‘A Place Called Hope’ by Tom O’Neill

Tom O’Neill (1981) A Place Called Hope: Caring for Children in Distress Oxford: Blackwell ISBN 0 631 12654 6

Though former residents as well as those who have run residential facilities have written about their experiences, Tom O’Neill is one of very few who have experienced the worst and the best of residential care and then gone on to make a career working in residential child care and to write about it. He also has a special place in the history of child care in England in that it was the death of his brother, Dennis, in foster care in 1945 that prompted a major inquiry (Care of Children Committee, 1946) and overhaul of children’s services in England and Wales.

Key Ideas

  • There is always hope.
  • Children need to be loved, not simply have their material needs met.
  • Children need to experience normal family life.
  • Schools can be responsive to children’s needs.
  • Information about children should be accurate.
  • Children should be given full information about their families.


In the ‘Introduction’, Tom O’Neill points out the similarities between his brother’s experiences and those of Maria Colwell (Committee of Enquiry into the Care and Supervision provided in relation to Maria Colwell, 1974) :

Dennis O’Neill Maria Colwell
9 January 1945 6 January 1973
Beaten to death by foster father Beaten to death by step-father
Supervised by an out of area social worker
Conflicting reports
Absences from school were not followed up.
Both were well drilled in what to say to visitors.
Long periods of suffering during which they were seen by officials
Deterioration was noticed.
Accused of lying
Injuries attributed to falls/fights
Had inadequate clothing for winter.
Supposed to be seen as a matter of urgency but records say
“to await return of social worker from absence”, “did not attend” appointment.
Died of starvation.

In 1970, when he was superintendent of a children’s home, he went on the residential child care course at Cardiff, staying with his brother in Newport. As the course covered the Monckton report (Home Office, 1945) into his brother’s death, the Curtis report (Care of Children Committee, 1946) and the 1948 Children Act, he began to feel the impact of people on the course talking about his family. When a fellow student asked for help with a project on fostering, he said he would talk to his brother, Terry, and out of these conversations came the decision to write his own story.

In Chapter 1 ‘Beautiful days of childhood’, he describes how he appeared in magistrates court with his parents present for stealing bottles from a lorry; he had already been fined, been on probation, etc. and had a string of previous offences; so the magistrates sentenced him to approved school. However, because of a mix up over his age, he thought he was 11 when he was really 13 and he only found out when he was summoned for military service at 19.

He then describes in an interlude how his oldest brother, Thomas, died before he was born and a sister, Christine, also died young. His father, John, was an Irishman who had served in the army and later worked as a labourer; he told Tom he was the ‘black sheep of the family.’ His mother, Mabel Blodwen, was from Pontypridd and had married John in 1918. His older brother, Cyril, was fostered by his maternal grandmother while his older sister, Betty, stayed with the family. His older brother, Charles, the honest member of the family, had gone to stay with friends when the NSPCC had called. After Tom there was his sister, Rosina, the one who remembered birthdays, Dennis, the quiet one, Terrence, the tough guy, and Frederick, the shy one.

John had already served a prison sentence in 1923 for ill-treating one of Tom’s older brothers and in 1939 both he and his wife went to prison. The family lived on credit, moving home regularly, which meant regular changes of school for the children; they were often taunted at school for their poverty and were caned if they truanted as a result. Tom did recall one good teacher, an English teacher, who gave him a penny or threepence for an essay and one day sent him to the headmistress who congratulated him on his composition and pinned it up prominently.

He often truanted to earn money for home, sometimes by begging, sometimes by real work, sometimes by selling goods that had been ‘acquired.’ His father used to beat his mother and occasionally the children.

Following the court hearing he was taken to the remand home and eventually by train to an approved school. He could have visits at the school but his parents did not always turn up.

Three months after he arrived in the school, his three younger brothers, aged two, five and seven, were taken from home; he was able to visit them in a children’s home while on a visit home but that was the last time he saw Dennis; his parents had been charged with neglect and spent a month in prison. His father then joined the army and died in 1946 aged 54.

In Chapter 2 ‘Do you remember Sir?’ Tom recollects:

  • jibes about his scabies,
  • being ridiculed because of reports about his family circumstances,
  • being humiliated,
  • being comforted,
  • going on holiday,
  • being left out of photos,
  • being caned for owning up to something he hadn’t done,
  • winning a writing competition,

but says that the bad experiences had helped him to treat children better when he become a residential worker.

