The Curtis Committee From the Inside

One of the most significant pieces of post-war legislation was the Children Act 1948. It signalled a radical change of approach by the state to the issue of the care of children. It also brought a fresh perspective on the role of the many Christian agencies, who up this point had been the prime sources of extra-familiar child care.

Whilst undertaking some research in preparation for a history which I am writing on the Catholic Children’s Society (Westminster), I came across some fascinating correspondence between Cardinal Griffin, Archbishop of Westminster 1943-1956, and a Birmingham Councillor, which illustrates the level of his involvement and interest – and therefore the Church’s – in this important area at that time.

In January 1945 a 13-year-old boy, Dennis O’Neill, died whilst in care in a foster home. The boy had died of violent treatment and physical neglect by his foster carers. The public disquiet led swiftly to the establishment by the Government of a public inquiry into this tragic occurrence and, in March 1945, to the appointment of a Committee of Inquiry into the Care of Children.

The Catholic Bishops in England and Wales in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had engaged in a long struggle to ensure that children born to a Catholic parent should have their religious heritage protected by the law of the land. They had also shown their commitment to meet children’s needs through extensive involvement in the provision child care in general. Fifteen thousand Catholic children were, at this time, being cared for across the country in homes and special schools managed by Catholic agencies. There was therefore understandably a wish to ensure that their views would be represented in the membership of the review body.

The review body, under the Chairmanship of Miss (later Dame) Myra Curtis, came to be known as the Curtis Committee and its findings were published in September 1946.

Cardinal Bernard Griffin

The Archbishop of Westminster at the time of these events was Cardinal Bernard Griffin. He had been both an Assistant Bishop of Birmingham and Director of the Birmingham Children’s Rescue Society, known as Father Hudson’s Society, for eight years until his appointment to Westminster in December 1943.

Cardinal Griffin was therefore uniquely qualified to have a clear grasp of the importance for future child law of the work of the Curtis Committee. He had already had contact with the then Home Secretary Herbert Morrison, who had agreed that the Cardinal could have a representative on the Committee.

Quite by chance, a former acquaintance whom Cardinal Griffin had known well whilst at Father Hudson’s, a Mrs. Helen Murtagh, wrote to him to express her views about the need for representation on the Committee. She was a Birmingham City Councillor, a Health Visitor and had had a long involvement with and interest in child care issues. In a letter to him she observed on the membership of the Committee, “They must have balanced people and not the ‘ranting’ usual people Councillor type, but they ought to have some women on it”.

Mrs. Helen Murtagh – Favoured Nominee

The Cardinal was clearly delighted to receive this letter and wrote back the same day to say he had already given Morrison five names, “but I have written by this post adding your name to the list with a very strong recommendation. He might, of course, prefer to have a lay person rather than a cleric and this may ease his difficulties considerably”.

Mrs. Murtagh was accepted onto the Committee. She wrote frequently to the Cardinal throughout the deliberations of the Committee and her observations give a fascinating insight into both the workings of the Committee and the manner in which she worked hard to ensure that the Catholic concern about the religious needs of children were kept on the agenda.

The Curtis Committee Begins

In the correspondence, she then described how the Committee planned to tackle its work. It was to be divided into four groups of four members on each group. They planned to do visits of observation to children’s services, both residential and foster care all over England and Wales. Separate groups of members would visit the same homes to ensure a wide perspective and where serious concerns arose, Miss Curtis and an inspector would follow them up.

In May 1945 the Committee took evidence from five members of the Catholic Child Welfare Council. The Committee were clearly concerned to hear that in one large diocese there were no women on committees of management or case committees. Other members, sensing the drift, were quick to point out that others did have some women members on their committees.

Mrs. Murtagh noted that she had a survey of local authority adoptions done. It found that 1,709 children went through and that 349 had marvellous homes, 296 questionable and that the rest were almost ‘rocky’. She said, “This comes of placing babies like kittens – and by Public Health Visitors wanting to get them homes above everything else.”

