Ancestry UK

Abuse in Children's Homes

In recent years, the image of many once-hallowed children's institutions has been greatly tarnished by revelations of the serious physical and sexual abuse that went on behind their doors and, in some cases, the cover-ups that took place when such events became known to those in charge.

The abuse of children by those into whose care they had been placed is not, however, an exclusively modern phenomenon. In Victorian times, there were a number of well-publicized incidents, particularly in relation to workhouse inmates. In 1841, G. R. Wythen Baxter published The Book of the Bastiles — a compilation of newspaper reports, court proceedings, correspondence and other material that graphically illustrated some of the alleged horror stories relating to the New Poor Law. A typical item is given below:

An inquiry has taken place this week at Rochester, before the county magistrates, into several charges preferred against James Miles, the master of the Hoo Union-House, for cruelly beating several young pauper-children of both sexes. Elizabeth Danes stated that she was 13 years of age, and that the defendant, James Miles, had punished her three times while she was in the Union-House. The offence she had committed was leaving a little dirt in the corner of a room, and the defendant made her lie upon a table, and took her clothes off, and beat her with a birch-broom until blood came.

In 1894, Ella Gillespie, a nurse at the Hackney workhouse school at Brentwood, was accused of systematic cruelty to the children in her charge including beating them with stinging nettles and forcing them to kneel on wire netting that covered the hot water pipes. Children were also deprived of water and resorted to drinking from the toilet bowls. Her most notorious practice was night-time 'basket drill' where children were woken from their sleep and made to walk around the dormitory for an hour with a basket on their heads containing their day clothes, and receiving a beating if they dropped anything. After a trial for ill-treatment of children, Gillespie was sentenced to five years' penal servitude.

In 1914, the Little Commonwealth, an experimental self-governing co-educational community, was founded at Evershot, Dorset. Run by Homer Lane, who had pioneered a similar scheme in America, it took children of all ages, including 'delinquents', and became a Certified Industrial School. The establishment closed in 1918 after Lane was accused of engaging in immoral relations with some of the girls.

In the 1920s, there were discussions in the medical literature concerning the appearance of venereal diseases such as gonorrhoea in babies and children resident in children's homes. A variety of explanations were put forward, such as infection from shared towels or lavatory seats, or sexual assault prior to entry to a home. However, it was apparently unthinkable that it could be caused through sexual abuse by an adult within the institution.

Many cases of assault and other offences involving children in care were undoubtedly hushed up, but they did occasionally reach the courts. In July 1955, the Sheffield Corporation's Children's Officer, Ernest Healey, was sentenced to twelve months in prison for the indecent assault of three girls aged from 12 to 16. At least one of the incidents had taken place at the city's Grove Children's Home.

Since the 1970s, an increasing volume of allegations of abuse from the former residents of children's homes, and the resulting inquiries, have led to an increasing realization of the scale of such activities. Details of some of the most significant of these cases are described on other pages.

Abuse inquiries have invariably concluded with recommendations for lessons to be learned and changes in the policies, procedures or culture of the organizations involved, such as a far greater willingness for the allegations of victims to be taken seriously by officials and the police.

The increasing concern about the abuse of children in care has also been reflected in more recent legislation. The Criminal Records Bureau (CRB), which began operation in 2002, allowed employers to check on the backgrounds of individuals whose work would bring them into contact with children. In 2013, the CRB was replaced by the Disclosure and Barring Service, whose checks include more rigorous police screening.

Of wider significance was the 2004 Children Act which required local authorities to appoint a Director of Children's Services, to promote co-operation between agencies, and to set up Local Safeguarding Children's Boards. Other measures included the creation of a Children's Commissioner for England, and for guidance to be given regarding for the setting up of databases holding basic information about children and young people to help professionals work together to provide early support to children, young people and their families.

Whether these changes will finally put an end to the shocking catalogue of abuse that has been suffered by children in care still remains to be seen.