He describes the lack of experience of staff, the poor facilities and the poor quality of treatment generally at the time, commenting that it is tragic when children who are already burdened with problems have to suffer the thoughtlessness of others.

In Chapter 3 ‘They cared, for God’s sake!’ he describes how, when he left the approved school, nothing had really changed. Shortly afterwards, his mother and sister left home and he ended up living with his father. He had a job but no friends and no money because his father took it all. Eventually he stole again to get back to court where he received probation with a three year condition of residence.

He was placed in a Salvation Army probation hostel, one of the few Catholics admitted to the hostel. There were religious pictures all around and the hostel was well integrated with the village. The Major’s wife was always ministering to others and always found time for others as did others associated with the hostel.

In Chapter 4 ‘I almost called her “Mum” ‘ he describes how the boys told him that you got on by being ‘saved.’ There were family prayers and a remembrance book of former residents. He had work and went on trips to sell the produce of the hostel. He also bought his first suit.

After he decided to go to the mercy seat, he didn’t feel any different but he began to believe in Christ and his teachings.

After about 4½ months, the Major arranged a job for him in Reading and lodgings with a normal family; one of the girls, Nellie, was confined to a wheelchair and asked Tom to teach her to add up. He was overwhelmed at being invited to sit on the girls’ bed and talk and to be asked to suggest people to invite to tea.

So he ran away, first to Cardiff and then back to the hostel; he was later placed in lodgings in the village and from there went to do his National Service.

In the meantime he had found out where his other siblings were and started to write to them; he recalled receiving a letter from Frederick, who had been fostered with Mr and Mrs Pickering, saying that Dennis and Terry were not very happy at Bank Farm and were not getting enough to eat but Frederick later said he could not remember sending it.

In December 1944, he wrote for information about them and was told that the children had been visited and were all right. On January 9th 1945, his birthday, he heard that Dennis was dead. A friend offered to pay for him to go to Shrewsbury for the trial but it was transferred to Stafford and he was not able to find out where Terry was after the trial until he saw him at a Salvation Army event in Cardiff and went to meet his foster parents. Terry was also able to visit Tom in the hostel until he was moved.

He had difficulties being accepted into the RAF because of his background (as did a child in care later) and, on leaving, went to train as a Salvation Army officer; however, he decided to leave after visiting the farm near Shrewsbury where Dennis had died and returning home to find his father dead and his mother remarried.

Though the Major asked him to resume his training, he chose instead to return to the RAF, marrying a member of staff at the hostel and, after leaving the RAF, settling down to married life and working in the mines as well as helping out at the hostel, including occasionally sleeping in to help the Major and his wife.

In the light of this, the Major and his wife suggested several times that he enter residential work and in 1956 he accepted a job at a children’s home for six months prior to its closure before going on to work in three more children’s homes.

The Major’s wife died in 1968 and the Major in 1970. He is thankful to him because he was brought up in a posh home but he still cared for the likes of Tom.

In Chapter 5 ‘The stranger I know’ Tom describes how a fellow student, Bill, asked for help on a project about foster homes and he agreed to talk to Terry who had often been moved round foster homes for no apparent reason. Though he had visited Terry, who now had a wife and two daughters, once or twice a year for the previous ten years, when Tom made an appointment to talk to him about his experiences of foster care, he discovered that he did not even know that Tom had been removed from home nor why he had. After talking for five hours, they agreed to visit Bank Farm.

But before describing their visit in 1972 in detail, Tom describes how in December 1939 his parents were prosecuted for neglecting the children and fined £3; because they were unable to pay the fine, they were sent to prison for a month and the four younger children were removed on a Place of Safety Order, initially to a hospital and then to a children’s home and then, in May 1940, after they had been placed in the care of the local authority, to another children’s home. Rosina was placed with her maternal grandmother and the boys with a Catholic foster parent in Hereford; unfortunately, she fell ill and the boys were placed with a non-Catholic family in Leominster who were agreeable to bringing them up as Catholics; the foster parents had three sons and the boys attended the local Catholic girls boarding school.

Three years later they had to leave but were given no reason; they were supposed to go to a foster home in Shrewsbury but the foster mother had already accepted a girl and so she took Terry and Frederick and recommended Mr and Mrs Gough at Bank Farm for Dennis. The placement was arranged by the escorting officer and Terry joined him a week later while Frederick stayed at the foster home for eleven years and assumed the foster parents’ name. He became a successful professional and, in summer 1972, Terry and Tom visited him at his home in the north and met his future fiancée and her family. Tom found out that Frederick had thought he was one of a family of three boys.