The standard of care in some convent run homes in which children resided raised concerns by some Committee members. In particular they felt there was exploitation of girls working in laundries, where work was being been done with minimal payment. There was also concern about the standard of education and the methods of discipline in some convents for children in care and about the absence of male influence for boys.

Mrs. Murtagh made it clear that the Committee would want all nuns working with children to be trained and that there should be education for the children away from the homes.

In October Mrs. Murtagh summarised the activities of the Committee to date. She noted that the Committee had seen about 300 witnesses and reviewed over 200 memoranda. The four groups had seen 9,240 children in their surroundings. (Mrs. Murtagh noted that she had travelled 7,210 miles since May.)

By January 1946 Cardinal Griffin responded to Mrs. Murtagh on some of the proposals emerging from the Committee. He was concerned that all boarding out should not be done by the local authority only. He wanted assurances that reception centres would safeguard the faith of children. He agreed that voluntary organisations should be advised, but not compelled, to have children attend local schools. He concluded by thanking Mrs. Murtagh for “the magnificent work you are doing”.

The Religious Issue

In her reply Mrs. Murtagh said that she had joined with Mr. Littern, Mrs. Temple and Miss Hartford to frame something positive about the religious aspect of the draft report.
Mrs. Murtagh gave a good account of the wrangles that went on within the Committee in response to the final report by six members about the need to have clear regulations regarding religious persuasion in the new Bill.

“Miss Curtis suggested after two hours, that she might put in a dissenting paragraph in the final report which showed that all members were not in agreement. Miss Kingsmill Jones immediately spoke up and said that she would have nothing of the sort. We were not dissenting in a mild way. Our minds were made up, and we had minds to make up…..The Chairman said we were getting out of control and called for tea.”

Mrs. Murtagh then described how she fought in the final days of the Committee to have her views on religious persuasion given due prominence in the final report. “The recommendation on this was formed to read “that children should be boarded out in the right religious denomination if possible but that, if the religious denomination could not be found, boarding out should not, because of this, be stopped”.
“I pointed out that I could not sign under this which was absolutely contrary to my view expressed with five others in a minority sub-committee report, unless the Committee agreed to add under the recommendation that all did not agree with it.”
“Miss Curtis asked whether the other five felt as I did. Four said they would be satisfied to leave their views expressed in the sub-committee report, that this was enough dissent”.

The Children Act 1948

The legislation that followed the Curtis Committee, the Children Act 1948, was a major step forward in developing and regulating standards of care and accountability for the care and support of children and families experiencing difficulties.

The Home Office gained overarching responsibility for the child care services. Local Authorities were given direct responsibility for managing and providing some of the services. To do this each authority had to establish a new Children’s Department with a Children’s Officer to lead it.

Voluntary organisations, such as the Catholic and other Christian agencies, were recognised as continuing to play a key role. They were, however, to be registered with the Home Office and be subject to more controls.

On the issue of religious persuasion, local authorities were required to take full account of this and, “where possible”, children had to be placed with carers of the same religious persuasion.

As the new Children’s Departments became established over the next decade or so and attitudes and professional practice evolved, so the role of the voluntary agencies began to change.

3 thoughts on “The Curtis Committee From the Inside”

  1. I was one of the first students in Manchester to take the home office child care course and have never understood why these were discontinued.I am now 90yrs old and feel that if the training had continued perhaps there would have been more benefit for children then there seems to be in the present.

  2. Thank you for this. If only child support had been given to the women having the babies then, so they had some choice! My Grandmother had two ‘illigitimate’ children during the war years and have only discovered this 66yrs later.
    The boy was adopted, my mum sent to Australia AND neither have come out of their experience with a religious faith or respect for the Church! Perhaps if they had been more understanding in child development and not tainted by the moral attitudes which saw them look on the children as sinful as their parents were, and not been extreme hypocites they could have been persuaded by the religion they were born into….

  3. I am doing further research into this topic for my dissertation, and was wondering where you came across this correspondance between Cardinal Griffin, Archbishop of Westminster 1943-1956, and a Birmingham Councillor as it would really further my research!


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