Archives- Raising the Questions

Where are child care archives kept, if you are looking for them? Where should child care records be lodged, if you have some that need safe-keeping? How should archives be organised and stored? How can archives be used to help former children in care piece together their early lives? Who should have access to them – and who should not? What is the effect of redaction? What are the drawbacks in child care records when lawyers need to use them? How can we use child care archives as teaching materials? How do British records compare with those held in other countries? What are the lessons to be learnt from records?

If you do not know much about the subject, you may find these questions hard to answer. Even if you are an expert, there are some questions to which there is no satisfactory answer as yet. That is why a conference was set up jointly by the Modern Records Centre at Warwick University and the Child Care History Network. There were a dozen papers, each taking a different angle on the subject, and the variety and combination of information and opinion made it a fascinating day. (Some of the papers, overhead notes and a recording of the proceedings are available on the CCHN website –

The input for the day started with three papers on research, followed by three papers reflecting the concerns of service providers in the private, voluntary and local authority sectors, and ending with three papers representing the interests of the former children who were the subjects of the archives. As hosts for the day, Mathew Thomson, the Director of the Centre for the History of Medicine, and Helen Ford from the Modern Records Centre welcomed delegates.

Coming to Terms with Unwelcome Truths

Maria Luddy, Professor of Modern Irish History at the University of Warwick, spoke about the history of child care in the Republic of Ireland. The long history of abuse of children in care in Irish industrial schools and other institutions is now well known, following the publication of the five-volume report in 2009 known as the Ryan Report. Maria focused in particular on the way in which events had unfolded.

The abuse had been known about for some time before it hit the headlines with the TV documentary States of Fear in April 1999, and in May 1999 Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach, apologised on behalf of the state to the victims of abuse and announced the Commission of Inquiry. Why was it possible to talk openly about the scandals then, but not before? Perhaps the wealthier and more open society of the 1990s? What happens in a community which acts secretively for many years, in denial perhaps, but which then faces up to its past and tries to make amends to those who suffered? Understanding these dynamics is crucial if repetition is to be avoided, or if victims in other countries are struggling to be heard, as more recently in Jersey.

Clearly each country is different, and in Ireland there had been a pact between the state and the Roman Catholic Church whereby the Church provided economical child care on condition that it went virtually unmonitored. This pact gave the scope for the subsequent abuse. Even after the scandals were public the childcare organisations were still reluctant to open their records.

Maria said that there had subsequently been a spate of ‘misery literature’ – the harrowing personal accounts of former children in care telling their stories of victimhood. She emphasised the difficulty for a historian to be objective in a field where there were still such raw and strong emotions.

These events have clearly had an impact on the standing of the Roman Catholic Church, but it will take many years before a balanced evaluation can be made. Despite the public acknowledgement of the abuse and the Ryan Report, there may still be aspects of the history of child care which will be unwelcome, which people find hard to accept, and which will cause pain and grief. History is not just an academic subject, but policy-makers need to listen to its lessons.

Finally, Maria pointed out that surprisingly (and shockingly) there are no academic histories of Irish child care – even histories of happy child care.

Sorting Out BASW’s History

James King, Senior Assistant Archivist at the Modern Records, had recently completed the cataloguing of the archives of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW). His subject was less dramatic than Maria Luddy’s, but the work which he outlined is the bread-and-butter task of archivists, and it had its own fascination.

BASW had been formed in 1970, just before Social Services Departments were established, and it was the combination of seven professional associations (ACCO, IMSW, APSW, MWWA, ASW and AFCW). Only NAPO, the Probation Officers’ association, decided to remain independent. The archives of these predecessor organisations had already been catalogued, amounting to 142 boxes.

BASW deposited their records with the Modern Records Centre in 1997 and by then they had accumulated 333 boxes of unsorted, unlisted, disorganised files, which had multiple classification systems. James’s work was to make sense of this mass of material.

Most of the contents relate to policy development in relation to specific client groups such as children and families, but there are also the confidential files relating to BASW’s advice and representation service which will be closed until their subjects’ respective hundredth birthdays.

The files also included papers relating to four individual cases – Paul Brown in 1976, the Pindown Inquiry in Staffordshire in the 1980s, Kimberley Carlile in 1986 and Tyra Henry in 1984. Did they pay no attention to Jasmine Beckford?

