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  • Imagined Orphans: Poor Families, Child Welfare, and Contested Citizenship in London
  • Ellen Ross
Imagined Orphans: Poor Families, Child Welfare, and Contested Citizenship in London. By Lydia Murdoch (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006. xii plus 252 pp.).

This superb study is based on dense and creative archival research and makes important contributions to our knowledge of the operation of the English poor law, child rescue procedures, and working-class family life in nineteenth-century London. While covering a wide range of institutions, Murdoch's book looks most closely at two kinds of London child care agencies. One was Evangelistic Dr. Barnardo's large voluntary child-rescue institution; and the other were the "schools" (really orphanage-type institutions) run by several different London poor law unions, with special emphasis on Banstead, maintained by the Kensington and Chelsea union, and the Forest Gate School run by the Whitechapel guardians. Murdoch investigates, among other things, how the children first came into contact with the poor law, the number of parental visits officials would permit, the aims of the educators, how children and parents viewed the care situation, and the children's fates after leaving the schools.

Most "homeless" "waifs" housed in state or private institutions in Victorian Britain were not true orphans. Some had two living parents and the great majority had at least one parent alive and that parent, usually a mother, was often the one who had reluctantly made the initial contact with the agency. The authorities' insistence on seeing the institutionalized children as orphans, Murdoch demonstrates, was a product of policy makers' complete inability to see the households of the poor as real homes, and poor parents' care as proper childcare. The authorities were also unable to recognize that ordinary respectable working-class families turned to welfare agencies in times of trouble and pulled away from them in better times. Murdoch uses Chadwick's 1883 survey of the Metropolitan Police on the subject of child street vendors (pp. 81-83) as a part of her case against Barnardo's claim that these street sellers were homeless boys; the police found that nearly all of the boys had homes to go to. A devastating 1889 New Year's Eve fire at a boys' dormitory at the Forest Gate School in which twenty-six boys were killed revealed more tragically how few of the children were true orphans. Officials were stunned to find that of the "orphan" boys killed all but one had one or more parents. The Queen acknowledged the parents' mourning.

The state schools compare very favorably with Barnardo's institution, which [End Page 221] was distinctly less accountable to the public and parents than the schools run by the unions. The poor law system involved several layers of supervision and scrutiny. It offered the children better care and education, and was, in addition, far more responsive to the demands of parents than Barnardo's.

Murdoch's scholarship is especially dazzling in its use of the voluminous and complex poor law records found in the London Metropolitan Archives. Residue of a highly bureaucratized and many-layered operation, these are enormous and convoluted documents. Murdoch uses many parts of this archive: school managers' annual reports and meeting minutes, registers of visitors to the schools, school superintendents' reports and journals, records of volunteer visiting committees, correspondence directed to the guardians, and so on. She adds extra depth to her analysis by reading records against each other: for example, a school official's comment on a child's visit with a parent along with correspondence with volunteers who are trying to find a job for the child. Another sign of this scholar's mastery is her selection of the most telling statistics and case studies from mountains of available data.

One of the remarkable new findings in Imagined Orphans is the material on the operations of the MABYS (Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants). Originally a voluntary organization founded in the mid 1870s by a group of well-connected philanthropic women mainly to help poor law girls find servants' positions upon leaving the schools, it moved into a quasi-official position in the poor law bureaucracy by the 1880s or 1890s...


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