The first Home for which I became entirely responsible was administered by the Public Assistance Committee of an Eastern County1. It was a beautiful Georgian house standing in a village street and backed by an extensive garden. The thirty children, all girls, attended the village school.
I was the third matron appointed in a year, so they were accustomed to change. They had a curiously strong sense of group solidarity, and one was aware that they thought of themselves as permanent inmates and the staff as birds of passage. For a fleeting period they came to believe that I and my staff would stay, and it was with a deep sense of betrayal that we deserted them. If I had not resigned I would have almost certainly have been dismissed.
The children’s acceptance of their plight is illustrated by a small incident concerning a dog. “Jim” was a large white mongrel found straying and brought home by the children. As he was never claimed he became a permanent resident and was much loved. After I resigned I became concerned about Jim as I knew that he was not everyone’s choice in dogs. I was therefore relieved when a member of staff, who was also leaving, offered to take him with her, as her family dog had recently died. It was only after accepting this offer that it occurred to me the children might have a sense of injustice in my disposing of a dog that was ostensibly theirs. I asked them whether they would like Jim to go to this home or whether they would prefer I asked the new matron if she would be prepared to keep him? The reply was unanimous. “We want Jim to go with Miss ---. We want him to have a good home. We don’t know what the new Matron will be like!”
My failure in this house was not due to the children, who were pathetically co-operative, but to my own inability to work under a Local Authority and my refusal to conform to regulations for which I could see no purpose. I do not seek to justify this attitude.
There were also practical difficulties. The water supply was totally inadequate, at one time it failed completely and all water was carried from a pump in the village. The number of lavatories was insufficient. It was a three storey house but it had only one upstairs lavatory for staff and children, thirty four people! The house badly needed structural repair. Many of the rooms were excessively damp.
Plans had already been made for building a new, and much larger, Childrens Home in a neighbouring village and for this reason the County Council was unwilling to spend any money on repairs.
The physique of the children was poor and the incidence of illness high. There was also a considerable amount of illness among the staff. This was in large part due to damp.
The local doctor, who had been appointed as Medical Officer, gave me his wholehearted support. We both reported on the defects of the building and the inadequacy of the water supply, and when no action was taken he resigned in protest. This, though a gesture of sympathy, did not help me.
The County officials wrote a report, in reply to ours, in which they said: “The Matron next summer should exercise discretion and care in the use of water”!
The Home was inspected by the Ministry of Health and, though I believe I had sympathy at the top, I was not supported by the Inspectors in the field who, unlike the Home Office inspectorate, had no knowledge of child care in its wider sense and were merely concerned with the details of health and hygiene.
Their only recommendation was the installation of more baths as the ratio of baths to children did not conform to the regulations laid down by the Ministry. When I said that more baths would be useless unless we had water for those already existing, they replied that the water supply was not within their terms of reference but that baths were, and more baths we should have.
I antagonised the County Architect by my criticism of the state of the building and his refusal to do essential repairs or install an adequate supply of water.
I antagonised the County Accountant by my inability, or unwillingness, to carry out his system of book-keeping.
The County Medical Officer was embarrassed by my criticism of his colleagues.
The Public Assistance Officer no doubt felt that I was a non-conformist and that I made trouble for his department.
My difficulties with the County Accountant could I think have been avoided if I had been more willing to conform but his requirements were certainly exacting. The contents of every room were listed on an inventory and if one wished to move a chair from one room to another the transaction had to be recorded in triplicate and the appropriate forms sent to the Accountant’s office at the end of the week. Members of his staff arrived periodically to check the inventory and, as nothing was ever in the right place, much of their valuable time was wasted while the children rushed around the house, and even into the garden, to retrieve missing objects. “You said that old basin was no use and we could have it in our camp, Miss.” “Nancy took the jug for her tadpoles.” “Miss ----- burned the pillow because she said it smelt!”
They also checked the stockroom and solemnly counted the bootlaces and reels of cotton. Invariably there were too many or too few.
The Storeroom presented even greater difficulties. All deliveries of food had to be booked in, and forms in triplicate sent to the office when they were issued. Food for “inmates” and for “officers” was listed separately. When I instituted family meals, at which everyone ate together, there were insuperable difficulties and two officials from County Hall came to clear up the muddle. I said that we were all having meals together. One of the officials explained patiently that it was still possible to issue the food separately. “Even if you do have meals in the children’s dining room, you don’t eat the same food and it is not served from the same dish, so it is still possible to record it separately.” When I explained that we did in fact share the same food, from the same dish, at the same table, he was rendered speechless.
Even the produce from the garden was booked in and re-issued. For some reason I never managed to weigh the potatoes correctly and there was invariably a “Discrepancy form” about them.
