It is comparatively easy to create an environment in which children can be happy, but the real test of any form of upbringing is whether they will become well balanced adults, good husbands and fathers, wives and mothers, able to make a contribution to the society in which they live. We have passed the stage at which success was measured by the ability to be self-supporting and keep out of the police courts.
An attempt at a final assessment can only be made after a period of years, but no method of child care can succeed unless it offers its young people continued help and support in the difficult years after they leave school and start their working life. After care is as important, if not more important, than the care of children of school age or younger.
Apart from helping children to find their first job, the Railway Servants Orphanage resembled other independent charities in making no official provision for after care. Many of the children returned home to live with a surviving parent and when the home relationship was good they did not need further care and many liked to maintain friendly contact with the Orphanage. Many however had no homes or did not wish to return to homes from which they had been rejected. For such children it was essential that St Christopher’s should remain a base to which they could always return, not only for advice and practical help but also for warmth, understanding and acceptance. It was, too, a place in which newly acquired ‘boy friends’ or ‘girl friends’ could be seen in some sort of perspective. The danger of casual, haphazard after care is the danger of maintaining it only with the successful, who need it least. Successful children write to tell of their success and come to visit. The unsuccessful often don’t write, or even answer letters. They are ashamed to visit. These are the children most at risk and who most need after care.
One particularly tragic group consisted of children who had been adopted and subsequently rejected by their adoptive parents. The degree of rejection is illustrated by excerpts from letters written by two adoptive mothers as the children approached school leaving age.
The first concerns the illegitimate son of the woman’s deceased husband. She had probably resented the adoption from the start. This case was further complicated by the fact that the father was a Roman Catholic, and had caused the boy to be received into that church, while she was a Protestant evangelical.
“In reply to your letter about Tom (who wanted to be an electrician) if he takes a position in civilian life it will be in the mill where he can earn a decent wage like my daughter had to do. What Tom wants is something like the Army to make a man of him. I can see I am going to have a lot of trouble if something is not done about it and I do not want him home for Christmas. And Tom must make up his mind it is either the Army or the Navy or come home to work in the mill. He is definitely not going for an engineer he has to have a job with some work and decent wage at the back of it and please let me know something soon.”
The second concerns a girl who had been adopted at the age of nine because her deceased father had been the workmate of the woman’s husband. Before she was ten this child had already lost, by death, both her own parents , her step-father and her adoptive father. Again, the adoptive mother had probably never wanted the child, though it was not until her husband’s death six months after the adoption that she found her an intolerable burden.
“After much thinking and reflection re: Susan I think it is best if she goes straight to her sister (her natural sister) for the holidays. Not because she wants to go or its her wish. I do not much want to see her after her attitude. Am not writing to Susan, better that I didn’t.”
Both these women had used the death of their husbands as a pretext for getting rid of unwanted adoptive children. St Christopher’s was, in effect, the means by which Susan got rid of her unwanted adoptive mother. She is now happily married and keeps in close touch with us.
We had two equally tragic cases where the fathers had remarried and the step-mothers refused to accept the children. In both cases the fathers were immature, inadequate people who continued to profess affection for their children though they could not persuade their wives to admit them to the house. St Christopher’s afforded the only security which they knew. One, a girl of thirteen, asked the Welfare Officer who brought her to us where she would go afterwards as she supposed that she could only stay in “this place” till she was fifteen. Such was the underlying anxiety which prevented many of the children from achieving their full potential at school. Her father visited and she remained curiously loyal to him despite his inadequacy. She is now fortunately married. The other child, a boy, after a period in the Merchant navy, emigrated to New Zealand.
Another girl who had come to the orphanage after her mother’s death, was removed after her father’s remarriage. The step-mother was so unkind to her that three years later she ram away from home and came back to St Christopher’s. We were in the unfortunate position of having to inform the father of her whereabouts. He came and collected her, white and silent, feeling that she had been betrayed. Apart from asking the Children’s Officer to keep her under observation there was nothing we could do. We were relieved when she came back several years later and said that she had eventually managed to get away and had trained as a nurse. She was then engaged to be married.
Fortunately these examples of a step relationship were not typical. Several families of children were enabled to go home by a parent’s remarriage and had a fresh experience of happy home life.
Two other children ran away from home to get back to St Christopher’s. One boy came from Scotland, without a railway ticket, and remained until he was old enough to go out to work. His home conditions were intolerable by any standards and, at our request, his local Children’s Committee took him into care but allowed him to remain with us.
