How to look for records of... Children’s homes

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1. Why use this guide?

This guide will help you to find records created by central government departments, and now held at The National Archives, that contain information on various kinds of residential institutions for children.

Our records are largely records of administration and policy covering institutions established since 1834 and do not routinely include records of individual children or staff.

For information on residential special schools for children with special educational needs, please see our research guide on Special services in education. See also our guides on Adoptions, and for child migration and the Children’s Overseas Reception Board 1940-1944 see our Emigration guide.

2. What kinds of records do we hold?

There are thousands of records on children’s residential care institutions at The National Archives, covering largely policy and administration. Most of the records come from three past and present government departments: the Home Office, the Ministry of Health and the Department of Health and Social Security.

Typically, when searching for records you will find the following:

On individual children’s homes and other related institutions:

  • correspondence – between the government department and institution on subjects such as the institution’s management, building work, certification and finances
  • inspection reports – these were routine reports assessing the institution’s accommodation, teaching, staff and environment
  • investigations – carried out by government inspectors into specific incidents or complaints

On central policy and administration:

  • correspondence – between the government department and charities, committees of inquiry, other government departments, foreign governments and other organisations
  • statistical returns and reports compiled by civil servants on subjects which informed policy decisions
  • notes and reports made by civil servants on proposed legislation
  • circulars, memoranda and instructions issued to local authorities and institutions communicating policy and procedure

3. Records of individual children and staff

You are most likely to find records of individual children in care or of staff who worked in residential care institutions at the institutions themselves or in local authority archives.

The National Archives holds very few records of the people who lived and worked in children’s homes, whether the children themselves or the staff. Those that we do hold are mostly closed records, subject to the terms of the Freedom of Information Act (see section 7.3 for advice on some of the few we hold). Some members of staff might be named in inspection reports but this information was not consistently recorded.

For advice on requesting to view a closed record please see our Freedom of Information pages and to make a request please complete a Freedom of Information enquiry form.

For your own care records, use the Care Leavers’ Association website for information and guidance.

4. How to search for records: an overview

In this section you will find advice on how to conduct a search of the relevant records at The National Archives. As described at the end of the section, the Children’s Homes website is another very useful starting point, as are the other archives and organisations described in section 9.

4.1 The National Archives

Use Discovery, our catalogue, to search for document references using keywords and dates. Once you have a document reference you can view the document itself. The catalogue will indicate whether the document is available to view online or, if it isn’t online, how you can order a copy. Alternatively,  in many cases you can visit us to view the original in person.

Use the following keywords as search terms, either alone or in combination (however, treat the results with caution – not all records are described in the same way):

  • name of institution
  • type of institution (for example, approved school)
  • location (usually town, city or county)

Refine your search to one or more of the records of the three principal government departments responsible for most of these records over the years by using the advanced search in our catalogue and the following department references:

  • HO – for Home Office records
  • MH – for Ministry of Health records
  • BN – for Department of Health and Social Security records

Further refine your search by adding keywords such as:

  • policy
  • inspection reports
  • inquiry
  • children

Suggestions of other keywords occur throughout this guide, where you will also find advice on how to target your search to specific record series  covering particular time periods and types of institutions.

Why can’t you find a record?

If you cannot find what you are looking for it may be because:

  • many institutions changed name over time
  • many institutions changed purpose
  • where provision was poor, children might be placed in the ‘wrong’ institution
  • some documents may be closed where their contents name individuals

4.2 Children’s Homes website

You may also find it useful to consult the Children’s Homes website, a very useful resource where you can search for institutions by location or type and read about their history as well as view photographs of buildings and the people living in them.

5. Children’s homes 1834-1930

Charities, churches and other voluntary bodies historically provided for children who were in need of shelter and protection. With the passing of the New Poor Law in 1834, the state also began to play a role in the residential care of children who were orphaned, neglected, or impoverished.

A network of Poor Law Unions was created from 1834, to provide relief for the poor in the form of the workhouse. From the 1840s pauper children were increasingly housed in separate accommodation away from the ‘taint’ of the workhouse in a number of different types of institution. In many cases pauper children were housed in ‘voluntary homes’ of different types, their fees paid by their Poor Law Union.

5.1 Types of institutions

  • Separate or District Schools (from 1849) – large institutions in rural areas, often housing hundreds of children from several urban Poor Law Unions.
  • Cottage homes (from late 1870s) – groups of houses often built as self-contained miniature villages with their own chapels, schools and so on.
  • Scattered homes (from 1890s) – groups of houses within the community, where the resident children attended normal elementary schools.
  • Boarding-out – where other facilities were unavailable, pauper children might be ‘boarded-out’ (fostered) with local families.
  • Certified schools – independently-run homes, often called voluntary homes. These ranged from small private establishments to large institutions run by national charities like Barnardo’s. From 1862 they could be licensed to receive pauper children for a fee, paid by the Poor Law Union.
  • Voluntary homes – homes run by a voluntary body, or charity.

