How bad were orphanages and children's homes in the past?

child unhappy in an orphanage

Children are all equal in the sight of God, but in this imperfect world some are more equal than others. - Brenda May Wilson

This section of pages - see the above menu - gives contemporary firsthand accounts of what it was like for a child to have to live in a British state-run orphanage between 1938 and 1941. How typical the experience was of other British state-run orphanages is impossible to say, but it was probably fairly typical, not only of orphanages at that time but also of those earlier in the century. Little would probably have changed since Victorian times. The page is based on recollections of Myton Hamlet Children's Home, Warwick.


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

The only significant, non-typical inclusion in the menoirs is that the buildings and facilities of the orphanage, Myton Hamlet Children's Home, Warwick, were new and state-of-the-art at the time. Accordingly, the establishment was named a children's home rather than an orphanage - although an orphanage it clearly was. It was opened the same year that the author of the recollections, Brenda May Wilson (1927-2003), arrived there. The buildings and facilities may have been modern, but the whole experience of being there was clearly very bleak indeed for the children concerned. This page attempts to look at how bleak it was in terms of the norms of the time, rather than the norms of today.

Treatment of children in orphanages compared with those in families

As one reads Brenda's accounts with modern eyes, one cannot help but feel deep sympathy and a sense of injustice. However some of the experiences that she describes were not at all uncommon at that time for children in relatively normal families.

The 'eat everything on your plate or no-pudding' rule

Brenda writes of the 'eat everything on your plate or no-pudding' rule. This was certainly not unique to orphanages.

When I was at my state grammar school as late as the 1950s, the rule was firmly adhered to for school dinners, and I suspect it was commonplace elsewhere. The meat was little more than lumps of gristle, and the only way to swallow it was to treat it like swallowing a pill in water. A prefect examined everyone's plate before we were allowed to collect our pudding. It didn't strike us as in any way wrong or unfair. It was just how things were - but of course we escaped home at the end of the afternoon. Not that there was better meat at home. Meat was a treat for Sundays and we lived on its left-overs during the first part of the following week.

The basic nature of meals

Dorothy frequently mentions meals of bread and something, usually bread and dripping. Her account of breakfasts is one example of many.

Such meals may sound meagre. However, it was common in my childhood for tea (what might today be called supper or dinner) to be just bread with a scraping of jam. Bread and dripping was a common meal in itself, and actually delicious, even if unhealthy according to the norms of today. We never knew any different and never felt deprived. Only one meal of the day was cooked. That was the mid-day meal, then known as dinner, and it was largely vegetables.

Hands on heads in classrooms

Until I read Brenda's recollections of punishments, I had completely forgotten that a standard way for a school teacher to get and keep the attention of a class was to instruct the children to put their hands on their heads. It was commonplace in my first school in the 1940s. I don't think it was a punishment particularly - more a way of getting and keeping attention. I doubt if it would be allowed today. Although I don't remember my arms aching when my hands were up on my head, I'm sure that they would have ached if kept there for very long.

Addressing authority figures

In the page on punishments Brenda reports a conversation with the Master of the home, in which she prefixes what she says with, "Please sir". My mother frequently used to talk about interactions with school teachers, and she too started everything she said to a school mistress with, "Please Miss" even though she was just answering questions and not asking for anything.

Children should be seen and not heard

'Children should be seen and not heard' was a common statement in Victorian times, but there were echoes of it much later. My husband's uncle kept a cane by the meal table to rap the knuckes of any child who spoke without first being spoken to by an adult.

Withdrawal of food as a punishment

It is clear from old books that 'being sent to bed with no supper except bread and something' was once quite a common way of disciplining children. However my mother did not mention it in her recollections of childhood in the early 1900s. Neither did I ever know of any examples in my own 1940s-50s childhood.

Having to do chores

It is clear from what my mother wrote about the early years of the 20th century that children in families were expected to do chores, such as shopping, preparing vegetables and helping with the laundry. Nowhere, though, does she ever imply that they were expected to scrub floors, as Brenda clearly was in her orphanage. Yet even as late as my own childhood in the 1940s, my mother would announce to people that she would 'send Pat' to do something. Young as I was, I always thought that she might have asked me first. It was no nastiness on her part. It was just the way things were.


