Thursday, April 9, 2015

BBC Radio 4 programme looks at Sheffield's ‘Children of the Scattered Homes’

A BBC Radio 4 programme based on sources held by Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library is to be broadcast this week on Friday 10 April 2015 at 11am: In the programme, Sheffield journalist, author and oral historian Clare Jenkins investigates the pioneering children’s home system, developed in Sheffield in 1893 and which continued deep into the 20th century, known as the ‘Scattered Homes’.

The Scattered Homes system was devised by John Wycliffe Wilson (1836 - 1921), the reformist chairman of the Sheffield Poor Law Union Board of Guardians. Under the system, rather than ending up in the Sheffield Union Workhouse, or consigned to a centralised children’s home, poor children from Sheffield, with no family support available to them, would be placed in the care of ‘foster’ mothers in suburban houses scattered around the outskirts of the city. The idea was that Scattered Homes children would attend local schools and churches and mix with other children from working class families spread across different parts of Sheffield and therefore integrated into local communities instead of being institutionalised and trapped in the perceived cycle of poverty and state dependency engendered by the Union Workhouse.

The Scattered Homes system aimed to prepare girls for domestic service and equip boys with practical life skills for trades which would prevent them falling back on the state for support (with the Sheffield Union running a farm and workshop where boys could develop their skills). Sheffield was the first Poor Law Union in the country to utilise the Scattered Homes system, but, upon the retirement of its founder John Wycliffe Wilson from Sheffield public service in 1910, some 100 Unions all over the country had adopted the Scattered Homes principle, testament to its apparent success.


Presenter, Clare, visits Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library where records of the Scattered Homes are preserved. Guided by Archivist Tim Knebel, she discovers the often tragic circumstances which led to children being admitted to the homes. Many of the children were victims of poverty, disease and criminality which were endemic in the dismal Sheffield city centre slum housing thrown up by Sheffield’s rapid industrial growth over the course of the 19th century. Scattered Homes children typically included those who had been orphaned or abandoned or those whose parents had been confined to the workhouse or sent to prison. Claire tries to find out what became of a selection of Scattered Homes children, after difficult beginnings to their lives, seeking to unravel their fates through the records held at Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library.

Whilst many Scattered Homes children prospered through the system, finding an escape from the city centre slums and poverty cycle, which had blighted the lives of their parents, for others admission to the homes could have far-reaching and turbulent consequences. Children could find  themselves separated from their families and sent far from home, even ‘scattered’ across the globe, with the Sheffield Union emigrating many Sheffield youngsters to Canada and sending others to boys’ training ships where they would be trained for a career and life on the ocean waves. Many of the earliest intakes of Scattered Homes children in the 1890s/early 1900s would find their opportunities for brighter futures, which the system aimed to create, scythed down on the battlefields of the First World War before they had barely reached adulthood.

In the programme, Claire tracks down direct descendants of the Scattered Homes children today with whom she shares the poignant life stories uncovered in the records of their parents and grandparents who spent their childhoods in the scattered homes of Sheffield.
BBC Radio 4
Friday 10 April 2015, 11:00am
(To be repeated again over the weekend).