Review of Nobody’s Child: Growing up in a Yorkshire Children’s Home, by G. J. Urquhart

Review of Nobody’s Child: The True Story of Growing up in a Yorkshire Children’s Home, by G. J. Urquhart (Cheltenham: The History Press, 2020)

Gloria Urquhart was born in 1946 and her story of life in a Yorkshire children’s home is set mostly in the period of the Children’s Departments in England from 1948 to 1971.  There have been many studies of this era, including Bob Holman’s The Corporate Parent: Manchester Children’s Department, 1948-71 (London: NISW, 1996).  But this autobiography may well prove to be in a class of its own.

GJ (her nickname during this time) evokes memories of life in this post-war era for those who were struggling to make ends meet, as well as in middle-class households. Music included recordings of Bing Crosby, Vera Lynn, and sacred songs.  There was Children’s Hour on the BBC Home Service, and Mrs Dale’s Diary. Bedrooms were cold in the winter; clothes were washed with carbolic soap before being put through cast iron mangles and hung out on wooden rods suspended on pulleys.  Church attendance was common for many children, and Sunday best clothes were worn.  Sunday breakfast featured boiled eggs, and Sunday lunch included roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Grace was said before meals. Treats included home-made scones and jam. Caps and berets were part of the school uniform.  Schools had assemblies each morning, and the corridors and classrooms smelt of disinfectant and plasticine.

There were blankets and eiderdowns on beds. At home clothes were hung on wooden stands in bedrooms. There were mats on polished wooden floors. Sitting rooms were heated by coal fires. Furniture was handed down through the generations. WCs were usually outside for those living in older terraced houses. Children played outside as a matter of course, swung high on swings, and made daisy chains. Christmas decorations were home-made streamers.

Visits to local department stores, and restaurants like Betty’s were treasured delights. Children’s feet were looked at through X-ray machines when new shoes were purchased. Clothes purchased were wrapped in brown paper packages tied up with string. Local markets were alive with colour, humour, and every kind of food or household product, notably material for dresses and clothes.  National events like royal weddings, funerals, and the ascent of Everest were watched in cinemas on Pathe News.  Scrapbooks and stamp collections were a focus for activity and attention in many households.  There were lots of people in army uniform at stations, and in Yorkshire, coal miners walking to and from the pitheads.  There were outings to local coastal resorts.

All this is described as the story unfolds: part of the background, and the stuff of everyday life. But for Gloria there was a darker side to life: sometimes unspeakably and chillingly dark.  Aged three years and ten months, she was separated from the kith and kin, most painfully, as far as she is concerned,  from her younger brother, Kevin, as she entered the local authority care system.  What follows is a remarkably measured, vivid, insightful expose of the vagaries, extremes, culture, hierarchies, pervasive control, and power dynamics of that system.  Any engaged in social work or substitute care (adoption, foster or residential care) could do little better than to listen to, and inevitably cry with, this poor little girl.

The narrative is gripping and were it a work of fiction it would have been deemed to have been contrived because of so many coincidences of place, proximity, and characters.  It is a telling reminder that the truth can often be stranger than fiction.

The first part of this review focusses on the nature of the system as experienced by one of those for whom it was designed to care; the second, on the resilience of Gloria.

There were basically four parts to the care system: social work and family support; adoption; foster care and residential care.  All are to be found running through this book.  Residential care and adoption are the bookends of substitute care and in this account both figure prominently, though for different reasons.  Gloria spends most of her childhood in children’s homes (including an assessment centre), while her brother Kevin is adopted.  Each experienced separation and loss, with all the loneliness and anxiety, anger and depression that are associated with them. Towards the end of the story, we learn that Kevin had struggled in his relationship with his adoptive father.  Gloria had sought after him from the moment they were separated, and her search for him runs through the narrative.  They are eventually reunited, but then tragically Kevin, aged 27, committed suicide.  Gloria was never adopted although it had been considered at one stage.  She suffered in residential care, but as evidenced by the book, she survived emotionally.  In this way we are required to lay aside neat formulae and prescriptions, and to listen to the experiences and voices of the children themselves.

