Charity releases records of first to benefit from ‘boarding out’ scheme that evolved into modern-day system
Previously unseen Victorian archive records of the first fostered children in Britain have been released by Barnardo’s, showing what life was like for children when the scheme was originally launched by the charity in 1887.
They reveal a period of no social workers, no welfare state and chaotic family arrangements. Elizabeth Mouncey and her parents eked out a miserable existence marked by destitution, violence and squalor; her father, an East End docker, drank heavily and beat his wife. Today she would probably be on the child protection register and her parents enrolled on a troubled families programme.
When her parents died within a year of each other (Elizabeth was six when she was found next to her dying mother), she was taken in by neighbours. Relatives refused to give her a home, so church missionaries contacted a children’s charity, Barnardo’s, which put her on an innovative scheme called “boarding out” .
Elizabeth became the first known black foster child in the UK, in 1891. She was sent to live with “respectable foster parents of the labouring class” in the village of Headcorn, Kent, for six years, before returning to a Barnardo’s home to train as a cook. The 1911 census records that she was working as a cook in Croydon, south London.
Elizabeth’s story is one of several published on Friday from the archives of Barnardo’s, which this year celebrates its 150th birthday. Collectively they put human faces to the development of a system of care for poor and at-risk children that would evolve over time into the modern fostering system. Today, three in every four children who are taken into care are fostered.
Lilian Murray, for example, was placed in Barnardo’s custody at the age of two after a Westminster magistrate found her mother, a career petty criminal, to be guilty of neglecting and ill-treating her. Placements of girls were often made to prevent “moral danger” (sexual exploitation). Lilian was boarded out in Cambridgeshire, during which time Barnardo’s inspectors found her “greatly improved”, before going into service as a maid in Surrey.
Elizabeth Matthews was twelve when her stepfather signed an agreement for her to be cared for by Barnardo’s. Her mother had died two years earlier and she had subsequently attempted to run away from her stepfather, who is described in the archives as “a cripple [who] earns his living by hawking, begging and singing ... roaming the country with one of this two children, a boy, and lodging in the lowest lodging houses”. After nine years in Barnardo’s care she became a domestic maid.
Thomas Barnardo began his foster experiment in 1887 by dispatching 320 orphan boys of “good conduct and character” from the East End slums of London to board out with “homely folk” in rural villages who were paid five shillings a week to bring up their charges. The location was important: not just the wholesome benefits of clean air, but an upbringing free from the temptations and moral hazards of the city.
Barnardo’s initiative was in part a response to Victorian public outrage over “baby farming”, effectively deregulated fostering, whereby a string of women who took in numerous children for money were convicted for murder and neglect. The charity’s archives show the development of a pre-placement assessment and inspection system designed to ensure the children were looked after by “Christian people” in “kind homes”.
Prospective foster parents were expected to sign up to a commitment to bring up the child “as one of my family”, providing them with food, clothes, washing and schooling, as well as to “endeavour to train the said child in habits of truthfulness, obedience, personal cleanliness and industry”.
According to Barnardo’s archivist Martine King, it is the child-centred aspect of boarding out that is so remarkable, along with the attention paid not just to ensuring that children went to good homes, but that their progress was monitored. “It was the first time we had a system in place to make sure the parents were looking after the children properly,” she said.
In 1889, 586 boys and 124 girls were boarded out by Barnardo’s. By 1905, 4,000 children were looked after in foster care. Latest figures for 2015 show that 52,000 children in England were in foster care – a 30 year high – and Barnardo’s and other foster agencies say that with many foster carers going into retirement, there is a shortfall of families willing to take in vulnerable children.
“Much has changed over the past 130 years, but there are still vulnerable children in foster care who simply need someone who can always be there for them,” said Barnardo’s chief executive, Javed Khan. “Just as in Victorian times, today we’re looking for people, with a genuine desire to make life better for some of the country’s most vulnerable children, to become foster carers.”
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