Punishment in orphanages, early-mid-20th century UK

child after punishment in an orphanage

Based on childhood recollections of Myton Hamlet Children's Home, Warwick, 1938-1941, probably similar to other orphanages in early to mid 20th century UK


Extracted from the memoirs of Brenda May Wilson, 1927-2003, courtesy of her son, Kevin Flynn

During my time at the orphanage, I never saw a child get a kiss or a cuddle from any housemother. To me at the time, it seemed that housemothers were there just to mete out punishment.

The Punishment Book

A very large punishment book was kept, where every misdemeanour was recorded, along with the chosen punishment. My name, I regret to say, appeared pretty regularly!

Types of punishment

No physical abuse was use but there were other punishments. One was withdrawal of pocket money; another withdrawal of food, particularly of pudding and the third was more scrubbing and more scrubbing. Thee incidents stand out in my mind as examples.

Loss of pocket money for breakage

In my case, pocket money amounted to threepence per week.

Of this grand sum one penny had to be saved and broken crockery had to be paid for. So if a plate, cup or saucer was accidentally broken while washing up etc., it meant no pocket money for two weeks. Even to this day I quake inside if I happen to break a piece of crockery!

On birthdays each child was given double pocket money for the week - sixpence! I remember forfeiting mine for a misdeed of weeks before. I once accidentally broke a mincer. I hadn't fastened it securely enough to the table and it flew off and smashed against the wall. Being made of cast iron, of course it broke and I had to report to the Master's office. I was given a long lecture on what it cost to keep a child in the Home etc., and how did I think the mincer could possibly be replaced? When I pointed out that it wasn't wilfully broken I was told not to answer back, so I held my peace - and was then given a dressing-down for 'dumb insolence'!

Scrubbing for talking in the dormitory

No talking was allowed in the dormitories, but I wasn't used to being silent and used to tell stories to the other girls. Of course I was found out and got punished for it.

This punishment was always the same: "Get dressed and come down and start scrubbing."

I was intelligent enough to know the unfairness of it and said so, only to be told to go back and do it all again for being cheeky. It took me a long time to conform and learn to keep my tongue silent. I couldn't count how many times I scrubbed those floors. It's still a painful memory.

Withdrawal of normal meals and scrubbing for a more serious misdemeanour

One summer evening about half a dozen or so children were all sitting on the railings, throwing stones etc., when someone said, "Cor, look at that plum tree; it's absolutely loaded. Bet none of you's got the spunk to go over and get some". The gardens in which the plum tree was situated were out of bounds.

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Well, I enjoyed a challenge, so, while the rest of the children kept a look-out for the gardener or housemother, I shinned up the tree and started to throw plums to the waiting children. But calamity was to follow. As I reached out for an extra big plum, the branch broke off and down I fell. Those children scattered like chaff before the wind.

A week went by and I began to think I'd got away with it, till one day on returning from school we were informed that we all had to go to a meeting in the assembly hall. We all assembled and the Master walked in, looking pretty grim.

"How many children here like plums?" he asked. Hands shot up. "Well", he said, "One of you likes them enough to go out of bounds and, not content with stealing, also to disfigure a beautiful tree. I'll give the culprit five minutes to own up, and if at the end of that time no-one comes forward there will be no pocket money for any of you. Hands on heads, no talking."

Hands were clasped on heads, and although I felt guilty I saw no reason why I should own up when more than myself were involved. Time ticked away till someone in the front row fainted, then another, and another. They were going down like ninepins. Eventually I called out, "Please, sir, it was me, sir."

"Children dismiss," he said. "You report to my office in the morning."

Next morning, quaking in my shoes, I reported and was told what my punishment was to be:

Every day straight after school, I was to undress and go to bed. I would be given bread and butter only and a cup of tea. When all the rest of the children were in bed, I had to get up and scrub every drain in the building for a period of two weeks. Believe me: I felt real hatred in my heart then, and had I died I surely would not have been given a place in Heaven. I felt small and vulnerable and felt like running away, but I knew several others had tried it and had soon been brought back by the police.

The perils of risking punishment

I had an idea of how to get round the no-talking in the dormitory rule. I gathered the girls in my dormitory together to tell them of my plan. Instead of telling them a story, we would play a silent game instead.

As the evenings were light and we all took off our woollen vests at night, I would tie a knot in my vest and throw it from bed to bed. If it dropped between beds we would lose a point.

Unfortunately for me, the windows in the dorm were open at the top as it was a warm night, and someone threw the vest too hard so that out of the window it flew! Everyone was horrified, but no-one volunteered to risk going downstairs to get it. So, as it was my game was my idea, it fell to me to try to rescue it without being caught.

I crept down the stairs and past the playroom, where the housemother was listening to the radio, thankfully with the door shut, through the boot-room and out round the corner of the house. As I bent down to retrieve the vest from the middle of a rose bed a heavy hand descended on the back of my neck.

"Got you!" said a voice, and I looked up into the Master's face.

"Do you own that thing?", he asked.

"Yes, sir", I replied.

"And what, might I ask, is it?"

"Please, sir, it's my vest, sir."

"And what is it doing out here? Fertilising the roses?"

"No, sir. I accidentally threw it through the window when we were playing, sir."

Well, he must, for once, have seen the humour of the situation. "If you can get it back to the bedroom without being caught by the housemother, we'll say no more about it. But if you don't, I'll be seeing your name again in the punishment book."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

And away I went, back the way I had come, and thankfully didn't get caught, but we never attempted to play that particular game again.

Note from the webmaster

When Kevin Flynn supplied these memoirs, he told me that his mother had said that worse punishments had happened, but that she had decided not to commit them to paper. Perhaps some were like the tawse punishments in Scottish schools; we can imagine what the others might have been.

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