Brenda writes that the children in the orphanage had a holiday once a year at summer camp - not that she uses the word 'holiday'. In my mother's time in the early 1900s, there were no holidays away - only the one-day Sunday School outing to the seaside. When I was a child, it was wartime; the beaches were mined and barred with barbed wire, and there were no holidays at the seaside at all.

Being ruled by punishments rather than guided by affection

In the first part of the 20th century and probably earlier, it was not unusual for children in families to be ruled by punishments and shown no affection - although of course this varied from family to family. Several pages that my mother wrote show how frightened she was of her mother and even more so of her father.

My mother also made it clear that her parents never showed their children any affection. This did not necessarily mean that they were bad parents. Rather that the parents were ground down keeping 'body and soul together' as the saying went, with no modern conveniences of any sort to help.

An example of lack of demonstrable affection comes from another of my relatives of similar age to me but in a different family. He had to shake hands with his father before he went upstairs to bed. No hug was ever offered.

When I was born in 1939 the dictate was that babies should be fed at particular times of day which never varied and that they should not be picked up in between however much they cried - and that this was how they would learn to behave. This dictate was followed to the letter by new mothers who knew no different, although my mother told me that when my grandmother heard me crying, she said, "With all my nine, I would never have left a baby to cry like that without going to see what was the matter". So it did vary from family to family.

One of my relatives, who was born in the 1940s said that a cane was kept at the meal table and that if a child misbehaved in his his father's view, the father simply lent over and caned him. It was also common for school children who were deemed to have been naughty to be caned at school - or worse.

Sexual abuse

Brenda does not mention sexual abuse in her orphanage, although she does say that there were things that she decided not to include. Media reports confirm that sexual abuse did take place in some orphanages, as it did and still does in certain families in the community.

Preparation for employment

Brenda reports that the children in the orphanage had no choice as to what they wanted to in their future employment. Automatically girls were placed 'in service' and boys went to work on farms or got labouring jobs. For her own preparation for employment, she was moved into the Matron's house for domestic training, ready for work in service. She is on record as feeling that life had dealt her a duff hand of cards, as there were so many other things she felt she could have made a success of, if only given the chance.

In fact, Brenda could almost have been speaking of my mother's experience only a few years earlier than Brenda's - and my mother was brought up in an ordinary working-class family. At the time boys and girls from ordinary families left school at fourteen years old, and my mother - like Brenda - had no choice in what happened afterwards. She was just told that her mother, my grandmother, had found her a job in the local factory. My mother - like Brenda - also felt hard-done-by, in that she felt that given the chance she could have done much better for herself. At that time, though, no-one argued with their 'elders and betters'.

Outside orphanages children of wealthier families usually did have some choice, although they were often, against their wishes, forced into their families' businesses. And it was generally accepted that boys in working-class families would better themselves through evening classes, as did my father.

In summary: why orphanages were such unhappy places

So far, this page may seem to imply that the deprivations inside orphanages were not particularly unusual for the time. Yet orphanages were unhappy places. Why?

I suspect that what must have predisposed children to be unhappy in any orphanage was the realisation that no-one wanted them. Consequently an orphanage was the only possible place for them to go. Hardly something to aid their self-belief. Added to this must have been the lack of freedom and opportunity for self-expression and development.

Whereas children in family homes could escape for hours at a time and - usually - had people who cared about them to return to, neither was the case for children in orphanages. As Brenda explains, such children were just numbers as far as her 'Home' was concerned. They were not seen as individuals, apart of course from their names being entered in a Punishment Book. Their possessions were taken away from them, and they were given no say in what they wore or what happened to them, e.g. whether or not they were baptised and confirmed or what their future employment should be.

If only they had been shown some affection, fairness or interest in themselves as individuals, the other deprivations would have been easier to cope with. Brenda cites numerous examples of unfairness in her accounts. Instead of being listened to and treated fairly, the children were ruled by punishments and the rigidity of the daily and Sunday timetables.

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