My AHRC-funded research examines the impact of institutional care and emigration strategies on working-class lives in the late nineteenth century.
Using individuals 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 examine the impact welfare intervention had on various aspects of their lives including social and geographic mobility, employment, relationships and emotional bonds and family life. This responds to a historiography on welfare 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 philanthropic 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 have been generally sceptical about the veracity of such claims, critiquing the cruelty of emigration policies and the failure to train children properly. However, there has been almost no significant quantitative or qualitative study of what happened to 19th century children as they moved into adulthood. 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 working-class voices can be difficult to access. Letters home from former inmates provide some insight into lives post-care and home records also provide details of families and glimpses of children’s lives but digitisation has made it possible to trace former inmates 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.