“Over 80,000 children in this country are in the care of local authorities because for one reason or another they cannot be looked after adequately by their parents.”
The light of the June sun poured down on the red-brick building, came optimistically streaming through the window, and arrived, dusty and dispirited, on the desk of the Reader in Social Administration.
“The Children Act, which will become operative in July 1948, sets out to provide for the care and welfare of boys and girls up to the age of eighteen, when they are without parents, or have been lost or abandoned by their parents, or when their parents are unfit or unable to take care of them.”
This was the last lecture of the last term of the last year of our Social Science course. By now, we knew every thing – physiology, psychology, psychiatry, genetics, statistics – you name it, we knew it. Human behaviour, studied from every angle, had been reduced to essentials and immortalized in enormous black folders containing three years' notes. Egg-sucking ? Yes, granny, here’s what you do -
“The Act defines the powers and duties of the local authority regarding these unfortunate children.”
Well, boarding-out in foster-homes, of course, that was the answer, I mean, this I knew. The Children Act was an open book to me; as a matter of fact I was going to work in the new service: after Degree Giving I was going to join one of the newly-hatched Children's Departments as a Child Care Officer.
“Child Care Officers will be appointed to ensure that plans for the welfare of these children are made and carried out. Decisions of great importance to these children, and their families, will be made by this entirely new species of local government officer,– “
Oh, well, I can easily do that, just wait till I start, I thought, There was a tremendous crusading atmosphere about the new service. Our impression at the University was that the country outside was dotted with castle-like institutions in which hundreds of children dressed in blue serge were drilled to the sound of whistles, We were going to tear down the mouldering bastions, We were going to replace or re-educate the squat and brutal custodians. I had a dream of myself letting up a blind so that sunshine flooded into a darkened room as I turned, with a frank and friendly smile, to the little upturned faces within,
“The Child Care Officers” duties should turn out to be varied and full of human interest, and it is to be hoped that the work will attract persons of high ideals, professional skills, and sensitive humanity.”
Well, that’s me, of course, and I modestly massaged the lobe of my ear, Ideals? Yes, Skill? Yes: perhaps leaning a shade towards Adler rather than Freud, but – Humanity? A vague concept, my good fellow, I said in my head to the lecturer, but I think I know what you’re trying to get at, and I can only reply that in two months' time I shall be running my Department in quite the most sensitive way imaginable. ...
Nobody seemed to have heard of me when I arrived at County Hall. Asked to wait, I sat for an hour in a corridor, watching people giving pieces of paper to each other. Then I was invited in to see the Chief Welfare Officer. She was the tiredest-looking woman I had ever seen: she looked as though she had spent the last two months on some maniac task, such as trying to get a swarm of flies into a tea-chest. Yet she could still spring up and greet me radiantly.
“So sorry to keep you waiting,” she said, “we’re jolly glad to have you, we’re up to our eyes here.” I made a small deprecatory gesture.
"I’m allocating you to Area 2, Westburn,” she said, “Miss Dashforth. 48 Seed Villas.”
Westburn was ten miles away. I opened my mouth to speak, but two telephones began ringing on her desk. I was dismissed with a cheery wave of the hand, and went moodily down to the bus-station.
Seed Villas was the devil to find, and that summer morning I tacked round Westburn for an hour or more looking for it, all among the waste paper blowing down the sunlit streets. I had a cup of tea in a trolley-bus drivers' shelter, and then I bought a street guide. Eventually I found my way to a row of paunchy red-brick houses, steps up to the front doors, glum-looking shrubs in the front patch. Outside No. 48 was a notice-board which said “Relieving Officer”. Hanging by one drawing-pin from this board was a piece of cardboard which said “Area Children's Officer”. I went in. In the hall were a lot of bulky women and a notice saying “Children's Office Up Corridor End Door.” I went up the corridor, tapped on the door, and walked into a lavatory. I backed out into a fat typist who had come up behind me.
“The Children's Officer is up the other corridor,” she said through tight lips, barging past me.
I went back, edged past the bulky women in the hall, and found the right corridor and the right room. As I went in, a small woman crouched over a telephone gave me a kind of Roman salute with her arm, but continued talking into the phone. It was a small room, which contained a cupboard, two trestle tables arid one chair, Both tables were covered with sprawling mountains of paper and files, and so was much of the floor; more paper, tied up in bundles with string, was spilling out of the cupboard. The small woman's salute appeared to be an invitation, so I picked my way farther into the room, hitched myself on to the edge of a table and surveyed her.
