The end of institutional care

Foundling pupils in the 20th Century.

It can be difficult for us in the 21st century to understand how life was in the early 20th century, when the Foundling Hospital was providing institutional care.

Recollections of separation from foster families, corporal punishment and the emotional deprivation suffered at school by former Foundling pupils can be shocking to us now. 

However, when viewed in the context of the time, they were not as unusual as might be thought.

The impact of institutions

In the early 20th century many families experienced separation and loss. Infant mortality was high, and children were commonly sent away to school, often at a very young age. Until the 1940s, when psychologist John Bowlby looked at the damaging impact of taking children from their families and putting them in institutions, there was little research into the emotional impact of separation on children.

Most schools were spartan. Their regimes included single sex education, large dormitories, corporal punishment, religious observance and military cadetship.

The repression of emotional feeling was considered a valuable virtue. Even as late as the 1960s, HM School Inspectors were criticised for ignoring the social aspects of boarding school life – or having any methodology to assess it – despite growing concerns among psychologists about its detrimental long-term effects on children’s development. In this context, the regime of the Foundling Hospital schools would have seemed ‘normal’ to many. 

Moving away from institutional care

In the 1960s, unease increased about the value of much residential education, whether for the rich or for children in need. Professionals were concerned about institutions’ inability to provide unconditional love and the way they isolated children from the outside world. Concepts such as total institution, institutionalisation, emotional deprivation and lack of attachment were explored by professionals. On these criteria, most boarding schools came out badly. The public schools quickly adapted to become the modern educational establishments they are today. Many welfare schools tried to change by sending children out to local schools (or in Coram’s case admitting local children), but did not have the funds to alter things radically. 

As a result, most institutions closed as alternative care arrangements were made. Coram Governors decided to end institutional care in 1954, 10 to 15 years ahead of thinking. Although the Foundling Hospital school closed, the charity adapted and continues to offer better chances for children from its original Bloomsbury site today.

Prepared with the help of Roger Bullock, Fellow, Social Research Unit at Dartington and Roy Parker, Emeritus Professor of Social Policy, University of Bristol