The elephant in the room: Questioning the absence of paedophilia in children’s histories

Lesley Hulonce (Swansea University) 

For the past four years I have been researching how pauper children fared under the ‘new’ poor law in Swansea between 1834 and 1910.  Although the vast majority of these children stayed at home with their families or were fostered, the Swansea Guardians of the Poor paid for many children to live in a number of institutions. There were children in the workhouse, in cottage homes, privately-run orphanages, Catholic children’s homes and philanthropic institutions for deaf children and also for the blind. The very word ‘institution’ has evoked a bleak and distressing imagery surrounding orphanages and children’s homes well before the current allegations, revelations and media hysteria concerning Jimmy Savile.

However, it became apparent very early on in my research that these children appeared to have been treated well. Although Swansea Union declared regularly that their pauper children were not receiving care and education superior to the children of poor labourers, this was patently untrue.  When they were ill they saw a doctor and also had regular check-ups.  Their diet, although monotonous, was more substantial than in many poor families and they also received a regular education. Within the records kept by guardians is a discernible tone of outrage at any mistreatment of ‘their’ children, coupled with a benevolent concern for their well being.  The children were often provided with extra food, countless treats and holidays.  The guardians took pleasure in their ‘successes’ and on many occasions spoke of the children with some pride.  Although Victorian residential schools also remind us of Jane Eyre’s Lowood and various Dickensian establishments, as Paddy Ladd demonstrates in In Search of Deafhood, deaf children were often much happier in residential schools.[1] Of course, the motivation for this apparent goodwill was not solely altruistic.  Both reward and punishment were perceived to be crucial dynamics in the inculcation of responsibility and citizenship. This would enable the children to lead independent and respectable lives without future recourse to pauperism, crime and idleness.

I have always tried to listen to the voices of the children themselves which are very faint and sporadic and their silence on one big issue is explosive – the very large elephant in the room – institutionalised sexual abuse. Media exposure in recent months has again placed child abuse front and centre in our darkest imaginings. The last twenty years has also seen child abuse enquiries on a massive and deeply disturbing scale; Gallagher argues that ‘it is likely that sexual abuse has occurred in most, if not all, types of institution for children’.[2]

Historic institutional abuse enquiries were conducted across the country. In Wales, the investigation of Taff Vale children’s home in Cardiff led to Operation Goldfinch in 1997 which resulted in 65 arrests and 13 convictions.[3] In 1991, Frank Beck, who ran three children’s homes in Leicestershire, was sentenced to five life sentences for assaulting over a hundred children in a 13 year period.[4] Many investigations have been huge; enquiries into children’s homes in Cheshire and Merseyside involved over 13,000 witnesses and 162 suspects.[5] The North Wales child abuse inquiry was the largest enquiry and culminated with the publication of the Lost in Care report by Frank Waterhouse. Recently, this inquiry has itself been questioned and is being investigated. At the time, 43,000 pages of evidence were considered and the report spoke of a ‘cult of silence’ which allowed the abuses to continue.[6] In 2009, the shocking findings of the Irish Child Abuse Inquiry found unimaginable horrors within their children’s homes.

So, how can I possibly think that children in the establishments I am researching were not sexually abused?

What can the historiography tell us? Frank Crompton’s Workhouse Children explores the treatment of children in Worcestershire. He highlights several instances of cruelty and physical abuse in the workhouse, but sexual abuse is not mentioned, nor is its possibility questioned.[7] Lydia Murdoch’s Imagined Orphans focuses on children in poor law and Dr Barnardo institutions.[8] Again, although cruelty and excessive punishment is discussed briefly, sexual abuse within institutions is not mentioned. Works dealing explicitly with sexual abuse in the Victorian period are no more enlightening. Louise Jackson’s Child Sexual Abuse in Victorian England explores all aspects of child sex abuse in families or on the streets, but the only institutional reference is her reporting of a successful prosecution of a Baptist minister for sexually assaulting three girls.[9] In George Behlmer’s earlier Child Abuse and Moral Reform,[10] he alludes briefly to excessive punishment in institutions, but also concentrates on abuse in the family.

There are two works which use oral testimony as evidence, Mahood does include the sexual abuse of a boy in an approved school between 1940 and 1948 and also sexual abuse in the home.[11] Humphries’ book foregrounds class control in institutions which was signified by harsh treatment and cruel punishments, but not sexual abuse.[12] However, in his well-received historical scrutiny of child welfare, Hendrick argues that the prevalence of ‘legal violence’ in institutions ‘nearly always’ resulted in not only corporal punishment, but also sexual abuse.[13] Unfortunately, Hendrick provides no evidence for this bold assertion. Maybe, we are succumbing to a media-inspired moral panic which imagines omnipresent paedophilia? As Chas Critcher argues ‘moral panics are irresistible when they present threats to children’.[14] Does the Savile fallout signal moral panic or victims being able to finally speak out?

Is there any evidence of sexual abuse in the institutions I am researching? The Cambrian Institution for the Deaf did report that, in 1859, Amelia Merriday, a matron, ‘had been found on several occasions in the boys’ dormitory – lying on the bed of Edward Rowland, caressing and kissing him’. Two years later, Joseph Farrar an assistant teacher, was also dismissed because of what was called, ‘improprieties’ with some of the girls.[15] Some Catholic girls (especially disabled girls) in the care of Swansea Union were sent to Nazareth House in Cardiff. Swansea guardians visited and inspected all institutions where their pauper children were housed and Nazareth House always received a good report about the nuns’ care of vulnerable children.  However, in 1998 many former residents alleged physical, and to some extent, sexual abuse in these homes including appalling cruelties in Cardiff.[16] Although this is not evidence of abuse in the nineteenth century, what are we to think?