My returns were made on a Friday and the discrepancy forms arrived Tuesdays. Each one required a separate explanation. I still have a collection of these forms and the following excerpts are typical :-
“Inventory journal No. 815 records the removal of two dolls from the sick room (Folio 23, item 19) but on referring to folio 23 it was found that 1 doll was entered against item 19 (3 originally 2 condemned on inventory journal No. 812) and the Matron is asked to explain this discrepancy.
“Potatoes. The Stores Received sheets in the week ended 17/10/36 show transfers of 63lbs from the garden to the establishment but P.A/S2 No. 1829 records issues of 63½ lbs potatoes during week ended 17/10/36 and the Matron is asked to explain this discrepancy.
“Home made jam. P.A/S No. 2305 shows transfers of 88 lbs (44 lbs on 14/10/36 and 44 lbs on 17/10/36) Jam made in the Home. Only one conversion note (P.A/S 6 No 1362) showing 44 lbs Jam made in the Home was received in this office and the Matron is asked to state whether she omitted to forward a P.A/ 6 in respect of the other 44 lbs Jam , or if a duplicate was made. If entries referring to this commodity have been omitted from the Stores Sheets full details of the omissions should be given.
“Rice. P.A/S No. 1830 records the issue of 6 lbs rice. The stock schedule for 3/10/36 showed a stock of only 5¾ lbs rice at that date and there has been no record of any delivery of rice since and the Matron is asked to explain the discrepancy.
“Fish. In her reply to the audit enquiry of 1/9/36/ the Matron omitted to state how much of the 12 lbs fish (issued on 28/8/36) was issued to inmates and how much to Officers and it is requested to supply these details hereon. The Matron is asked to note that such details should always be given in reply to queries relating to issues of provisions.”
Food, clothing and all other goods could be requisitioned monthly on a comprehensive form which included everything from salt to shrouds.
It was a wasteful system because, in the case of perishable goods such as bread and meat, it was necessary to requisition too much in order to ensure that there would always be enough. The amount which could be requisitioned was apparently unlimited and the children were adequately fed, but inadequately clothed.
When one considers that there were only thirty children in the Home the amount of office work was prodigious. One official, who had spent time with me trying to clear up “discrepancies”, was obviously astonished by the number of children who came to ask for something or merely to report on their activities. He said, with genuine concern, “Don’t you find it very hard to do your work with so many interruptions?” I replied, with some asperity, that I believed the children to be my work. It was a new idea to him.
Again, in this Home I have no recollection of parents visiting although we did arrange for the girls to visit their brothers in Boy’s Homes in different parts of the country. This was only possible when I had a visitor able to take them by car. No provision was made, officially, for brothers and sisters to meet.
The children were unfortunate in that they were not welcomed in the local school and, if anything went wrong, they were invariably blamed. Being anxious to improve this relationship, I suggested that each girl should invite a school friend to our Christmas party. They were of course delighted. It was only when plans for the party were well advanced that I received a telephone call from County Hall to inform me that, under no circumstances, could money allocated for the inmates be spent on other children. Efforts to explain that this was how the inmates wanted their Christmas grant used were entirely unsuccessful. So too was my assurance that gifts from other sources would ensure that everyone had enough. It was against regulations. The impasse was only resolved by an epidemic of measles putting the home in quarantine.
The unsatisfactory clothing situation was due to constant change of management (there was no policy about clothes and no stock) and delay in getting essential garments on the requisition list and the underlying assumption at County Hall that most articles of clothing could, and should, be made in the house. We were a staff of four and had no domestic help. I found that the children had no clothes marked for them personally but that on Saturdays, after bathing in the Laundry, they were “fitted up” with clean clothes. The number of summer dresses was inadequate and I remember on one occasion keeping a child from school because there was no respectable garment she could wear.
The importance attributed to clothes was impressed on me when a girl of fourteen was transferred from another Home. She arrived, sullen and resentful, accompanied by her previous Matron who was anxious to get rid of her. While someone showed “Jessie” round the house I supplied her escort with tea and hoped that she would soon leave. After what seemed an interminable time, the woman said in desperation “If I don’t go now I will miss the last bus home. Could you get them to bring the clothes soon?” I discovered that Jessie was expected to strip stark naked so that there should be no discrepancies in the clothing list of her previous Home. It was with difficulty that we found her any replacements.
Shortage of clothing was perhaps characteristic of Homes run by Public Assistance Committees. Soon after the Children’s Act came into force, the newly appointed Matron of a Local Authority Home came to see me in despair because she had no warm clothes for her children and was told that it would be six weeks before she could obtain them by requisition. It was then November and the girls were wearing cotton dresses. It was significant that her Children’s Officer had previously been the Public Assistance Officer for the county. He has since retired.