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A typical children's home
in the first part of the 20th century?

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Children are all equal in the sight of God, but in this imperfect world some are more equal than others. - Brenda May Wilson

The menu on the left links to pages which give contemporary accounts of what it was like for a child to have to live in a county children's home between 1938 and 1941. How typical the experience was of other British state-run children's homes is impossible to say, but it was probably fairly typical, not only of children's homes at that time but also of those earlier in the century. Little would probably have changed since Victorian times. The only obviously non-typical feature in the accounts is that the buildings and facilities of the home, Myton Hamlet Children's Home, Warwick, were new and state-of-the-art at the time. They were opened the same year that the author of the recollections, Brenda May Wilson (1927-2003), arrived there.

The buildings and facilities may have been modern, but the whole experience of being there was clearly very bleak indeed for the children concerned. This page attempts to look at how bleak it was in terms of the norms of the time.

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The worst parts

I suspect that what must have predisposed children to be unhappy in any children's home was the realisation that no-one wanted them. Consequently a children's home was the only possible place for them to go. Hardly something to aid their self-belief.

Added to this must have been the lack of freedom and opportunity for self-expression and development. As I shall explain below, many of the apparent deprivations were not unusual for the times. However, whereas children in families could escape for hours at a time and - usually - had people who cared about them to return to, neither was the case for children in children's homes. As Brenda explains, such children were just numbers as far as her Home was concerned. They were not seen as individuals, apart of course from their names being entered in a Punishment Book. Their possessions were taken away from them, and they were given no say in what they wore or what happened to them, e.g. whether or not they were baptised and confirmed or what their future employment should be.

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If only they had been shown some affection, fairness or interest in themselves as individuals, the other deprivations would have been easier to cope with. Brenda cites numerous examples of unfairness in her accounts. Instead of being listened to and treated fairly, the children were ruled by punishments and the rigidity of the daily and Sunday timetables.

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Some comparable 'deprivations' outside children's homes

As one reads Brenda's accounts with modern eyes, one cannot help but feel deep sympathy and a sense of injustice. However some of the experiences that she describes were not at all uncommon at that time outside in the community.

The 'eat everything on your plate or no-pudding' rule

Brenda writes of the 'eat everything on your plate or no-pudding' rule. This was certainly not unique to children's homes.

When I was at my state grammar school as late as the 1950s, the rule was firmly adhered to for school dinners, and I suspect it was commonplace elsewhere. The meat was little more than lumps of gristle, and the only way to swallow it was to treat it like swallowing a pill in water. A prefect examined everyone's plate before we were allowed to collect our pudding. It didn't strike us as in any way wrong or unfair. It was just how things were - but of course we escaped home at the end of the afternoon. Not that there was better meat at home. Meat was a treat for Sundays and we lived on its left-overs during the first part of the following week.

The basic nature of meals

Dorothy frequently mentions meals of bread and something, usually bread and dripping. Her account of breakfasts is one example of many.

Such meals may sound meagre. However, it was common in my childhood for tea to be just bread with a scraping of jam. Bread and dripping was a common meal in itself, and actually delicious, even if unhealthy according to later norms. We never knew any different and never felt deprived. Only one meal of the day was cooked. That was the mid-day meal, then known as dinner, and was largely vegetables.

Withdrawal of food as a punishment

It is clear from old books that 'being sent to bed with no supper except bread and something was once quite a common way of disciplining children. However my mother (1906-2002) does not mention it in her recollections of childhood in the early 1900s. Neither did I ever know of any examples in my own childhood.

Having to do chores

It is clear from what my mother wrote about the early years of the 20th century that children in families were expected to do chores, such as shopping, preparing vegetables and helping with the laundry. Nowhere, though, does she ever imply that they were expected to scrub floors, as Brenda clearly was.

Even as late as my own childhood in the 1940s, my mother would announce to people that she would "send Pat" to do something. Young as I was, I always thought that she might have asked me first. It was no nastiness on her part. It was just the way things were.

Being ruled by punishments rather than guided by affection

In the first part of the 20th century and probably earlier, it was not unusual for children in families to be ruled by punishments and shown no affection - although of course this varied from family to family. Several pages that my mother wrote - see the top menu - show how frightened she was of her mother.

My mother also made it clear that her parents never showed their children any affection. This did not necessarily mean that they were bad parents. Rather that the parents were ground down keeping 'body and soul together' as the saying went, with no modern conveniences of any sort to help.

An example of lack of demonstrable affection comes from another of my relatives of similar age and in a different family. He had to shake hands with his father before he went upstairs to bed. No hug was ever offered.

One of my relatives, who was born in the 1940s. He said that a cane was kept at the meal table by his father, who, if a child misbehaved, simply lent over and caned him. It was also common for school children who were deemed to have been naughty to be caned at school. Yet Brenda makes it clear that there was no physical abuse in her children's home. Neither did she mention sexual abuse which media reports confirm did take place in some children's homes.

When I was born in 1939 the dictate was that babies should be fed at particular times of day which never varied and should not be picked up in between however much they cried - and that this was how they would learn to behave. This dictate was followed to the letter by new mothers who knew no different, although my mother told me that when my grandmother heard me crying, she said, "With all my nine, I would never have left a baby to cry like that without going to see what was the matter." So it did vary from family to family.

Holidays

Dorothy writes that the children in the children's home had a holiday once a year at summer camp - not that she uses the word 'holiday'. In my mother's time in the early 1900s, there were no holidays away - only the one-day Sunday School outing to the seaside. When I was a child, it was wartime; the beaches were mined and barred with barbed wire, and there were no holidays at the seaside at all.

Extracted from the memoirs of Brenda May Wilson (1927-2003), courtesy of her son, Kevin Flynn

Based on childhood recollections of Myton Hamlet Children's Home, Warwick, 1938-1941, probably similar to other children's homes in early to mid 20th century Britain

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