael (eds), Being Poor in Modern Europe: Historical Perspectives, 1800-1949, (Oxford, 2006), pp. 365-388; Peter Jones, ‘The Clothing of the Poor in Early Nineteenth-Century England’, Textile History 37, (2006), pp. 17-37 Steven King, ‘”I Fear You Will Think Me Too Presumtuous in My Demands but Necessity Has No Law”: Clothing in English Pauper Letters, 1800-1834’, International Review of Social History 54, (2009), pp. 211-212; John Styles, The Dress of the People, (London, 2010) pp. 257-275.

[xiv] Murdoch, Imagined Orphans, pp. 62-63; ‘The Voice of Experience’, Our Waifs and Strays, (October 1888), pp. 2-3.

[xv] ‘The Voice of Experience’, Our Waifs and Strays, (October 1888), pp. 2-3.

[xvi] See ‘News and Views’, Our Waifs and Strays, (December 1886), pp. 4-6 and ‘News and Views’, Our Waifs and Strays, (February 1887), pp. 4-6.

[xvii] Handbook for workers, Part II, pp. 4, 10; ‘The Heart of the Home’, Our Waifs and Strays, (June 1891), p. 137.

[xviii] ‘A round of visits: XIII. St Agnes’, Mirfield’, Our Waifs and Strays, (February 1893), p. 19.

[xix] ‘Quiet Thoughts for Spare Moments’, Our Waifs and Strays, (December 1906), p. 333.

[xx] ‘Correspondence’, Our Waifs and Strays, (February 1911), p. 35.

[xxi] Daniel Miller, A Theory of Shopping, (Oxford, 1998), p. 42.

[xxii] See for example, case file 9389, letter from Edward Rudolf to W.H. Rolands, 25/3/1903.

[xxiii] See Punishment Book, Hunstanton Home, 1897-1901.

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One Response to Feature: The Domesticity of Victorian Children’s Homes

  1. Bobbie says:

    It appears many of these early institutional environments from the outset endeavoured to get away from austere debilitating work house negatives – contriving a more positive a more homely, if severe boarding school, atmosphere in these early childrens’ homes often housed in lofty mansions within integral grounds and gardens that provided extensive play and (quasi military) drill space beside home tended farm and vegetable plots – has to speak to present utilitarian school building design which, in the main, takes absolutely no regard to aesthetics that buildings and grounds has potential to offer to imaginative children. Although, Steiner later made his mark by rounding off corners of his sharp-edged school buildings so that an ambiance of calm softness pervaded sight and other sense-progression through his pastel institutional regime.

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