My interest in deprived children was aroused in childhood1 by the presence in church of an army of uniformed little girls from a local ‘Home’. They ranged in age from five to fourteen but few of them attained normal height and many were so stunted as to be virtually useless for domestic service, the end for which all were designated. When I enquired why they were so small I was told conclusively that it was an hereditary disability because their parents ‘drank’! It was only after some years that I began to see the possible connection between lack of growth and a diet composed, almost exclusively, of carbohydrates. Breakfast consisted of porridge and bread; dinner, stew with dumplings but no visible meat; tea, bread and margarine.
This home was managed by a committee composed of elderly, well intentioned, gentlemen2 who met monthly in an office in the town and visited the home rarely, by arrangement. Two of these old gentlemen paid for an annual excursion to the seaside. The children were not told of this in advance because of the risk of them becoming ‘excited’. The first intimation was when ‘Summer suns are glowing’ was struck up on the piano, at morning prayers, and they knew that a day of ecstatic pleasure was before them.
Apart from this excursion, there were no holidays of any kind. They slept in the institution for three-hundred-and-sixty-five nights every year; three-hundred-and-sixty-six in Leap Year. The only possible variation was a spell in the Workhouse Hospital or Public Sanatorium which often, though not invariably, ended in death. Tuberculosis was rife and hospital was not considered necessary for minor ailments.
Up to the age of thirteen they were known as ‘schoolgirls’ and attended school in the Institution, being taught by resident staff who shared all supervision duties. Apart from a cook, there were no domestic staff as all the work of the institution, including laundry and dressmaking, was done by the children. Girls of thirteen and over were termed ‘working girls’ and were ostensibly trained for domestic service. Schoolgirls went for a walk in crocodile on Thursday afternoons. Working girls never left the grounds except on Sundays when they all went twice to church.
Opportunity for closer association with this institution was afforded by the initiative of an older friend who, being a Girl Guide enthusiast obtained permission to start a company for the working girls on Saturday afternoons. My sister and I were asked to help. Guides was not a success, partly because of the ineptitude of the assistants but mainly because the children, being uninterested in normal Guide activities (and navy-blue uniform certainly had no attraction for them) , showed from the start that what they wanted, passionately and exclusively, was the attention of us, people from another world. We also had been viewed from afar on Sundays. The embryo Guide leader relinquished the unequal struggle but the break-through had been made. We were allowed to take the working girls for walks on Saturday afternoons. These walks continued for several years and gave us an opportunity to get to know the girls individually and, through them, the schoolchildren, many of whom belonged to the same families.
We must have had sufficient wisdom to refrain from asking questions about their conditions because I have only one recollection of a punishment, though it is sufficiently horrifying to remain in my memory. A member of staff died in the home. One small girl caused panic among the others by telling them that the ghost of this person would come into their dormitory that night. As a punishment she was locked in a cupboard beside the room where the dead woman lay.
We soon realised that treats for the group were much less valued than invitations to tea for two, or at most four, children. The intimacy and warmth of these afternoons when the children had no need to compete for attention, and could talk with the certainty of being heard, are the basis of my conviction that the greatest deprivation is that of personal contact. The success or failure of all methods of child care depends on whether they make provision for this contact.
Friendship with the children in this home led inevitably to visiting the Workhouse Hospital and meeting children from other institutions who happened to be in the same wards. These wards were very large, sixty patients in each, and the children were not in any way segregated. Some of them remained in the wards for years.
I remember clearly one girl - Lizzie Todd - who had come from a small voluntary home. She was said to have a violent temper and on one occasion had thrown a chair at the Matron. For this reason she was refused readmission and was, in fact, never visited. Ingratitude was then regarded as the unforgivable sin and even today the idea dies hard. The subsequent history of Lizzie illustrates the lack of any co-ordinating authority and the precarious situation of children and young people without parents. As Lizzie had been rejected by the home, and was physically unfit to earn a living, she remained in the hospital, though pining for life outside. When she was fifteen she asked me to find her a ‘situation’. The Ward Sister, a particularly sympathetic young woman, told me that the doctor thought Lizzie permanently unfit for work. In spite of this, and with the overweening self-confidence of youth, I found Lizzie not one but a series of situations; there was apparently no-one to stop me. After a few weeks her health invariably broke down and she returned to the ward but, as invariably and with indomitable spirit, she started again. After her last return, at the age of seventeen, she died. No one knew she had reached the end and Sister was off duty. I still have the present she bought me with her first wages.
Another long-term patient, whom I remember well, was Florence. After two or three years she was officially discharged from the ward and employment was found for her by the Poor Law Guardians. Some months later she lost her job because she was pregnant. Sex instruction was not included in the curriculum at Stockman Lodge although the Matron always dealt, in detail, with the dangers of alcohol. Florence did not appear to qualify for any of the Rescue Homes to which I applied, but eventually the Salvation Army offered her asylum and cared for her cheerfully and well until she entered the Workhouse Hospital for her confinement. After a long and difficult labour, a son was born to her. She was transformed by the possession of something of her own, on which to lavish her starved affections. Six weeks later, dressed in the usual bulky workhouse garb and ill-fitting shoes, she slipped on an iron staircase and the baby fell into the well below. The Coroner returned a verdict of Accidental Death after the Master and the Matron had both given evidence of her apparent love for the child. She was touched by their ‘kindness’ and by their ‘goodness’ in letting her go to the mortuary to see him. She was then aged sixteen.
None of these girls had the appearance or upbringing which would fit them for domestic service in what were then known as ‘good families’. Instead they became ‘generals’ or ‘maids of all work’ in small suburban houses or on farms. They earned miserable wages and no provision was made for their occasional ‘afternoon off’. Some mistresses allowed them to return to their kitchens for tea after they had walked around the shops or the park. Others insisted that they were not entitled to meals if they were not working and that on an ‘afternoon off’ they must not return to the house until bed-time, usually nine-thirty or ten o’clock. In Winter the Station Waiting Room was their only refuge once the shops had closed. The use of waiting rooms was, I believe quite usual. I have met it more than once in my own experience.
What I have described was, I believe typical of orphanages and other institutions for children in the years before, and immediately after, the First World War. It was horrifying to discover that such conditions could still be found when the Curtis Commission reported in 1945.
Stockman Lodge was closed in 1926 and the building is now a hostel for university students. It has a pleasant, ivy covered, frontage and is in a good situation. I always believed that with the right management it could have been a happy home and I became imbued with the desire to effect such a transformation in a similar institution.
I decided to train as a teacher and, after gaining experience with children from normal homes, to devote myself to the deprived.