Monday, 29 May 2017

Stories behind the book ....... nu 3 beginning to challenge assumptions

Being homeless, with nowhere to sleep but the streets, and risking all sorts of danger has become commonplace again in Britain.

Newly admitted to the Refuge, date unknown
It is something I thought had vanished but it is back and that of course makes me think of those young people who endured the same experiences on the streets of the twin cities just a century and half ago.

Of course it would be easy to categorise them and look for simple explanations, but history is rarely simple.

It is instead messy and  the explanations for why so many children were destitute and equally the value of what was done to help them is wide open to interpretation.

For those with an interest in British Home Children there are the conflicting arguments about the practice of migration and the miss match between those young people who went on to have happy and successful lives and those who had been mistreated and abused, and were permanently scarred as a result.

In the case of my own great uncle who was migrated by the Derby Guardians in the care of Middlemore  in 1914 he was I suspect already “damaged goods” having spent most of his childhood and early teenage years in care.

From admission book of the Derby Union, 1913
Along with grandfather who was a year younger he was deemed “out of control” and was assigned to a training ship which was really a naval boot camp, but for reasons we have yet to discover he was offered Canada instead.

He was sixteen when he made the journey, making him older than most.

So I am not surprised that he failed to settle on any of the three farms he was placed, finally running away from the last, changing his name, lying about his age, and enlisting in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1915.

Nor did he settle to army life and on several occasions was disciplined and underwent a series of courts martial.

Not perhaps what we think of as a typical BHC or for that matter the most sympathetic, which points to that simple observation that we should always be wary of generalizations when writing history.

Emma before admission, 1913
And as I dig deeper in to the work of the Manchester and Salford Boys’ and Girls’ Refuges the more questions I want to ask, some which challenge my own preconceived ideas about the role of charities in general and the work of children’s charities in the late 19th century.

The most obvious question is just how these young people ended up on the street.

In 1881 Mr Shaw of the Manchester and Salford Boys’ and Girls’ Refuges commented that during the course of the charity’s work, on just  “one night 250 children were found on the streets between the hours of nine and twelve.  

Out of that number 50 cases were investigated, and it was found that 33 were between the ages of 5 and 10, and 17 between 10 and 13.  Thirty-four had both parents living, 16 had lost both father and mother and the number of deserving parents was only 9.”

The figures are appalling but the question that leaps off the page is what was deemed a "deserving parent" and what therefore constituted an “undeserving parent.”

Emma after admission, 1913
Now I think we can all be quite confident about what is meant but it is important to uncover the exact  criteria, because that will help inform the search for the causes of child destitution and the growing role of the State in intervening on behalf of the child.

And in the same way those who did surrender their children into the arms of the charities were not all feckless nor in taking them was the Manchester charity t driven by its own lofty opinion of what constituted the needs of child.

More over it was  sensitive to changing events, and so at the outbreak of the Great War it moved quickly “to receive motherless children whose fathers had been called to the front and already quite a number of such children had been received into one of the homes.”**

And three years later noting “the increase in juvenile crime in the city, ........ urged that extension of the system of probation [which] would be productive of good results.”***

It was a policy which reflected its enlightened attitude to juvenile crime stretching back four decades.

The print room, training for a life of self sufficiency, 1913
So as the research continues I have gained a greater awareness of the issues surrounding child care in the last quarter of the 19th century and come to understand the humanity of those working in the field.

Location; Manchester

Pictures; courtesy of the Together Trust

* Juvenile Offenders, Deputation to the Home Secretary, Manchester Guardian, January 14, 1881,

** The Strangeways Refuge Activity in 16 Branches, Manchester Guardian, October 30, 1914

*** Work for Boys and Girls The Strangeways Refuge and Homes, Manchester Guardian, May 11, 1917

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