In Chapter 6 ‘What happened in November’ Tom resumes the story of the visit to Bank Farm. Terry has vivid recall of the area. They meet the family now living at the farm and a man who remembers Terry and Dennis. Terry finds that the interior has been changed since 1944.

Tom notes that all went well between June and November 1944 and compares the reports on his own family home in December 1939 and Bank Farm in 1945.

Initially Dennis and Terry had had beds but, when two other foster children moved in, they were moved to palliasses until the other foster children left. There had been bad behaviour by Dennis and Terry which Mr Gough dealt with by awarding strokes for each offence and then beating the children, often daily. Mrs Gough had only been involved in awarding strokes. However, Mr Gough’s behaviour had become increasingly bizarre as he dressed up as ghost to frighten the children and got them up in the middle of the night. Mr Gough received a six year sentence and Mrs Gough six months.

Tom notes the refusal of the authorities to allow Rosina, Dennis’ older sister, to attend the funeral even though she lived on the route of the funeral procession.

He concludes the chapter with Mr Gough’s remark, “Of the two boys, Dennis was my favourite”.

In Chapter 7 ‘Preferential treatment’ Tom describes how Terry was taken to one children’s home where he was refused because of his poor condition and then taken to another where he was pampered.

Today Terry is confused about the sequence of events because there was an inquest, a preliminary hearing, a committal in Shrewsbury and then the trial in Stafford. Terry spent five hours in the witness box but remembers hearing someone in court say, “Oh the dirty little murderer” when the defence barrister suggested that Dennis’s injuries were caused by him and not by Mr Gough and a woman who recognised him outside and said she would kill Gough if he was there.

Terry got lots of cards and, after the trial, returned to the children’s home from where he was fostered with a family that had other boys and accepted as a member of the family, though he resisted calling the foster parents ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad.’ He had cried when he was sent to bed for a misdemeanour because he thought “they didn’t want him”.

He got a bicycle and also got involved in shoplifting with a gang until he realised the consequences for his foster parents if he was caught and stopped.

Unfortunately, a newspaper article about Terry, revealing his whereabouts, prompted a move to a children’s home and two years later to another where, when he was accused of a misdemeanour which he denied, he was denied food for three days because he did not own up and then caned.

From there he was placed with a farmer near Newport and then went into the army for three years. With no home to go to at the end, he found his sister’s address in Newport and was reunited with his family, though neither Tom nor Terry can bring themselves to call their mother ‘Mum.’ Both had wanted to be in a real family and now Tom had a wife and two sons and Terry a wife and two daughters.

In Chapter 8 ‘Who goes free?’ Tom explores the fallout from Dennis’ death. Gough had been punished but what about the others implicated in the situation? The foster mother who had to give up caring for the children had blamed herself and the social worker involved in the case had died shortly after the trial. His father had died one year after Dennis while his mother still feels guilty about what happened to her children.

In Chapter 9 ‘Return to hope’ Tom recalls how he hated being given things as a child because he was ‘needy’ and not because he was ‘loved.’ He castigates social workers who do not visit children in ‘good’ foster and residential homes for failing to show that they ‘love’ them and stresses the need to offer children hope.

He notes, among other things, examples of failure to record data properly, of multiple moves and of Terry being denied knowledge of his own family.

For Tom his first two placements had made things worse but his third one, in the Salvation Army hostel, had changed him; he was treated as a person and they persisted in caring for him even after he left to go into the RAF. In effect, he had only experienced ‘normality’ from the age of 17 and didn’t always know how to behave.

Though what had happened in Hope Valley was the start of good things, the excuses – staff shortages, difficult times, no other placement – are still with us.

In Chapter 10 ‘The pleasure is mine’ Tom describes his work as a residential worker. With his wife, Gwyn, and his sons, Bernard and Philip, residential work had been a joint venture involving the whole family. While there can be problems where staff fear that their own children will suffer, they had found not having the children around when they went non-resident also had implications for what they could do.

Tom stresses the importance of a wide range of activities which involve the children, for example, Christmas concerts, cricket, hoops, football and darts. While there have to be routines, there don’t have to be fixed menus and children need to be able to use the names they are comfortable with. The kitchen was a place where people gathered and the evening meal was open-ended; evening activities might involve a trip to the beach.

