227 : Alex Furguson and other waifs

The history of child care in England still retains secrets, with elderly ledgers containing names that are not released to the public. Children were shipped to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand; others were taken from their mothers and their names were changed; young men were trained for the navy and the army, and girls were usually destined to be domestic servants. Residential homes, often prison-like, were founded by charitable individuals such as Thomas Coram in London in 1739 and the German-born George Mueller in Bristol in the 1830s. The Muller Homes were passed to the city authorities in 1958, after 17,000 children had been cared for – sometimes over 2,000 inmates were in the homes. Mueller was unwilling to accept illegitimate children, insisting that parents had to have been married and were now dead: and the children were destitute. Local authorities sent children to the workhouse.

The Ireland-born Thomas Barnardo established residential homes in the London area in the 1870s. His inmates had a basic Christian education but not one that met the standards of Protestant or Catholic churches, who were stimulated to establish their own child care homes. Barnardo paid little attention to the origins or legitimacy of his children. He lacked access to the funds that the major churches could spend, and gathered support through publicity which included “before” and “after” photographs of the waifs. A London exhibition of the 1970s The Camera and Dr. Barnardo led to a 40 page illustrated book with the same title. On page 32 is a photograph of a young black man, named Alex Furguson. The very unusual spelling of that name suggests he may be the Alexander Furguson whose birth was registered in Wolverhampton in the first quarter of 1850.

Alex Furguson

Many charitable people established orphanages and residential homes, some of which were absorbed by larger and better-funded groups. The Church of England’s Children’s Society was called Our Waifs and Strays for many years. Between 1881 and 1918 it cared for 22,500 children and operated in over 170 premises. It retains a policy of anonymity, for reasons explained on its website http://www.hiddenlives.org.uk. The chance survival of a postcard mailed in 1906 shows the girls of the St Jude’s Home for Girls in Selhurst near Croydon. One of the teenaged girls is black. St Jude’s opened in 1862 and operated from two substantial houses at 49 Dagnall Park near Selhurst station into 1939. The Children’s Society policy of anonymity prevents access to her name and other details, although the British census of 1901 may throw some light, for the home had 35 girls and the seniors such as the black girl of 1906 tended to them as well as worked in local homes as trainee domestic servants. The monthly Our Waifs and Strays magazine published the photograph in the issue of November 1906 (p 314) and is available on line but all inmates names have been obliterated. And the black girl was removed from the group photograph.

Many thanks to Thomas Burrows for computer assistance.

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