This must be Miss Dashforth, She was thirty-fivish, thin, dressed in a brown skirt and a red and-violet striped jumper. At first glance I thought she had some pitiful facial disfigurement, until I realized that she had a cigarette jammed in a corner of her mouth and was allowing the smoke to pour into one eye. She had short prematurely grey hair, like steel wool, through which she frequently, excitedly, but quite unconsciously, drove her fingers. She was speaking on the telephone in a rapid, beautiful voice, to which, after a moment, I found I could not help listening.
–” no, she’s only thirteen, you see, not fourteen till February, and if she’s got her dates right her baby should be due next month, though I must say it doesn’t show at all. Oh, yes, the doctor confirms it. – Well, the girl says it was her uncle who lodges in the same house – he denies it, of course, and says it must have been the stepfather, and I must say stepfather does look a bit queer, he’s an Eighth Day Pentecostal and if he eats too much marmalade his head steams, so I suppose he might. “Right-ho, dear you'll ring me ? Right. “bye-bye.”
Miss Dashforth put down the telephone, lit a new cigarette from the old stub, shook me warmly by the hand and said: “Maule, isn’t it – they rang from County Hall you were coming – I say, could you find a chair from next door and amuse yourself with these files for a minute? I must go and see these women waiting – they’re all confinements, short stays you know.”
She disappeared. I couldn’t understand this: had I got into the wrong office after all, and was this really some depot of the new National Health Service, where you collected wigs, teeth and short stays? I looked worriedly at the files on the table beside me. They were all rather dusty and dog-eared, though the handwriting on the covers was a beautiful flowing copperplate. One near me said on the outside: “PAC/71917/C/412.” I opened it: inside were two foolscap forms. The first was headed in the beautiful copperplate: “Rosetta Valentino (Miss).” In the columns underneath, in a much more impatient hand, was scribbled:
“Woman applies for assistance. Pregnant. Destitute. Admitted Stark House.” Of course, yes, these were the old records of the Public Assistance Committee; as that Committee had now been entirely superseded by among others our own glittering new Children's Service, these files would have been put out, I presumed for binning. Casually interested, I read on :
12.1.33: Male child born.
27.1.33: Woman absconded.
29.1.33: Child, John, transferred to Slag Dell Nursery. 4.2.33: Warrant issued for mother.
And that was all about her. I turned the page. The next form was headed, in copperplate: “John Douglas Valentino, b. 12.1.33.” The impatient hand underneath had written: 12.1.33: Stark House.
29.1.33: Slag Dell.
16.8.33: Resolution under Sec. 52.
and then, underlined in red ink:
1.9.33: Boarded out with Mrs E. Champion, 19 Binns Close. Underneath this entry was a long line of rubber stampings, each saying: “Reported to Committee,” followed by a date. Fifteen years of rubber stampings, I thought, presumably this little fellow was still in his foster-home and must now be – fifteen and a half – he must be in employment now. Well, well: and I’d thought that boarding-out had only just been invented, that my mission was, by introducing this startling new idea to Westburn, to overcome the hidebound reactionaries and establish a New Deal for Waifs. ...
I was still trying to readjust my ideas when Miss Dashforth came back into the room with a handful of forms; she tossed them on to her desk, ran her hands through her hair, lit another cigarette, ran her hand over her head again, and looked at me twice, sideways.
"You look a bit pensive,” she said.
“Well, yes, I don’t seem to have got my bearings yet.”
"I suppose it is a bit confusing at first. Look here, it’s nearly half past twelve, let’s go and have lunch, we can have a natter and I can put you in the picture.”
She hoisted up her handbag, a huge affair with a shoulderstrap, pulled out a powder-puff and battered her face with it exuberantly.
"Right,” she said.
As we were leaving the room, the phone rang.
"Damn,” said Miss Dashforth in a pleased voice, and returned to answer it.
At five to one we left the room again. Half-way down the corridor we met a rather dirty Irishman who began telling Miss Dashforth that if his children were put in a Home he’d be able to land a very good job in business in Scunthorpe.