The local authority care system, as represented by Children’s Departments, emerged from the shadows of the Poor Law, and there were remnants of Poor Law culture in the way the system treated those with less eligibility (who were admitted to the care of the authorities).  Gloria tries to understand why those who treated those in the care system in the way she did, but there is no plausible reason other than that society at that time seemed to conceive of them as “the Other”, who with their birth families, were in some way incompetent, lazy, or even bad.  The large Victorian Poor Law buildings were still standing, and local authorities often adapted them into residential homes for children or the elderly.  In other parts of Europe, such as say, Denmark, the Second World War marked the end of previous systems, and prompted a complete overhaul of the philosophy and practice of child care, but in England, although there was a rethink represented by the 1946 Curtis Report, there was not such a clean break.  Small children’s homes were among the options recommended, but it took time for suitable places to be identified or built, and in the meantime existing buildings were used.

The ultimate power or authority resided in a Children’s Officer along with a children’s committee, and this was devolved to senior field workers.  The farther you were from these, whether residential or foster carers, parents or children, the less information, choice, agency, and rights you had.  In this case, those in power took decisions that proved to be manifestly against Gloria’s best interests.  They held sway over those who were trying to help her and knew her best. Sometimes the resulting mistakes or errors were covered up by a wall of prevarication or misinformation.

As with all systems, there were good and bad within it.  Gloria is careful to point out and praise individual carers, a particular small children’s home, along with social workers who showed understanding and empathy.  But sadly, there were some who were incompetent and lacking insight, and some who were downright wicked.  Foremost among the latter was a Miss Silverwood, head of Rothwell Children’s Home. She bullied, beat, and abused children routinely and mercilessly, including Gloria.  The book contains two letters from Gloria (chapter 12, pages 82-88) written when she was an adult, one to Miss Silverwood, and one to the reader.  These documents alone stand as a withering indictment of a system that somehow appointed and allowed such people to abuse children with such impunity.

In the first she asks Miss Silverwood whether she had ever read the Children Act. This legislation envisaged substitute care as safe, secure, and protected.  Gloria says she would have preferred a continuation of the neglect and abuse in her own family to that meted out to her in Rothwell children’s home: “hell on earth”.  Because of the repression and torture inflicted on her, by the time she was six she wanted to die.  She then contrasts the absolute safety of being cuddled in the arms of her friend and foster carer, with the time Miss Silverwood smashed her face with ferocity and continued to thump her head when she fell to the floor in a pool of blood.

But the excesses of such vindictive individuals should not be allowed to detract from the major flaws in the system considered as a whole. Not only were the slapping and beating of children rife, but there was a culture of silence that meant Gloria was never told, and could not find out, some of the basics of her life.  From the time she was stripped of all contact with her family, and every piece of clothing and possession, she was haunted by insistent questions. Why was she in the care system at all?  Was her mother dead or alive?  Who was the old women she had been taken to see (it was her grandmother)?  Where was her brother, Kevin, and why had they been separated at the very moment she entered the children’s home?  Year after year the system not only refused to answer, but forced others who tried to help her, including supportive friends, prospective foster, and adoptive carers, to collude with the local authority in hiding the truth from Gloria.

One of the tragedies of her story is that a couple who wanted to adopt her, and with whom she had begun to bond, were prevented from doing so (she only found out years later that it was because they had had moved out of the local authority area).  And that two sisters who fostered her for a time and were committed to her until they died, were also prevented from fostering her through to adulthood.

The nett effect of all this was a deep sense of shame that she was in some way to blame (a bad child), and a deep and lasting sense of rejection and loneliness.  Like other children, she cried herself to sleep. There were no comforting arms, no cuddles, and no love.  Little children adopted predictably sad behavioural patterns, such as rocking on their beds, banging their heads of walls or furniture.  Gloria describes one girl literally pulling her hair out until she was quite bald, and another child aged eight cutting herself with kitchen cutlery. In time Gloria suffered anxiety and depression.  She acted out her anger and resentment, was locked and pinned down in a room in the children’s home, and later placed in a padded room in a mental hospital.

All the time children appeared or disappeared from the home without explanation.  All this would not have been out of place in the middle of the Poor Law era.  With this comparison in mind it can be added that there were mice in the buildings, mice droppings in the breakfast cereal, staff eating preferentially, heavy tasks and jobs to be done every day by the children under threat of punishment.  Washing facilities were shared, and the children slept in large dormitories.  Meagre personal belongings were kept in lockers.  Communication with the outside world was carefully monitored and usually forbidden.  Siblings were routinely separated within the same complex of houses.