Another boy failed to satisfy the exacting standards of an over-severe father. This man admitted that he had treated the boy with considerable severity, and had sufficient wisdom not to insist on his return home. A year later the boy went back of his own accord and there has been no further trouble.
Of the one hundred and eighty eight children who, having reached school leaving age, left St Christopher’s between December 948 and July 1964, thirty six made no effort to maintain contact, even to the extent of attending the annual re-union. The others all kept in touch, at least for a time, and some have maintained a close relationship with at least on member of staff, though they are in a minority.
Apart from pleasant social contact it appears that we have not given significant personal or practical help to more than sixty three and some of these are no longer in close touch with us.
More could have been done if we had had a full-time caseworker who could have devoted some time to after care; or if we had had a larger child care staff so that its senior members could have spent more time contacting leavers.
Those children who were sent by us to Local Authorities were supervised by Child Care officers. With one or two notable exceptions this was not very satisfactory. In many areas Child Care Officers change so frequently that it is impossible for a ‘long term’ child to accept their authority. They are treated as mere birds of passage.
Some of those children unable to return to their own homes went into the services or into some form of residential work. Many remained to take further training either at the local Technical College or the Institute of Nursery Nurses. Some did residential training and returned to us for holidays. Some went to live with their Holiday Foster Parents, others went into lodgings or, when old enough, into flats. Others remained at St Christopher’s and went out to work as apprentices or in un-skilled jobs. Sometimes children who failed either at home or in lodgings returned to us for security and a fresh start. One girl, who had unfortunate experiences, came back and remained with us until she married. It was the only wedding in the history of the Institution!
At some moment all young people must leave the shelter of a children’s home but they vary so enormously in their needs and in their capacity for independence that there should not be an arbitrary rule as to the age at which they should go.
Apart from the possible need for after care, it is essential that we know the long-term results of our work and this is only possible if we keep in touch with our ‘old children’.
Every Victorian institution had its success stories of ‘old boys’ who reached the top of their particular trees and sometimes achieved in addition civic distinction and became mayors or town clerks. They were admittedly the exceptions and, in view of the obstacles which they surmounted, they must have been very exceptional people. I question whether any of the children in my care since 1948 have had equal determination!
I talked recently to a middle-aged woman who happened to have attended the same grammar school as a girl from the Orphanage and had been in the same form with her. She told me that of the four hundred girls in the school, this was the only one who did not wear school uniform but instead the uniform of the orphanage with black boots and black stockings. One can imagine the feelings of this girl at the morning assembly. Nevertheless she completed her education and later entered one of the professions.
Men have told me similar stories of attending grammar school with ‘orphanage boys’; though it appears that the boys were slightly more fortunate in that they were not entirely alone but generally had some fellow sufferers.
I find it hard to imagine a modern child facing such a situation. I have known many who absented themselves from school for much more trivial reasons.
Grammar school children were sometimes resented in the orphanage, not only by other children who felt they had become privileged, but also by ‘officers’ who themselves lacked any educational qualifications. No adequate provision was made for homework and they were sometimes obliged to sit in changing rooms or in passages in order to get relative quiet. Nor were they exempted from their full share of domestic work. In the old Orphanage, all the before breakfast scrubbing was done by the grammar school boys. In spite of the pressure of work during the term, they were not allowed to take advantage of the longer holidays then accorded grammar schools but instead spent the days in domestic work after the other boys returned to school.
In spite of all these difficulties, the majority of them left school having got matriculation, school certificate or whatever the current examination happened to be.
In my time, living under more liberal conditions and with greater cultural opportunities and with the committee room at their disposal for homework, only one achieved real distinction and some failed to even to get a G.C.E.!
The explanation may lie partly in these very opportunities which were to some extent distractions from school work. Under the old rigid system, school opened the only outlet for a child with intellectual ability. A choice of occupations may have been an incentive to neglect school work.
No research has yet been done on the long-term social effects of the old institution upbringing. From my own experience and talks with men and women who have had this upbringing it appears that those who had neither broken under it nor rebelled against it but had on the contrary earned approbation by their capacity to conform believed in the system and deplored any relaxation of discipline or indeed change. They were grateful for what had been done for them. (Some of them had become rigid and exacting parents.)
Those on the other hand who had been consciously unhappy and unsuccessful often became excellent parents determined that their children should enjoy the warmth and love of which they themselves had been deprived. Many of them offered hospitality to other deprived children and showed tolerance and understanding.