Using Children’s Records for Research

Jonathan Reinarz, Senior Lecturer in the History of Medicine at Birmingham University and Director of the History of Medicine Unit in the Medical School, specialises in children’s medical records, and he pointed out that children’s records are usually the best catalogued. In Birmingham, for example, there is a booklet detailing children’s archives, while Great Ormond Street Hospital’s records are on line. As a researcher, he had never found difficulty accessing records.

Like Maria, Jonathan emphasised the strong feelings which adults still have about their experiences of health care as children, and in his research he had found lingering resentment and anger towards aspects of the Health Service – when they had been left uninformed and uncomprehending, or when parents had been excluded from hospital wards, for example.

Although the records for children in hospital were full, including references to visitors, for instance, Jonathan described them as “double distilled” in that they were compiled by adults and there was a risk that the children’s views were submerged. The children’s experiences were therefore at times hard to uncover. Nonetheless, reading the records was at times harrowing, in view of the distress suffered by the children, and it was for the researcher to maintain objectivity.

Problems for Private Providers

Evelyn Daniels has been a manager of residential care services for fifteen years, most recently in the private sector, and it was the problems of care providers in the private residential sector that he spelt out. Care leavers depend on access to their records in order to piece their lives together, establish what happened and make sense of their past. Records give them their lives back.

But there is no coherent policy or practice in relation to practical storage of extensive files nor, given the legally mandated retention period of 75 years and the need for the long-term preservation of records when a private company goes out of business. It is not clear who owns the records. Conscientious providers store their records, but their sheer volume presents problems, even in small-scale services. Local authorities do not wish to archive them. Inspectors are not interested in checking their retention. At times of cuts, the preservation of archives is low on the agenda.

A major problem is that many services are short-lived, as homes open and close depending upon demand or the economic situation. Evelyn gave an example of a boy whose records had been lost as the homes he was in were successively closed. Archives need to be stored by a body with longevity – a new national system, or local authorities? Until this is answered children will risk losing their past.

140 Years of History

John Hughes is Heritage Manager for Action for Children (formerly NCH) and he has worked in heritage and archives for the last sixteen years. He took the conference back to Rev. Thomas Bowman Stephenson’s concern in 1869 for “my poor little brothers and sisters, sold to hunger and the devil”, outlining the innovations brought in by NCH in the course of its history.

Most of its paper archives are now lodged with Liverpool University, but it has other collections of memorabilia scattered around its offices and other premises, such as the chapel at Edgworth, a former children’s home, with beautiful commemorative stained glass windows.

Action for Children sees itself as the guardian of the family history of former children in its care, and every year there is a reunion of staff and ex-children. They also gather oral histories. They have a unique history, and it needs to be told.

Ethical Challenges in Creating Oral Histories

Gudrun Limbrick, Oral Historian, and Sarah Pymer, Archivist, shared the platform to describe the challenges faced by Birmingham Archives and Heritage in its Heritage Lottery Fund-supported project of recording the children’s homes provided by the City from 1949 to 1990. The project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and it might be thought that it should be an easy task for a City to review its own archives.

However, before the 1980s it was Birmingham policy to destroy children’s files when they reached the age of 21, so that even gathering the basic information about the opening and closure of homes has been difficult. By consulting committee papers and other surviving records such as log-books they have pieced things together.

They have also been compiling an oral history to fill out the paper records, collecting personal experiences of being in care. This process is not always straightforward. The researchers, for example, are not in a position to explain to former children in care what happened to them or why particular decisions were made.

When it comes to preparing a record of the oral history for public access there is the further problem of removing defamatory statements with the risk of bowdlerisation and under-representing the less happy aspects of care.

Making Records Accessible

Kate Roach, Service Manager for Making Connections, and Martine King, Archives and Administration Manager, spoke about the Barnardo’s approach to making records available to people who had been in their care as children. Barnardo’s has a long track record in this field, but the TV series Barnardo’s Children, which came out in 1995, led to 4,000 requests for access to files, which resulted in a backlog which has not yet been resolved.

Before then former residents were given selective information, but from 1995 they were given full access to their files. The interviews were also used to gather information about historical abuse.