So much for the system.  But somehow Gloria survived, and in time came to thrive.  Though the physical and emotional scars have accompanied through her life, she did not succumb to the self-pity of a permanent victim status.  So what were the elements and factors that seem to have contributed to her ability to withstand such a system?

It is obvious that she was an intelligent and determined child and young person.  She showed tenacity and inventiveness in finding ways of coping with and sometimes outwitting the system, even at the cost of reproof and punishment.  But how was her inner world nurtured over all these years?  One factor is the understanding and care of other children who were also subject to the same system.  Much of the truth about her life, as well as life in general, she learnt came from them, rather than from adult carers or social workers.  And this remains a challenge to British philosophies of child development and care, which privilege individual rights and agency, over the potential for children to empathise with and care for each other.  There were children who bullied and took out their feelings of anger and resentment on her.  But taking overall, the children proved to be a more reliable resource than many of the staff.

Then there were carers in the system who genuinely sought to understand, help, and support her.  Often they were aware of the abuse meted out by colleagues (such as Miss Silverwood), but could to nothing to prevent it.  There was also a small children’s home run by an Irish person called Miss Smith.  After Rothwell children’s home this proved to be something of an oasis or haven.  There were social workers or welfare officers whom she respected too.

But the heroines of the story are Auntie Agnes and her sister Auntie Cissy, who gave all they had, including sharing their home with Gloria.  From them she learned not only acceptance, but also the nature of love and many practical skills.  They taught her ways of coping with anger, and the painful necessity of forgiving others.  They were also among those who introduced her to the social world outside the system: shops, parks, markets, churches, and friends.

The natural world, not least the parks in Leeds provided solace, space for thinking and dreaming, and also reminders of all that Gloria had not only with nature but with other human beings. She revelled in the beauty of trees, flowers, and the sociability of pets.

But Gloria attributes much, if not most of her resilience, to her Christian faith, and the “Unseen Guest”, which was her name for Jesus.  This is something little written about in the professional literature of child development and social work in the UK.  But to those who have read the stories of children who have suffered trauma and abuse it will not come as a surprise.  The reflections of the psychologist Dr Robert Coles on Ruby Bridges should be compulsory reading for any seeking to understand or help children suffering loss or abuse.  At the time Gloria was part of the system, some form of Christian church attendance was obligatory, but there was of course a disjunction between words and actions.  Outside the system, notably the prospective adoptive parents, a Baptist minister and his wife, and the two sisters, both Christians, one belonging to the Salvation Army, Gloria found integrity.  They walked the talk.

Understanding resilience requires a willingness to listen to the experiences and stories of those who have gone through the fire and come out the other side.  Quietly but insistently, Gloria in prose and one or two poems or hymns, describes how her faith kept her going when nearly everything else was pulling her down.  And the way she came to understand the pressures on those who sometimes failed her, and sought to stand in their shoes, shows how her concepts of empathy and forgiveness worked in practice. When reading her story, it comes as no surprise that in time she proved a good nurse, wife, mother, and grandmother.

A final thought.  It might be supposed that with the system having failed Gloria so comprehensively, a sensible conclusion would be that local authorities cannot, and should not, be corporate parents.  Also that children’s homes should be disbanded in favour of increased family support, and where necessary foster care and adoption.  But all through the stories of those who have been separated from their families there is a thread that records the considered preference of some children for children’s homes rather than familial care. Gloria experienced much that she appreciated in both Miss Smith’s small children’s home, as well as in the foster home of aunties Agnes and Cissy.

History does not allow us to form conclusions as to why things happened, only evidence on which to base pertinent questions.  And this book leaves us with a question that Gloria does not pose:  who was served better by the system, Kevin or her?  The problem that Kevin and many other children have faced with adoption is the isolation not only from kith and kin, but also from other children, and from people like a person Gloria came to call “Dad Dean”.  Other children in care, along with “uncles” and “aunties” who are not blood relatives, are often the ones who help to nurture resilience.  It seems that Kevin lacked them.

If one is looking for some sort of moral from the story (and Gloria is certainly not) it might be that it takes a village to raise a child.  Villages are so varied and organic that they defy dogma.  A friend and colleague of mine, David Lane, has suggested that there might be something like “corporate families” where children in care could derive and give mutual long-term support. My experience is that something like this happens informally already. Whatever the nature and shape of things to come, hopefully they will be better (than systems like the one Gloria endured) at finding ways of exposing any who cause harm to children, and committed to identifying and supporting those who really care.

Keith J. White

6th May 2021

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