My research examines the impact of institutional care and emigration strategies on children’s lives in the late nineteenth century. Using children as the focus, it traces two separate cohorts of boys and girls both before and after their time in institutional care to consider the diversity of their life courses and to try to determine whether their time in institutional care made a difference to their life outcomes. This responds to a historiography on children’s homes that is influenced by contemporary mores that view the removal of children from families in a negative light. The project tests the historiographical argument that such homes failed in their aims of providing children with a better future than that of their parents and also considers the impact emigration had on life chances, bringing together two hitherto disparate strands of scholarship and engaging with current historiographical debates around nineteenth-century social mobility, gendered outcomes, and imperial citizenship.
Institutional homes declared high success rates in improving children’s lives, but historians, such as Shurlee Swain have been generally sceptical about the veracity of such claims, critiquing the cruelty of emigration policies and the failure to train children properly. John Hurt argues that most children found their ‘education and training woefully inadequate’ while Humphries asserts that homes manufactured a conformist identity only at the cost of the child’s personality. Many of these conclusions, however, are based on relatively little evidence; almost no significant quantitative or qualitative study has been carried out to trace the life outcomes of former institutional children. In part, this reflects the impact of viewing institutional care through a modern lens without considering the reality of non-institutional working-class children’s lives. It also reflects the fact that children’s voices can be difficult to access. Letters home provide some insight and home records also provide details of families and glimpses of children’s lives but digitisation has made it possible to trace children in other ways: through family records, census data, passenger lists, juvenile court records etc. Such datasets have been used in the digital panopticon to explore the impact of penal punishment on the lives of 66,000 Londoners, while Pamela Cox recently used digitised sources to carry out full-life analysis of 500 children committed to reformatories with the aim of establishing reoffending rates and their consequent implications for criminal justice policy.
My study takes a similar approach but follows children’s whole lives to illuminate the diversity of experiences and enable a more nuanced assessment of the impact of state and philanthropic intervention in working-class lives during a period of considerable change across the Anglo-World. The project combines detailed archival data with both quantitative and qualitative digital data to analyse children’s employment, housing and family circumstances both in Britain and the Anglo-World. Many of the supposed ‘orphans’ admitted to homes had at least one living parent and many had siblings. Where possible, children’s lives are traced in comparison to their siblings in order to understand the impact of institutional care on life paths of children. The children are drawn from two Surrey institutions: The Princess Mary Village Homes for girls and the Royal Philanthropic Society Home for boys, both of which have excellent detailed records of the children in their care that facilitate following these children into adulthood. Overseas children are traced using extensive digitised data and resources. The individuals pass through some significant events in British and Anglo-World history including the inception of the Welfare State and the First World War and following their lives will allow us to see the impact of social change in both a British and an Anglo-World context.