Preserving History – and Making it Live

If you are a General, the study of historical battles and campaigns is of vital importance if the lessons about the critical factors which led to victory or defeat in the past are not to be forgotten. Failure to learn leads to disaster in war. Success means that the country remembers you, and people such as Cromwell, Wellington, Marlborough and Montgomery are seen as having shaped the country.If you are a child care worker, the chances are that you probably know very little of the history of child care beyond Oliver Twist, and can recall very few names of great child care workers beyond Dr Barnardo. As a profession, child care workers undervalue their history.

This is sad. A profession needs to know and understand its roots, how it has developed, the problems it has coped with, the solutions it found, and the battles it fought for recognition. Without this understanding a profession risks having no identity, no pride in its achievements, no awareness of its significance in the wider community, and no knowledge of past mistakes, which may therefore be repeated.

CHIN : three types of reason for joining

A group has now been set up called the Child Care History Network, made up of a few dozen people who are concerned about the history of the profession and its services.

People have varying reasons for joining the Network. There are those who simply have an interest in history. Learning about the lives of individuals, the development of specific services or the broader sweep of trends and national movements has a fascination. With a historical viewpoint it is possible to see the big picture, which might not have been apparent at the time, or to access archives that might have been confidential in the period in question.

Others have a concern that events, movements and the work of individuals should be properly recorded, and that the records should be archived. There is always the risk that old documents are seen as being important but that recent material is undervalued because it is not yet old. It is important for the record to keep current documents, not only because they will be old one day but because of their content and how they help us understand the way that services and ideas have developed.

Thirdly, there are those who want to learn from the records and apply their learning to current problems. Because child care workers work in the field of human personalities and relationships, people are much the same now as they were in the past, and the same problems often crop up cyclically. If we ignore the past, we then have to re-invent the wheel, and we do not always succeed.

In this respect CHIN might be seen in terms of a pressure group, working for a proper appreciation of the past and the incorporation of history into the education and training of people for the field, as well as in policy-making. History needs to be rewritten for every generation, and the past needs to be re-interpreted in order to understand the present.

Three main themes

The first meeting of the Network was held on 27 February 2008 at the National Children’s Bureau, attended by about twenty people. It generated a lot of interest and enthusiasm, and three main themes emerged.

First, there was the need to record the history of child care, since much had not been written down. In the meeting, examples were reported of records being destroyed in bulk, so that nothing was left to give an account of, say, the existence of a children’s home that might have been home to hundreds of children and a place of work for dozens of staff. Once obliterated, such archives could not be reconstituted.

Secondly, it was noted that the people concerned about the history of child care often worked in isolation. In the country as a whole there may be fewer than a dozen archivists in this field, a handful of historians and some researchers. Although each one no doubt has his or her personal networks, there was no organisation prior to CHIN to draw them together and enable them to share thinking or take a common line on something which required action.

Thirdly, there was a concern for archives. In the large child care organisations, the archives are well maintained and staff are appointed to look after the records, make them available for research, and guard the organisation’s history. In small organisations there are insufficient resources to appoint staff to care for archives and there is a real risk that records are poorly maintained or lost. As for the personal records of individuals, they are often stored in lofts or garages, and when the owner dies, they may be junked by the relatives clearing the house. A national child care archive could house such records.


All sorts of possibilities for action were considered, but it was acknowledged that the Network needed to toddle before it could walk, let alone run.

First, there was the need to map existing archives, identifying which universities, voluntary bodies or local authorities hold child care records. Some are known about, and certain universities have given a lead in this field, for example, but there is no comprehensive list of the places where child care archives are kept, and researchers often have to start from scratch.

Secondly, archives held by small organisations or individuals would need to be recorded. This would be more difficult, as they would be harder to identify, but these records are more vulnerable to destruction and this aspect of the work is therefore more urgent than mapping the large-scale archives which are well preserved.

There needed to be a campaign to encourage people not to destroy records or other materials of potential historical interest. Without these materials being properly archived, they would not be available to researchers, historians and other writers who need source material in order to get an accurate picture of the way in which services have developed, and the thinking behind the developments.

But thirdly, when the material is identified, where should it be housed? This led to the question, for whom were archives being kept? Whom did they serve, and for what purposes? It is not only researchers and historians who have an interest, but also people from the media and teachers wanting source materials for children when studying the past. Although this would be well into the future, the possibility was mooted of creating a national archive to house materials with no other home.


The first decision was to adopt the name Child Care History Network, while acknowledging that its remit covered young people as well as children and that it should be broad.

For the immediate future a Steering Group was set up, which is due to meet in April, and this Group was tasked with drafting aims and objectives and a constitution for the Network, identifying sources of funding and establishing a further meeting in the autumn in the form of a one or two day seminar. The programme would include a business slot to ratify the aims, constitution and so on, but would largely get down to work by receiving papers on the history of child care.

Other possibilities for the Network included the formation of a specialist archivists’ and perhaps historians’ subgroups. In the discussion, it became clear that there were several strands to the subject, which might, like a rope, need unpicking at times but that they would need to be considered together for maximum strength.

The first meeting took one further decision. Craig Fees had circulated a paper outlining a proposed oral history project entitled Therapeutic Living With Other People’s Children: Residential therapeutic child care c.1930-c.1980, for which funding was being sought from the Heritage Lottery Fund. It was agreed that, as Chair of the meeting, I should write a letter of support on behalf of the Network, and that it was appropriate to circulate the details of the proposed project to members of the Network.


If you have an interest in the history of child care, and would like to join the Network, drop us an email.

2 thoughts on “Preserving History – and Making it Live”

  1. Hello i am a social work student at Chester university and i am trying to find some links through history of residential childrens homes. Dates and developments, i was thinking possble links with the poor law and work houses etc. Could you give me any advise.
    Thank you. Craig.


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