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Beginning Your Family History

Part Nine: Childhood Research; Institutions.

User Avatar Penelope Lovesy 19/06/2020 14:53:16

As a local history librarian, one of the most common family history enquiries comes from people searching for information about ancestors who began life or spent parts of their childhood in homes or institutions. If an ancestor needed help due to them being orphaned, living in poverty, being neglected or simply needing shelter and care they may have ended up in any number of institutions. Residential care was “provided by a mixture of private and charitable initiatives, poor law, correctional and educational institutions.” (National Archives)

Due to the nature of this enquiry, the records found could be upsetting. The information could contain language that might cause distress so please be aware of this before you begin your search.

Where is the best place to search for information if you discover an ancestor spent time in an institution? The Children’s Homes website is a good starting point http://childrenshomes.org.uk/ as it contains an encyclopaedic range of information about different types of institutions, local institutions and overviews of the care systems.

It aims to “provide information on all the many and varied institutions that became home for thousands of children and young people in Britain. As well as each home's location, history etc. the site includes many maps, census listings, and historic images of the buildings and their inmates.”

The search facility down the left-hand side of the page allows you to search for an institution by location or type. For example, drop down list by location and select Bedfordshire- Durham, then Dorset. This gives a list of all (known to the website) institutions in the area and you can click on them to find out more (if more information is known). I selected The Dorset Industrial School for Girls, Poole, and found a potted history of the school. Additionally, further links are provided if any are available.

The website Former Children’s Homes http://www.formerchildrenshomes.org.uk/ was set up in 2011 to capture memories and family history research and “build up a picture of what life was really like for people in children's homes.” This is a good place to share and discover information with others navigating the records and resources.

The National Archives guide to Children’s Homes https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/children-care/  is a comprehensive overview of records created by central government departments.  The records “contain information on various kinds of residential institutions for children.”

“[The] records are largely records of administration and policy covering institutions established since 1834 and do not routinely include records of individual children or staff. You will be able to find “thousands of records on children’s residential care institutions at The National Archives, covering largely policy and administration. Most of the records come from three past and present government departments: the Home Office, the Ministry of Health and the Department of Health and Social Security.

Typically, when searching for records you will find the following:

On individual children’s homes and other related institutions:

  • correspondence – between the government department and institution on subjects such as the institution’s management, building work, certification and finances
  • inspection reports – these were routine reports assessing the institution’s accommodation, teaching, staff and environment
  • investigations – carried out by government inspectors into specific incidents or complaints

On central policy and administration:

  • correspondence – between the government department and charities, committees of inquiry, other government departments, foreign governments and other organisations
  • statistical returns and reports compiled by civil servants on subjects which informed policy decisions
  • notes and reports made by civil servants on proposed legislation
  • circulars, memoranda and instructions issued to local authorities and institutions communicating policy and procedure”

The guide also contains useful links to other records such as adoption and poor law.  The National Archives Discovery Catalogue can also be searched for records of individual institutions, http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ I tried a search for the Nautical School, Poole, and found three relevant results, including an inspection from 1939.

Barnardo’s, the charity we know today, began first with a Ragged School and then a home for boys in the 1870s. Thomas Barnardo believed “that every child deserved the best possible start in life, whatever their background. This philosophy still guides the charity today.” Barnardo’s offers a family history research service; https://www.barnardos.org.uk/former-barnardos-children

Hidden Lives http://hiddenlives.org.uk/about/ is a fascinating digital archive from the Children’s Society, originally the Waifs and Strays Society- which was one of the primary providers of children’s care. The website “focuses on the period 1881-1918, and includes unique archive material about poor and disadvantaged children cared for by The Waifs and Strays' Society. The Society cared for children across England and Wales - in both the densest urban conurbations and some of the smallest rural villages.”

I looked at the Homes section (list down the righthand side of the page) and then navigated to browse the homes by name. I selected Bede Home for Boys, Wakefield, and found an overview and two anonymous case studies from the home. 

Now I’d like to look at a few local examples of institutions to highlight how you can build up a picture using local resources. The Dorset Home Industrial School for Girls, is one that people often enquire about. Over the years in Poole History Centre we have managed to piece together some information. We have photos and map extracts showing the premises and it is possible to find who was attending for the years of the census. An invaluable resource has been the newspapers; reports can be found throughout the time of the school. Although not primary sources, these all give insights into life in the school and why children were sent there. In 1888, Annie Setters was admitted from Torquay.


Annie Setters, 12, a little orphan, who was remanded from the previous Thursday, for stealing various articles from Nelly James, of 72, Fleetstreet, was informed by the Chairman that she would be sent to an Industrial School in Poole, and he hoped that the education she would there receive would prevent her from committing similar offences to that of which she had been arraigned.

St Faith’s was a Home for Waifs and Strays in Parkstone. A brilliant resource, available to read on the internet, is Edna’s Story, by Edna Wheway, who was sent to St. Faith’s as a young girl and spent thirteen years there.  https://thefedarchive.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/ednas-story.pdf  For someone with an ancestor who spent time in a Home for Waifs and Strays this would be an informative read as it contains a great deal of detail about her early life in the home.  Likewise, it’s revealing if you’re interested in the social history and first-hand accounts of the homes.Finally, many local history centres and archives hold council minutes. These can also be used to uncover facts about local institutions. St. Monica’s home in Poole is often mentioned in the council minute - it was proposed on 8 March 1946 and after that appears regularly. In 1947 there is an appeal from Reverend Canon Archer for a subscription towards the funds. 

There are only a few resources highlighted in this blog. The search for children in institutions isn’t an easy one and different places may have to be checked to build up a larger picture (you may never find a complete picture.) Please contact us if you need any help or have any questions localhistory@bcpcouncil.gov.uk

This blog has been written using the research, advice and guidance of Local Dorset Researcher, Charlie Lord. Charlie is author of a blog about Poole Workhouse https://dorsetmarginalia.wordpress.com/


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