The end of institutional care and afterwards

For those born after the Second World War, it can be difficult to understand some of the attitudes held by society in the first half of the 20th century, when the Foundling Hospital was providing institutional care.

Foundling Hospital Berkhamsted buildingsThe experiences of some of those former pupils, and those who were interviewed through the Foundling Voices project, such as the separation from foster families, corporal punishment and the emotional deprivation suffered at school can be shocking to us now. However, when viewed in the context of the time, they were not as unusual as might be thought. 

In the first half of the 20th century many families experienced separation and loss. Infant mortality was high, and children were commonly sent away to school, often at a very young age. At its peak, some 250,000 children were educated away from home. Until the 1940s, when psychologist John Bowlby charted the damaging impact of taking children from their families and putting them in institutions, there was little research into the emotional impact of separation on children.

Until the 1960s, the regimes of most schools, including the well known public schools, and other institutions were spartan. Single sex education, large dormitories, loyalty to small competing units such as houses, corporal punishment – even by senior prefects, supervision duties allocated to older boys, religious observance and military cadetship, were all features of what were generally rigid routines and structures.

The repression of emotional feeling was considered a valuable virtue. Even as late as the 1960s, HM School Inspectors were criticised for ignoring the social aspects of boarding school life – or having any methodology to assess it - despite growing concerns among psychologists about its detrimental long-term effects on children’s personality development. In this context, the regime of the Foundling Hospital Schools would have seemed ‘normal’ to many. The main difference being, that the children had no families to champion their cause, or to return to during the holidays.

Children of the Foundling HospitalThese social attitudes led to further complications for 'Coram' children who were brought up with no knowledge of a birth family. The governors were aware that mothers applying to the Foundling Hospital had made the best plan they could for their child. Mothers had the right to enquire about their child and in post-war years, mothers could also apply for an introduction. However, children were kept unaware of any communication from their mother, in the belief that this would be too confusing and complicated to manage. When introductions between mother and child were arranged, the primary consideration was the mother’s circumstances rather than the emotional needs of the mother and child concerned.

To a generation aware of the inheritance of the Workhouse and Poor Law system, and the limited opportunities available to poor and abandoned children, 'Coram's' children would not necessarily have been seen as deprived rather as having gained some advantage over others. Some workhouse provision described in the Curtis report of 1946 and the residential hospitals and nurseries visited by the child psychologists Jack and Barbara Tizard and social researcher Maureen Oswin in the early 1970s were truly horrific, every bit as bad as those portrayed 100 years earlier by Charles Dickens.

Before the First World War, writer Henry Mayhew’s great poverty survey showed that gangs of children lived rough in London and even post Second World War, many people lived in overcrowded accommodation, shared beds, died prematurely and were subject to authoritarian regimes and bullying in day schools, national service and at work. At the outbreak of the Second World War when thousands of London children were evacuated to the country, children such as those at the Foundling Hospital School, who were already in a stable and safe environment, would have been seen as relatively lucky.

In the 1960s, unease increased about the value of much residential education, whether for the rich or for children in need. The inability to provide unconditional love and the isolation from the outside world, while helpful to public school elites, were identified as dysfunctional for deprived children. Concepts such as total institution, institutionalisation, emotional deprivation and lack of attachment became professional parlance. On these criteria, most boarding schools came out badly. The public schools quickly adapted to become the modern educational establishments they are today. Many welfare schools tried to change by sending children out to local schools (or in Coram’s case admitting local children), but few had sufficient resources to alter things radically, especially as voluntary donations and public subsidies were often diminishing.

As a result, most institutions closed as alternative care arrangements were made. Some sold valuable land and used the money to support new, non-residential activities. Schools for offenders remained until the 1990s (and many of the adolescents they sheltered now enter young offenders institutions), but the general drift was towards family support and foster care as and when needed. The decision of the Coram governors to cease provision of institutional care in 1954 was, therefore, ten to 15 years ahead of thinking.

Prepared with the help of Roger Bullock, Fellow, Social Research Unit at Dartington and Roy Parker, Emeritus Professor of Social Policy, University of Bristol

Coram today

Val Molloy, an experienced social worker with Coram, who works with former Foundling Hospital pupils in supporting them to find their birth families, says:

"The Foundling Hospital had started as a fundamentally benevolent institution and in many practical respects, such as education, nutrition and medical care, offered above average care when compared with that received by many working-class children of the time.

"What was lacking was throughout all social care institutions at the time, simply because the body of theory and research that has led to our present day understanding of child development had not yet taken shape. Explanations of attachment and loss and theoretical concepts such as ‘identity’ had not yet been established and generally accepted."

The Old Coram Association was set up in 1947 to provide an opportunity for former Foundling Hospital pupils to keep in touch with each other and continues today, generously supporting the work of Coram.

Following the 1975 Children Act and 1976 Adoption Act, Coram was able to provide former pupils with similar information to that now available to all adopted people – their birth certificate and a history of their parental background, prepared by a social worker using the mother’s original papers. Today Coram offers a birth records and counselling service for former pupils and family descendants of the Foundling Hospital. With the support of an experienced social worker, the original petition or application to the governors is shared, together with the mother’s name and the name she gave to her child.

Coram has always been conscious of the importance of learning from the past for the benefit of vulnerable children now and in the future. A key finding in the charity’s research, and one that underpins much of Coram’s continuing success in adoption today, is the importance of ongoing support for foster and adoptive families.

From our campus on the original site of the Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury, Coram now runs one of the largest and most successful voluntary adoption agencies in the UK. Coram’s adoption service finds stable loving families for children in greatest need. Our specialist staff carefully match children in local authority care with adoptive families, who are given high quality preparation and training so they can give a child the life time of love and support they need.

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