While workhouses were designed to be places “of hardship, of coarse fare, of degradation and humility” (as Rev HH Milman wrote in 1832), many orphanages began as smaller charitable organisations, or were run by religious groups, to help care for orphaned or abandoned children.
Many orphans ended up in the workhouse, but these websites can help you find out more about those that were cared for by institutions such as the Foundling Hospital, founded in London by Thomas Coram in 1739, or the Bristol Asylum for Poor Orphan Girls (Blue Maids’ Orphanage), founded in 1795, or the Royal National Children’s Foundation, which started out as an orphanage in 1827.
As this month’s expert Peter Higginbotham writes on his website: “It should be noted the term ‘orphan’ had a rather looser meaning in the past than it does nowadays. For many purposes, just having a father who was dead – or even just permanently absent for some reason – could categorise you as an orphan.”
This is an encyclopaedic resource from social historian Peter Higginbotham. His interest in such institutions began when he discovered that his great great grandfather had died in a Birmingham workhouse in 1890.
You can use this website to hunt for institutions by location or type, then read potted histories often illustrated by photographs and plans of buildings.
The categories include Salvation Army homes; Roman Catholic homes; Jewish homes; reformatories and remand homes; and Poor Law schools.
It’s unmissable, with an excellent overview of the local and centralised systems of care, explaining the mechanics, bureaucratic hoops and records that the various types of home generated.
Designed as a hub for sharing memories and information about children’s homes, this site is particularly good for finding obscure orphanages, funds or charities set up to care for children of particular occupations or locations.
Via an ‘Index of Homes’ page you’ll find the Actors’ Orphanage, founded in 1896 and intended for the children of actors. Or there’s the Woking Railway Orphanage (also known as the Southern Railway Servants’ Orphanage), for children whose fathers had died during their work on the railways.
The site details the records that may survive, such as case files, minutes
and registers, plus various books by the website’s creator Gudrun Jane Limbrick
3. Barnardo’s Children
Barnardo’s traces its history back to a ragged school in the East End, opened by Thomas Barnardo to care for children orphaned by an outbreak of cholera.
A boys’ orphanage at Stepney Causeway opened in 1870, and by the time of his death in 1905, Barnardo’s cared for more than 8,500 children in almost 100 homes.
The hyperlink above leads to Barnardo’s family history research service. For a £25 fee you’ll be provided with the circumstances leading to a child’s admission, details of any known family members, certificates, school reports, and any photographs of the child and the places where they lived.
4. British Home Children Registry
As noted by Gudrun Jane Limbrick, it’s shocking that “in the not-so-distant past, it was decided that the best thing we could offer homeless, parentless or destitute children was to send them to the other side of the world”.
As this was not only the favoured policy of many religious charities but also governments, it’s possible that websites such as this may help you to track an orphan who was shipped abroad.
Here you can search a database of 82,921 children sent to Canada by various organisations to become farm workers or domestic servants.
5. The National Archives’ Children’s Homes guide
This guide from TNA is more focused on records created by central government departments, than about individuals.
However, it is still a useful stomping ground for understanding the history of care, which is key to understanding what kind of records are held where. It also links to associated guides to help you research adoptions, child migration and Poor Law material, and of course you can search the online catalogue discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk to find records of specific institutions that might survive in record offices and smaller archives.
“The Hidden Lives website (hiddenlives.org.uk) is a treasure trove of material from the archives of the Children’s Society (originally the Waifs and Strays Society), formerly one of the major providers of children’s homes in Britain.
“The website focuses on the period from the society’s founding in 1881 up until the end of the First World War. Among its gems, the site includes copies of all the documents relating to about 150 anonymised case files, which provide a vivid insight into the often complex circumstances that could bring a child into care.
“Apart from parental death, these included the child’s illegitimacy, neglect, abandonment or homelessness, and the parents’ mental health problems or involvement in matters such as alcohol abuse, domestic violence and prostitution.
“Case 1109, for example, concerns ‘C’, a boy whose extremely violent father was put into Wells Asylum. C then went to live with his grandfather, who later committed suicide by cutting his own throat. C’s mother was too poor to look after him, so he went into a society home.
“The website also provides details and pictures of the many and varied homes it ran. These included rural cottage homes, houses in big cities, and even a country mansion or two. Many of the society’s publications are digitised on the website, including a long run of its monthly magazine Our Waifs and Strays. Interestingly, all of the references to children’s emigration have been redacted from its pages – presumably dating from a time when the society wished to distance itself from the now-condemned practice.”
The website has information about accessing childhood care files, plus lists of local authority contacts for records of council-run homes.
Discover the history of the famous hospital established in 1739 by Thomas Coram to care for babies who were at risk of abandonment.
The Canadian archives website brings together databases and other material, for example passenger lists, that can help you trace any relatives who were sent overseas as children.
10. Mullers Homes
Learn about the Orphan Homes of George Müller, who cared for 10,000 children in Bristol during the 19th century. Staff will search the organisation’s records for a small fee.
11. On Their Own
This dated but interesting website about child migrants is from National Museums Liverpool and the Australian National Maritime Museum.
Although only available via library/archive subscriptions, here you can trawl Poor Law reports which include workhouse inspections.
Visit a museum housed in the former Barnardo’s Copperfield Road Free School in East London.
Peter Higginbotham’s website is especially good for finding out about individual workhouses, Poor Law unions, and related institutions such as industrial schools and reformatories.