5.2 Where and how to find records: local archives

Surviving admission, discharge and other records kept by these institutions are usually deposited in the relevant county record office. You can find these records and contact details for the relevant county record office by searching for the name of the institution or Poor Law Union in our catalogue. The Workhouse website also has details for each Union.

 5.3 Where and how to find records: The National Archives

To search for records at The National Archives, click on the catalogue references below to find out more about the kinds of records you can see in each record series  and to search within the series itself.

Search by name of institution or location for:

  • administrative records of the 14 district or separate schools in MH 27 (1848-1910) – records include staff appointments
  • inspection reports in ED 132 (1904-1953) – in 1904 inspection of the educational and industrial work of separate schools was passed to the Board of Education.

Search by Poor Law Union or keywords like ‘child’ or ‘school’ for:

  • information on pauper children in workhouses and reports on poor law schools attached to workhouses in MH 12 (1833-1909)
  • correspondence from Assistant Poor law Commissioners and Inspectors, including reports on district schools, accommodation for pauper children, and the industrial training and education they received in MH 32 (1834-1904) – you can also search this series by name of inspector or Assistant Poor Law Commissioner

6. Children’s homes from 1930

From 1930 county and county borough councils took responsibility for the administration of children’s homes and the boarding-out (fostering) scheme, although the voluntary sector continued to provide residential homes. Institutional care remained widespread but fostering because increasingly popular, particularly after the Curtis Committee on the Care of Children recommended the use of fostering in preference to institutional care in 1946.

6.1 Where and how to find records: local archives

Surviving admission, discharge and other records kept by these institutions are usually deposited with the relevant county record office, or, for more recent records, within a council’s own archive. Search our catalogue by name of the home to identify the relevant repository.

The Care Leavers’ Association (CLA) website has information on accessing childhood care files and a list of local authority contacts.

6.2 Where and how to find records: The National Archives

Use the advanced search in our catalogue to search across HO, MH and BN using combinations of the following keywords:

  • place – town, city or county
  • name of institution

Alternatively, you can narrow your search by using the same keywords to search some of the key record series listed below. Click on the series references for a series-specific search (you will also find out more about the kinds of records you can see in that series).

Main policy series:

  • MH 102 (1850-1971) – correspondence and policy reports from the Home Office Children’s Department
  • HO 361 (1948-1980) – mainly general and policy matters and relations with local authorities
  • BN 29 (1935-1992) – Home Office and DHSS Children’s Department policy files

Institutions and regions:

  • HO 366 (1941-1972) – inspectors’ reports – search by local authority, name of home or keywords like ‘boarding out’
  • MH 152 (1948-1995) – inspection reports and correspondence
  • BN 74 (1977-1988) – policy material, inspection reports and case files for children detained in local authority community homes
  • HO 361 (1948-1980) – some inspection reports of individual voluntary homes but mainly general and policy matters and relations with local authorities
  • MH 102 (1850-1971) – some files on individual homes
  • BN 61 (1941-1972) – review of local authority and NSPCC child care arrangements by Home Office Children’s Department inspectors – search by county
  • BN 29 (1935-1992) – Home Office and Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS) Children’s Department policy files
  • BN 62 (1897-1990) – files relating to inspectors’ visits

7. Correctional institutions from 1854

In 1825 the government introduced separate prison accommodation for children and adults, with the ‘Euryalus’ prison hulk for juvenile offenders and, in 1838, opened the first state prison for juvenile offenders, at Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight.

From then on a number of correctional institutions catered specifically for young offenders, many of them known as reformatories. These institutions, often set up privately by charities, churches, or philanthropic individuals, as well as by the state, could apply for government grants on condition of regular inspection. However, it was not until 1854 that the Home Office became responsible for the inspection of reformatory schools – and in 1857 for industrial schools.

Before 1854 records relating to child prisoners are found with the normal prison records.

7.1 Types of institutions

  • Reformatories (1854-1933) – corrective institutions, detaining children aged 14-16, who had been convicted of a criminal offence. They were punitive and until 1899 children usually spent two weeks in prison before entering a reformatory. These institutions also provided industrial training.
  • Industrial or training schools (1857- 1933) – preventative, admitting children younger than 14 who were vagrant, neglected, disorderly, or at danger of being ‘corrupted’. They usually removed children from their local communities, provided moral instruction and training for a trade. There were also a number of day training schools in urban areas.