Tom believes there should be rules, honesty, especially because children have often been cheated by those around them including social workers, and trust. He describes a couple of incidents in which his own children intervened. One was taking his A Levels at the time Tom was studying at Cardiff and criticised him for refusing to see a former resident because he was in the middle of dealing with Terry’s revelations. When 11, his son, Philip, told him off for punishing a boy inappropriately and Tom decided to remit the punishment because he realised he was in the wrong. Another boy who always got into trouble just before the holidays because he didn’t want to go home told Tom’s son the reason, namely that his father was interfering with him while he was on holiday, and his son told Tom.

He eventually became a lecturer on the preliminary residential child care course and saw the varied experiences of students on placements. He comments that the students were not always ready to work in residential care at the end of the course and he would encourage them to do other work; his own son had got a degree and then gone to work on the buses. Sometimes people need to become better people before they can work with children.

He had always stressed the importance of honesty, reliability and punctuality to the children and concludes with various accounts of the responses of children to his care, concluding with the story of Ted who at times seemed very difficult to make any progress with. But when he heard a staff member say, “I would consider that Ted is the one boy for whom there is no hope”, he had rounded on him, “… if you feel that way, I suggest you go and pack your bags and get out of this work” (1981, p. 122).

However, he learned after a later incident how important what one says can be. He had said, “There is nothing more I can do for you” and Ted had run away; he had later been arrested, sent to detention centre and then returned to the children’s home. After a fight with a house-father, Ted had again left and ended up in Borstal. However, he had got married and tried to get into the forces; when he was refused because of his record, Tom had raised this with his MP and, when Ted made a further application, he was accepted. As Tom O’Neill concludes, “There is always hope” (1981, p. 125)


Tom O’Neill is not concerned with the merits of residential care or foster care but with the wider system of which they are a part and how that can support and fail children. Nor is he concerned, as so many of those in this series are, with children who have severe behavioural problems but with how children who have been failed by their parents can then be failed by a society that fails to see them as people and comes to blame them for problems which are not ultimately of their making. Though he does not make this connection, Mr Gough’s behaviour towards Dennis and Terry could be taken as representative of the standard response of society towards bad behaviour.

He lies in the tradition of Carpenter (1853), Clegg and Megson (1968) and Fanshel and Shinn (1978) in focusing, as his subtitle shows, on children in distress and what is needed to take them out of their distress. He concludes that they need love, normal family life and hope. These are not beyond the capacity of schools, foster parents and residential staff to provide, as Terry, Frederick and he all found. Yet many of those involved in the system appear unable to provide these.

His advocacy of love or at least a level of personal commitment that goes beyond just meeting a child’s needs will be contentious for some, whether professionals concerned about ‘over-involvement’ or men worried about personal rather than impersonal relationships (Gilligan, 1993), and needs to be considered in the light of Aichhorn (1951) who argues that workers cannot become friends and Trieschman et al. (1969) who argue that staff should be ‘companions.’

We can approach this through the concepts of ‘caring for’ and ‘caring about.’ It is possible to care for someone and not care about them. Professionals can give emotional support and even ‘unconditional love’ in the sense of tolerating all sorts of behaviour without really caring about the person, as Bettelheim illustrates in the case of Dana (1974). The professional who arranges a placement for a child in a ‘good’ foster or residential home and then does not visit them may be caring for the child but does not care about them.

Among those in this series, Homer Lane, Makarenko and Mr Lyward perhaps best demonstrate ‘caring about’ – Homer Lane through his total commitment to the young people and their welfare, Makarenko through his repeated attempts to help young people and his willingness to take them back, and Mr Lyward through his lengthy correspondence with their parents and the reports he wrote on young people he was unable to help. Winnicott and Britton (1957) accept the need for this sort of commitment in the arrangements they set up to support staff and, while David Wills does not really discuss love, he quotes approvingly Derek Morrell’s comment about the “modality being love” Wills (1971, p. 153).

We know that children benefit from having a secure attachment (Ladd, 2005) and that, even if they do not get that in infancy, they can get it later in life (Tizard, 1977). Winnicott and Britton (1957) also make the point that children need to be able to trust those who are caring for them and will test them out directly or indirectly to discover if they are trustworthy. Only people who really care about children are likely to put up with the sort of testing this will involve.

From another perspective O’Neill’s account of his work as an officer in charge shows that he had the characteristics that King et al. (1971) found were associated with positive child care, characteristics which he had before he went on the course at Cardiff. So, whether or not one accepts his arguments about love, there is much to learn about the detail of being a good head of a home from O’Neill.