The scale of the Barnardo’s archives is phenomenal – 450,000 records, 500,000 photographs, 1.6 million images on 166 CDs, and 6,000 adoption records. In 2009-2010 they received 1,800 enquiries -not always about Barnardo’s. In addition to people wishing to see their own records there is a tracing and reunion service, which allows both former staff and children to trace contacts whom they wish to meet again.

Barnardo’s has a code of practice for their archival services, designed to reflect their social work values, such as respect for the individuality of all the people involved. Things have come a long way from the time when young people leaving Barnardo’s had a farewelling ceremony. They were given a suit and a Bible, among other things, and they were given an expurgated oral version of the contents of their file.

Using Archives in Seeking Redress

Peter Garsden, the Principal at Abney Garsden McDonald solicitors is President of the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers, and he spoke of the legal framework affecting the retention of records, rights of access. He described the growing field of litigation in which children in care (both former and current) seek damages for negligent practice and abuse suffered whilst in care.

Peter spoke of the difficulties caused by redaction, the process whereby the names of third parties are obliterated on the basis of the Data Protection Act. This process made some documents quite unintelligible, and he doubted its legal validity, though it has not yet been challenged in court.

He provided a number of papers on the subject which are available on the web.

The Missing Piece of the Jigsaw

The final speaker, Jim Goddard, is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Bradford and Secretary of the Care Leavers’ Association (CLA), which was set up in 2003 as a sort of Friends Reunited for people who had been through the care system. They now have a database of about 1500 homes (not all in the UK) and about 5,300 care leavers have registered.

Intriguingly, in the messages posted by members only three or four have had to be edited because of allegations of abuse. Their experience is that people are trying to fill gaps in their lives, and the records represent the equivalent of families’ oral history.

Their members found the bureaucracy of accessing files off-putting, and the process could be lengthy. The essential factor was the personality of the worker sharing the files with the former child in care. The CLA has therefore attempted to establish good practice in relation to access to files, and has set up standards with a seal of approval. To date only Wirral has achieved it.

Inspiring Young People

The Children’s Society use their archives to bring children’s lives in Victorian or Edwardian times to life for today’s schoolchildren. The outcome has been a range of moving short stories and poems, showing depth of feeling and sensitivity.

Ian Wakeling, the Children’s Society Archivist, had prepared a paper but was unable to attend because of an accident; this did not prevent him from presenting his paper to delegates in hard copy.


Discussion after this wide range of inputs was also varied.

Among the proposals for action, the idea put forward by the CCHN of creating a national database, listing where child care archives are kept, was supported. Exit interviews for children leaving care, conducted by people who know them, was mooted. A survey of private children’s home records was suggested, and the creation of a national or regional series of repositories for smaller homes and organisations, since the larger organisations have capacity to manage records which small outfits do not.

More questions were raised. What should go on files? Are current records as informative for the child as when recording requirements were less prescriptive? And Roger Bullock questioned whether the whole culture concerning records would have to change in view of the pervasiveness of technology. Information currently kept confidential by professionals, such as the names and whereabouts of adoptive parents, for example, could easily be shared today through emails, Facebook, mobile phones and so on.

All in all, a lot of ideas shared, a varied and interesting group of speakers, and a good opportunity to network.

1 thought on “Archives- Raising the Questions”

  1. Dear Sir or Madame,

    I came across your website while doing a search into “hackney social services children 1960’s” I was in residentual care as young child 5 – 6 years due to the break up of my parents relationship I was born in 1959 and am now 51 years old and would like to find out more about this early part of my life.
    I have memories of this time some good some not so good but they are a bit muddled and dis-jointed a friend of mine has told me that if I was in care there must be a file somewhere ( maybe in an archieve) with details about my case and case histories etc.
    My name is Alton Denis Gilkes but up until the age of about 7 I was known as Alton Bailey ( Bailey being my fathers surname).
    My questions are :

    1)Would there be a file with details on my case some where in an archieve?

    2)If such a file exist how would i go about locating it and gaining accress to the contents ?

    I would imagine access would be regulated by the freedoom of information legislation.

    If you could assist me in this matter i would be most grateful.


    Alton Gilkes

    66 Cheneys Rd
    Leytonstone London E11 3LN
    Email: [email protected]
    Mobile : 07810488247
    Blackberry Pin: 220BBE37
    Skype: genaro1815


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