Some reformatories and industrial schools were based on ships, providing specialised training.

Later institutions which supplemented and then replaced these institutions include:

  • approved schools (from 1933) – replaced reformatories and industrial schools and took children under 17
  • remand homes (from 1901) – held children committed for trial or awaiting removal to an approved school
  • voluntary homes – where there were no places available in remand homes, children removed from their homes by order of a juvenile court might be placed in voluntary homes
  • borstals (from 1902-1983) – established to separate young offenders (aged 16 to 21) from older convicts in adult prisons
  • detention centres (from 1952) – for youths aged 14 to 20 years serving short three month sentences
  • secure units (from 1964) – for children aged 10 to 18 who had absconded from approved schools
  • community homes with education (from 1969) – replaced approved schools
  • Youth Custody Centres (from 1983) – replaced borstals
  • Young Offender Institutions (from 1988) – replaced Youth Custody Centres

7.2 Where and how to find records: local archives

Surviving admission and discharge records and records of the day to day running of these institutions are usually held at the relevant county record office. Where these institutions were run by charities or religious orders, their records may be with the organisation’s archives (see section 9). Find records by searching our catalogue for the name of the institution.

Many of the children detained in these institutions were ordered there by the courts and details of their committal may survive among the Petty Session or magistrates court records at county record offices. Use our Find an archive page to search for a county record office.

7.3 Where and how to find records: The National Archives

Use the advanced search in our catalogue to search across departments HO, MH and BN using combinations of the search terms below. However, treat the results with caution – not all records are described in the same way. Search terms:

  • type of institution (see 7.1)
  • name of institution
  • place – town, city or county

Alternatively, to narrow your search results, use the same keywords listed above to search key record series  by clicking on the series references below (this will also reveal more about the kinds of records you can see in each series):

Main policy and administrative records: key series

  • HO 45 and HO 144 (1839 to 1971) – policy matters in general and in relation to individual institutions
  • MH 102 (1850-1971) – policy files of the Home Office Children’s Department (correspondence, reports and other papers)
  • BN 29 (1935-1992) – Home Office and DHSS Children’s Department policy files (correspondence, reports and other papers)
  • HO 361 (1948-1980) – general and policy matters and relations with local authorities.
  • PCOM 9 (1901-1973) – correspondence and papers on the management and staffing of prisons and borstals, and the treatment of their inmate

Institutions: key series

Records of institutions include inspection reports, institution files, correspondence and inquiries and investigations into complaints or incidents.

Reformatories and Industrial schools

  • HO 45 and HO 144 – includes correspondence on industrial and reformatory schools
  • HO 349 (1855-1965) – contains logbooks, registers and miscellaneous records of selected reformatories and their successors
  • MH 102 (1850-1971) – correspondence on remand homes, industrial and approved schools

Approved schools

  • BN 62 (1897-1990) – files relating to inspectors’ visits to approved schools and remand other homes
  • HO 349 (1855-1965) – contains logbooks, registers and miscellaneous records of some reformatories and their successors (ordinarily this sort of material would be found in local record offices)
  • HO 360 (1946-1975) – files on individual approved schools
  • MH 102 (1850-1971) – correspondence on remand homes, industrial and approved schools

Remand schools

  • MH 102 (1850-1971) – correspondence on remand homes, industrial and approved schools
  • BN 61 (1945-1971) – contains reports on reception, remand, and foster homes, local administration and case work and NSPCC inspectors
  • BN 62 (1897-1990) – files relating to inspectors’ visits to approved schools and remand other homes

Borstals

  • HO 391 (1959-1988) – management and administration of prisons, detention centres, remand centres and borstals
  • PCOM 9 (1901-1973) – includes reports on conditions in borstals

Secure units

  • MH 152 (1948-1995) – correspondence and inspection reports
  • BN 62 (1897-1990) – files relating to inspectors’ visits

Individual cases: key series

Please note these files may be closed in line with the 100 year rule. The 100 year rule is a method for calculating the closure period for personal information about people who may still be alive. The information about them will remain closed for 100 years from their date of birth.

  • HO 45 and HO 144 – includes correspondence and reports on selected cases – search by name of individual or browse results of keyword searches for type of institution, such as “approved school”, to find files on unnamed youths
  • BN 28 (1939-1980) – case papers and files on the care and protection of a representative selection of individual children, some of whom were at approved schools
  • HO 247 (1905-1977) – registers and sample case files on the after-care of young offenders from the Borstal Association and Central After-Care Association

8. Committees of inquiry

There have been numerous committees of inquiry into the provision of children’s care services. One of the most influential of these was the Care of Children Committee, or the ‘Curtis Committee’ which reported in 1946 and whose recommendations resulted in the Children Act 1948.