At twenty-five past one we left through the front door and were hailed from the street by the District Nurse, who wanted to talk about triplets.
At ten to two Miss Dashforth glanced at her watch. “Hell!” she said. “We've left it a bit late; I’m afraid the cinema cafe is about the only place still open. Oh, well: come on, I'll take the car.”
I was aware that if I hadn’t been there she wouldn’t have bothered about food at all. I was also aware that we had come up to a small, queer-looking vehicle crouched beside the kerb. It had a hood pulled down over its eyes and looked like a rather ruffianly converted perambulator. Miss Dashforth opened one door by untying a piece of string. When I got in my side the whole car sagged. However, it started promptly. I was sorry that it had, for Miss Dashforth drove very badly, operating the clutch in paroxysms and periodically soaring unexpectedly on to the crown of the road. As we went along, she pointed out interesting features of the landscape.
“See that house with the green curtains ?” she would call. “Yes.”
“One of my foster-homes.”
“Oh, yes ?”
“That house on the corner, see? The big grey one – no, no, the other corner, quick, quick “–
“Oh yes, yes.”
“Woman there who looks after coloured babies.”
"You see up there ?”
She was apparently pointing at a kind of turret stuck on to a large apartment building. High up in the turret was a tiny round window.
"Problem family. The N.S.P.C.C. are going in.”
My goodness, I thought, an absolute landmark.
"Family named Crump. Actually I may ask you to have a look in on them, there’s a teenage boy there.”
We swerved violently in amongst the High Road traffic and stopped beside a cinema. It had a softly-lit but inefficient restaurant upstairs where we got a spammy sort of meal, which was all they had to offer.
Miss Dashforth did not seem to have much conversation and had not even noticed the weather. Her only remark in the first ten minutes was when she suddenly ducked her head towards me and hissed:
“See that waitress ?”
It wasn’t until we’d got to the coffee that she began to talk more easily about her office and the work I should be doing.
"I’m afraid we’re in an absolute shambles,” she said, “and you may have to turn your hand to anything from bathing a baby to mending a chair. As you’re the only man on the staff, I think it would be best if you dealt with the older boys – secondary school boys and working lads up to eighteen.”
"How do you mean, deal with them?”
"Visit them in their foster-homes, see that they’re properly looked after, help them get jobs, keep them out of trouble. There’s some boys in the Children's Homes who should be out in foster-homes, you might try and find some more foster-mothers, we’re very short. And when the boys in the Homes get to fifteen and leave school they have to be found jobs and lodgings, you can have that duty with pleasure.”
” About how many boys do you think I'll be seeing to ?”
"I dunno,” she said. “I’m sorry, but we haven’t even been through the files yet to count heads and see who’s where. Never mind, we’ll get straight in the end, especially now you’re here as well as Harry. Harry started last week – she’s a great help, but she’s had to take a kid down to Broadstairs today. Another flipping short-stay case.”
"How,” I asked carefully, ignoring for the moment the improbability of a female being named Harry, “would you define a short-stay case ?”
“Why, it’s a case where, as far as one can see, the children are only going to be In Care for a very short time; like, Mum’s going to have a baby and she can’t find anyone to look after her four other little horrors for the ten days so they come for a short stay with us.”
“Oh, I see,” I said with relief. Nothing to do with National Health after all.
“We get a terrific number of short stays. Terribly time consuming.”
We paid the bill and returned to the car, reluctantly as far as I was concerned. Still, I thought, as we took off violently, things are beginning to make sense, I shall soon settle down, I thought, as we hurtled round a corner on two wheels.
A boy, wearing a man's jacket, large tweed trousers, and plimsolls, suddenly whizzed out on roller-skates from behind a van directly in front of us. I should not think we missed him by more than a quarter of an inch, and outside the glass by my shoulder his large mouth and long dusty hair burst on my senses like a bomb. I found, some time later, that I had become absolutely rigid from the top of my head, which was pressed up into the hood, to my right foot, which was rammed so hard on where the footbrake might have been that I had cracked a board.
Miss Dashforth, however, continued to soar on down the middle of the road, chatting. “Did you see who that was?” she was saying. “It was Egbert Crump.”
This feature: Stroud, J. (1960) The Shorn Lamb. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, chapter 1.