An account of my impressions of Child Care before the Second World War would be incomplete without the description of a very large orphanage in Scotland, at which I stayed for a few days after applying for the post of Lady Superintendent.1
This account is not coloured by any feeling of resentment at not having got the post as I now know that I was an entirely unsuitable candidate and, at that time, I would have been quite incapable of attempting such a gargantuan task. My appointment could only have resulted in disaster for all concerned.
This orphanage was administered by a religious body and controlled by a minister of religion who held the post of Warden. The authority of the Board of Governors appears to have been purely nominal. During my brief visit I was oppressed by a sense of evil which has not been diminished by what I have heard of the place since. When the Warden told me that the chapel was “the powerhouse of the Institution” I felt that this was the final blasphemy. It is, incidentally, the only school chapel I can remember which is flanked by the graves of many children. A boy was dying of pneumonia at the time of my visit.
This orphanage accommodated between five and six hundred children and had its own school and nursery block with the inevitable laundry in which the older girls worked. Boys and girls were housed in separate buildings and never met except at school or in the Chapel. The girls were divided into age groups of forty with a House Mistress in charge of each group. These women were entitled to a day off once a month. When they were absent, the children were supervised by the neighbouring House Mistress who thus became responsible for eighty children. It is small wonder that their methods were institutional and repressive. I cannot remember the ratio of staff to children in the nursery but I know that they found it necessary to start putting children to bed at three-thirty in the afternoon in order to finish at a reasonable time.
Boys and girls ate in silence in their separate buildings. Girls who dropped spoons, spilt tea or committed other misdemeanours, waited in a queue outside the Matron’s office to be caned.
Once a week the Warden visited each group, received a report from the Officers in charge and administered the cane to those deserving of it.
He asked me to accompany him on his visit to the girls which was fortunate for them as, feeling that his use of the cane might not be edifying for me, he lectured them instead. There were several minor offenders but I remember only one very beautiful child of twelve years of age who had committed the heinous offence of writing to her grandmother saying she was unhappy and asking to be taken home. Her attempt to get the letter to the post was unsuccessful and it had been intercepted and read. My presence saved her from severe punishment but not from the venom of the Warden’s tongue. “Look at these warm clothes you wear. Do you think your old Grannie could afford to buy you clothes like these? You know you would be dressed in rags. Could your Grannie afford to buy you food? You know she is poor and lives in a tenement.”
My visit was in Christmas week so I was present at the Christmas party, the only party of the year. One of the older girls was excluded for insolence to a member of staff but, for some inexplicable reason, the girl with the grandmother came. I can remember now her haunting and beautiful face as she danced with leaden feet and unsmiling eyes, all hope gone from her.
This Scottish orphanage illustrates the danger of reputable people lending their name to charities of which they have no real knowledge. Owing to a heavy snowfall, I did not meet the Committee collectively, but I was vetted by a representative lady at lunch, and by the Chairman and his wife at tea, on two successive days.
Lunch was served with considerable grandeur. The butler was attended by a diminutive boy in livery, an ex-orphan. My hostess told me that, whenever possible she always tried to give them suitable employment.
Being anxious to know something of the staffing of the institution, I asked about a young teacher who appeared to have an entirely different attitude from that of her colleagues. My hostess replied “Oh really, I know nothing about the staff. My interest is only in the children!”
The Chairman and his wife were agreeable people living at about forty miles distance, with no children of their own. They professed complete ignorance of everything that happened in the orphanage and said they “left it all to the Warden.” I gathered that the office of Chairman was more or less hereditary in the family.
This institution survived the war and even the Children’s Act but, as its practices became more and more widely known, the Children’s Officers ceased to send children so it was ultimately forced out of business.
It was with relief and satisfaction that I eventually saw the premises and the whole estate advertised for sale.