8.1 How to search for records

Use the advanced search in our catalogue to search for papers using any or all of the following:

  • the name of the committee (for example, the ‘Care of Children Committee’)
  • the name of the committee’s chair (for example, the ‘Curtis Committee’)
  • keywords (for example ‘boarding-out’).

Key series for these records include HO 45, MH 152, MH 102 and BN 29.

For committees of inquiry investigating specific institutions or cases involving a named individual, there are two possibilities.

1. Records may survive as discreet series, for example:

  • HO 350 – Inquiry into the administration of punishment at Court Lees Approved School 1967-1973. Evidence and papers of inquiry
  • BN 91 – Committee of Inquiry into the Provision and Co-ordination of Services to the Family of John George Auckland (1975)
  • VC 2 – Records of the Victoria Climbié Inquiry consist of the final version of a website maintained by the inquiry containing the final report, evidence key documents and background information about the inquiry (2001-2003)

2. Alternatively, papers may be found within the records of the Children’s Departments at the Home Office and DHSS. Use the advanced search option to search our catalogue by the name of the individual or institution at the centre of the investigation restricting your search to department references MH, HO and BN.

Final reports of these official committees of inquiry can be found via the Parliamentary Papers website.

8.2 Complaints of abuse

There were also smaller scale investigations or inquiries by government departments into isolated complaints or incidents.

Search for these by the name of the institution and keywords such:

  • complaint
  • allegation
  • cruelty
  • abuse

To narrow your search try series HO 45, HO 144, MH 152, MH 102 or BN 29.

9. Records held elsewhere

The Care Leavers’ Association website has a useful list of contact details for local authority and other organisations that may hold further records.

Charity organisations

Many children’s homes were run by national and local charities. Some of these organisations have their own archives where records of their children’s homes may be deposited. Alternatively, search our catalogue by name of the charity for records of smaller, local charities in the relevant county record office.

Religious organisations

A number of religious groups operated children’s homes through charities, for example the Church of England’s Waifs and Strays Society, now the Children’s Society; and the Methodists’ National Children’s Homes, now Action for Children. These large national charities have their own archives.

Many Roman Catholic children’s homes were run either by a diocesan branch of the Catholic Children’s Society (now the Cabrini Children’s Society), or a religious order. Where the diocesan Children’s Society or order is still active they may hold records for their homes or the records may have been deposited with the relevant Catholic diocesan archives.

Local authority records

Surviving records of a local authority’s children’s committee and children’s officer are likely to be at the relevant county record office. Use our Find an archive page to search for a county record office.

Scotland and Northern Ireland

Consult the National Records of Scotland and PRONI.

10. A brief history of institutional care for children in the UK

Provision of residential care institutions for children grew out of a mixture of private and charitable initiatives, poor law, correctional and educational institutions.

A range of institutions and different levels of local provision means that the type of care provided varied greatly. An orphaned or abandoned child in the late 19th century might have been sent to a poor law residential school, a children’s home run by a charity, he or she might have been ‘boarded-out’ (fostered) or might be sent by a magistrate to an industrial school if they were found begging or repeatedly playing truant from school.

The 19th century saw an explosion in the number of charitable children’s homes, from small homes run by a local charity or individual, to well-known national organisations like Dr Barnardo’s Homes, the National Children’s Homes and the Waifs and Strays Society who had a network of national and international provision.

Various branches of government had a role in children’s institutions. The Home Office played a key role and many of the records listed in this guide were created by its Children’s Branch (and successors), set up in 1924. The Ministry of Health and Board of Education also had child care responsibilities and some homes were subject to visits from their inspectors.

From 1930 county and county borough councils took responsibility for the administration of children’s homes and the boarding-out (fostering) scheme, although the voluntary sector continued to provide residential homes. Institutional care remained widespread but fostering became increasingly popular, particularly after the Curtis Committee on the Care of Children recommended the use of fostering in preference to institutional care in 1946.

The 1948 Children’s Act brought together, under the Home Office, central government responsibility for ‘children deprived of a normal life’ in England and Wales. The Act also required each local authority to set up a Children’s Committee with a trained Children’s Officer responsible for children in their care.

In 1971 the child care responsibilities of the Home Office in England were transferred to the Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS); responsibilities in Wales were transferred to the Welsh Office. At a local level, local authority children’s departments were abolished and their functions absorbed into new social services departments.

11. Further reading

Kershaw, R, and Sacks, J ‘New lives for old: The story of Britain’s child migrants’

Land, A, Lowe, R and Whiteside N ‘The Development of the Welfare State 1939-1951: A guide to documents in the Public Record Office’

The website www.childrenshomes.org.uk