Neither Waif nor Stray: Home, Family and Belonging in the Victorian Children's Institution, 1881-1914

  • Claudia Soares

Student thesis: Phd


Historical research on Victorian children's welfare institutions has focussed on contemporary notions of 'problem families', models of citizenship, and ideologies of rescue and reform. Since the affective turn, scholars have produced critical studies of affect and intimacy in working-class culture whilst growing interest in material culture studies has had important implications for studies of the home. These bodies of literature, however, have yet to be drawn together. This thesis brings affect and material culture to an established literature on children's welfare to challenge orthodoxies of institutional childhood in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Using The Waifs and Strays Society as a case study, the thesis questions how belonging, attachment and individuality were created in the children's institution by examining key narratives of home and family. This thesis argues that home, family and belonging were significant and additional dimensions to institutional objectives of rescue and reform. Although not unique to the WSS, these aspects of childcare ideology have not yet been examined by historians, who have tended to focus on institutional experiences through the lens of reform and citizenship. In particular, this study asks how the institution was constructed and perceived to be a home; how staff members and co-residents could be cast and understood as family members; and how institutional practices could offer inmates a sense of belonging, intimacy and meaningful care that could help shape a broader sense of identity over the life course.Central to this study is the analysis of institutional literature and a range of correspondence contained in inmates' individual case files. Examination of these sources help to provide insight into the gap between what the WSS aspired to achieve and its success in practice. Interrogation of case-file correspondence in particular highlights children's responses to WSS practices, and in doing so, recovers the voices of some of the most marginalised groups in society. This thesis seeks to complicate the way in which we think about Victorian institutional childhood, which has commonly been seen as negative and oppressive. A history of emotion within the children's institution is particularly topical following recent welfare cuts, press reports and inquiries about children's homes and child abuse. This study helps to locate anxieties about children's nurture in a wider historical context and unpicks shifting ideas about children's homes and the roles they should perform. The study of children in institutional care has broader historical significance for how we understand a range of people and patient populations inside institutions more generally.
Date of Award1 Aug 2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJulie-Marie Strange (Supervisor) & Michael Sanders (Supervisor)


  • belonging
  • family
  • home
  • childcare
  • nineteenth-century
  • poverty
  • emotions
  • institutions
  • welfare

Cite this