I can find no reporting of sexual abuse in the Swansea cottage homes, but it does appear that children were encouraged to ‘tell’ on those in authority.  In 1879 three children complained that their matron Rachel Powell had beaten them with ‘a thin stick’.  A guardian was particularly concerned that Mrs Powell had threatened the boys when they had complained, stating that the children ‘ought not to be under any apprehension of punishment’ if they spoke out.[17]

Is abuse exposed only when a child speaks out? There is some personal testimony from a resident of the cottage homes in the late nineteenth century. James Howard’s memoirs demonstrate a more punitive regime than the official records suggest.  He recalled that one superintendent used the birch ‘on frequent occasions’ and that he ‘enjoyed his part in those thrashings’.[18] For another superintendent birching ‘seemed almost a pastime’ which was used for almost every offence, until the guardians apparently ‘interfered’.[19] Again, we have no real answers, corporal punishment was used regularly during this period and although some of Howard’s words may hint at a sexual undertone to the beatings, it also appears that excessive punishment was curtailed.

One criterion used to determine whether child sexual abuse took place in the past is the presence of non-congenital venereal disease in children.[20] Again, it is not possible to prove a negative, but no mention is made of children with venereal disease in any of the records I have consulted. Can it be possible that institutionalised abuse did not occur to the same extent in the nineteenth century?  Christian Wolmar has argued that the fundamental cause of abuse in residential care homes was the gradual replacement of women caregivers by men.[21] Women were primary carers in most of the institutions I have researched, although the nuns of Nazareth House were of course women. There are also contradictory reports of life in Swansea care homes. One example is a blog where numerous former residents of Killay House shared a lot of very happy memories, but in a blog left on the Careleavers Association website, a former resident of Killay House related his cruel and uncaring treatment there.

There are no answers, are there?  I have considerable evidence to justify confident interpretations regarding the management of the children and their health, diet, education, and day-to-day lives. But I can say nothing with any intellectual integrity about this huge elephant in my room. Does that mean I should not ask the questions? Should I just ignore the subject altogether as many historians seem to have done? If the answer to one query is elusive do we simply modify our research questions?  In sidestepping problematical and empirically intangible issues we may generate even more partial and unstable conclusions. I have no evidence of institutionalised sexual abuse, but I feel that I should still ask the unanswerable questions and I hope that accepting difficulty is not the same as admitting defeat.

Short Biography

Lesley Hulonce was awarded a scholarship by Swansea University in 2009 to research children and the poor laws and will be submitting her PhD thesis (Imposed and imagined childhoods: the making of the poor law child, Swansea 1834-1910) in 2013.
Her research interests also include gender and sexualities, especially 19th century prostitution, and also philanthropy, protest and popular culture.
She teaches 19th and 20th century British history modules with Swansea University’s Department of Adult Continuing Education and is a teaching assistant in the Department of History and Classics.

Twitter @lesleyhulonce
Blog: ‘Workhouse tales’

[1] Paddy Ladd, Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood (Clevedon: 2003), 299.

[2] Bernard Gallagher, ‘The Extent and Nature of Known Cases of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse’, British Journal of Social Work, vol. 30 (2000), 795–817, 796. Gallagher argues that ‘it is likely that sexual abuse has occurred in most, if not all, types of institution for children’.


[4] Independent, 8 January 2001.

[5] Gallagher, ‘Extent and Nature’, 812.

[6] Brian Corby, ‘The Costs and Benefits of the North Wales Tribunal Inquiry’ in Jill Manthorpe, Nicky Stanley, eds., The Age of the Inquiry: Learning and Blaming in Health and Social Care (London: 2004).

[7] Frank Crompton, Workhouse Children (Stroud: 1997).

[8] Lydia Murdoch, Imagined Orphans: Poor Families, Child Welfare and Contested Citizenship in London (New Brunswick & London: 2006).

[9] Louise Jackson, Child Sexual Abuse in Victorian England (London: 2000).

[10] George K Behlmer, Child Abuse and Moral Reform in England, 1870-1908 (Stanford: 1982).

[11] Linda Mahood, Policing Gender, Class and Family, Britain, 1850-1940 (London: 1995), 156.

[12] Stephen Humphries, Hooligans or Rebels? An Oral History of Working-class Childhood and Youth 1889-1939 (Oxford: 1981).

[13] Harry Hendrick, Child Welfare, England 1872-1989 (London: Routledge, 1994), 77.

[14] Chas Critcher, Moral Panics and the Media (Buckingham: 2003), 149.

[15] Cambrian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, Minute Book, 26 April 1859: 5 June 1861.

[16] Independent, 16 August 1998.

[17] West Glamorgan Archives Service, U/S 86, Visiting Committee Report Books, 29 July 1879.

[18] James Howard, Winding Lanes (1938), 20.

[19] Howard, Winding Lanes, 20-21.

[20] Carol Smart, ‘Reconsidering the Recent History of Child Sexual Abuse,1910–1960’, Journal of Social Policy, 29:11 (2000), 55–71, 57-59.

[21] Christian Wolmar, ‘The untold story behind child abuse’, The Guardian, 16 February 2000.


  1. Fascinating unanswered questions, Lesley and I’ve arrived at a similar question from a very different direction – researching the roles of women at the Front in the Great War!

    During that period, up to say 1926, there is very little evidence of institutional abuse of the injured, particularly the neurasthenic injured, who came home after the war, but some circumstantial evidence (men going from nursing home to nursing home, or from domestic settings into nursing homes) suggesting that some men may have been abused, or maybe, abusive? It’s really difficult to know when one is following evidence and when one’s own culture and preoccupations are imposing a form on circumstances that could be read very differently by others, from other places, at other times!

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