Though O’Neill does not explicitly say so, he found the first real experience of totally unconditional love in Reading too much to bear. Though he warmed to the Major and his wife, it would have been easy for him at the time to say that they were just doing their job well; for people who knew nothing of him simply to accept him into their family was overwhelming. But like Makarenko (1936), the Major accepted O’Neill back, a decision which ultimately led to him marrying Gwyn and entering residential work.

His argument that young people are not always ready for residential work reflects the experience of Winnicott and Britton (1957) and the views of the Advisory Council in Child Care (1970) about the sorts of people who are likely to make good staff. This does not mean that young people cannot make a contribution to residential care as Homer Lane (Bazeley, 1928), Makarenko (1936) and Page and Clark (1977) demonstrate and as O’Neill himself demonstrates through the contributions of his own children but that the personal sensitivity and resilience that is needed to respond appropriately to children and young people’s testing requires a degree of personal maturity.

In arguing for family life, O’Neill is following in the footsteps of Mary Carpenter (1853), Homer Lane (Bazeley, 1928) and Winnicott and Britton (1957) but he is agnostic about whether that occurs in foster, adoptive or residential care. He demonstrates that it can be successfully provided in a range of settings and he takes for granted that none of these preclude continuing natural family contact, noting that being part of a family does not mean that you have to call the parent figures in that family ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad.’ Using those terms has to be the child’s choice, not the adults’, as Terry and Frederick’s stories make clear.

Saying that his bad experiences helped him to treat children better when he became a residential worker does not mean that people need to be treated badly to treat others well. Indeed, the evidence suggests that those who are badly treated find it more difficult to treat others well (Ladd, 2005; Rodriguez-Srednicki and Twaite, 2006). Rather, it is another piece of evidence in support of his argument that you should never lose hope; just because many people who are badly treated find it difficult to treat others well does not mean that it is impossible to rise above bad treatment and learn how to treat others well.


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Aichhorn, A (1951) Wayward youth London: Imago First published 1925 Verwahrloster Jugend Wien: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag

Bazeley, E T (1928) Home Lane and the Little Commonwealth London: Allen & Unwin See also Children Webmag February 2009.

Bettelheim, B (1974) A home for the heart London: Thames & Hudson

Care of Children Committee (1946) Report of the Care of Children Committee Cmd 6922 London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office Chairman: Myra Curtis

Carpenter, M (1853) Juvenile delinquents, their condition and treatment London: W & F G Cash See also Children Webmag November 2008.

Clegg, A B & Megson, B E (1968) Children in distress Harmondsworth: Penguin

Committee of Enquiry into the care and supervision provided in relation to Maria Colwell (1974) Report of the committee London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office

Fanshel, D & Shinn, E B (1978) Children in foster care: a longitudinal investigation Guildford: Columbia University Press See also Children Webmag March 2009.

Gilligan, C (1993) In a different voice: psychological theory and women’s development London: Harvard University Press With a new introduction

Home Office (1945) Report by Sir William Monckton KCMG KCVO MC KC on the circumstances which led to the boarding out of Dennis and Terence O’Neill at Bank Farm, Minsterly and the steps taken to supervise their welfare, etc. Cmd 6636 London: Home Office

King, R D, Raynes, N V & Tizard, J (1971) Patterns of residential care: sociological studies in institutions for handicapped children London: Routledge & Kegan Paul See also Children Webmag April 2009.

Ladd, G W (2005) Children’s peer relations and social competence: a century of progress London: Yale University Press

Makarenko, A (1936) Road to life: translated by Stephen Garry London: Stanley Nott Originally published as Pedagogicheskaia poema See also Children Webmag February 2009.

O’Neill, T (1981) A place called Hope: caring for children in distress Oxford: Blackwell

Page, R & Clark, G A (Eds) (1977) Who cares? Young people in care speak out London: National Children’s Bureau See also Children Webmag November 2008.

Rodriguez-Srednicki, O & Twaite, J A (2006) Understanding, assessing, and treating adult victims of childhood abuse Oxford: Jason Aronson

Tizard, B (1977) Adoption: a second chance London: Open Books

Trieschman, A, Whittaker, J & Brendtro, L (1969) The other 23 hours: child care work with emotionally disturbed children in a therapeutic milieu Chicago: Aldine

Wills, W D (1971) Spare the child: the story of an experimental approved school Harmondsworth: Penguin

Winnicott, D W & Britton, C (1957) Residential management as treatment for difficult children In D W Winnicott (Ed.) The child and the outside world: studies in developing relationships chapter II:6, (pp. 98-116) London: Tavistock

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