Casebook of forgotten childhood

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
How is the Victorian era best remembered? The epitome of the Empire; the pinnacle of British industrial might; the transport revolution? How easy it is to overlook the social ramifications of the time when, for each entrepreneur who made his fortune, thousands of unfortunates were living in abject poverty. Now, Hidden Lives Revealed, a website produced by the Children's Society, has redressed the balance. In so doing, it has scooped the 2005 Phillimore prize, an annual award for excellence in historical archiving presented by Phillimore publishers in conjunction with the National Archives.

Hidden Lives Revealed serves as a portal to examine in minute detail the work of the Waifs and Strays' Society - predecessor of the Children's Society. Focusing on the period 1881 to 1918, the entire contents of some 150 case files of children taken into the society's care are available. The detail here is astonishing: application forms, details of each child's age, health, parents (and what they earned), together with reasons why the child was nominated for care, are all presented.

Case files may be browsed using keywords. That these include mental health, alcohol abuse, neglect and illegitimacy serves only to illustrate the sad circumstances in which so many lived. In each case, there is a link to the home to which the child was sent. Delve deeper, and there are full details of all of the society's 173 homes. Not all were in towns and cities; several were rural, thus making the site a good local studies resource.

Elsewhere on the site, there is an excellent learning resources section. It includes extracts and photographs from the society's magazine, Our Waifs and Strays, and reveals how children were rescued from poverty and what life was like in the society's homes.

There is also an outstanding range of interactive pages. Among the best is the children's home virtual tour; if you want to know what the bathroom, dormitories, school room, dining room, (check out the menus), sick room - even the matron's room - were like in such establishments, this is the place to look. There are also pictorial puzzles, and a period crossword for children under 14 (your reviewer struggled!), reproduced from the society's magazines.

Here, then, is a tremendous site, offering fresh themes for "the Victorians". History, however, is only the half of it; with a rich vein of ideas for citizenship, literacy and local studies, this really is an invaluable resource.

Chris Fautley www.hiddenlives.org.uk

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