Lizzie Page on The Shilling Grange Children’s Home

Lizzie Page

The novelist discusses her series featuring the orphans post-war.
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What inspired you to write the Shilling Grange Children’s Home series set in the aftermath and displacement of the Second World War?

For me, writing a book is like a glorious throwing together of things that interest you – and hopefully creating a perfect storm (rather than a perfect mess!).

I studied Politics and International Studies at university and I guess 20th century politics has always been my thing. I have long been interested in the reforming Labour Government of 1945 and the things they achieved: NHS and National Insurance were the big ones, but children’s welfare reforms were important too.

Other inspirations include: Children and the issues they face. Safeguarding/Child protection and Women’s rights. I suppose these are perennial issues that fascinate me, but post war Britain in particular was a time of great change – and changes that still affect our lives today.    

In my earlier books, had been writing about the war years and I suppose I just had an urge to explore what happened next. Life goes on – but how? Grief is a constant theme in my writing – and you don’t get much more grief-stricken that post war Britain.  

And yet at the same time, I wanted to write something with unashamedly broad appeal, something that could be enjoyed. I started writing when we had just gone in lockdown, and I wanted to write about…when things would be better. I believe similarly the late 1940s and early 1950s was a time when it felt as though things were ‘heading in a better direction’ and I wanted the story to reflect that.

I also set out to write something heart-warming rather than heart-breaking. Something that by tone and subject matter would fit alongside, say, Call the Midwife, the Durrells or Sound of Music.

Is the orphanage in the novel inspired by any particular homes during this period or one created through historical documents and personal accounts?

The Shilling Grange Children’s Home – or as it sometimes came to be called The Michael Adams’ Childrens Home – isn’t inspired by one but many places and is perhaps an idealised version even of those. Shilling Grange is a real place in Lavenham, Suffolk though – and I liked the connection with the poet Jane Taylor. It is a wonderful building in a wonderful town. Go-visit!

What was life like for many women who, like the novel’s protagonist Clara Newton, had to rebuild their lives in post-war Britain?

I’m reluctant to generalise because I’ve heard so many different stories but for some it was a time of great opportunity after the restrictions and austerity of the war years, but for others, it was a time when they were rather put ‘back in their box’. After the freedom of jobs, moving away from home and Americans! the return to a more mundane life could be quite hard. Clara has been bereaved – like many women were – and yet she has to keep on keeping on. Like women throughout history, she keeps her head down and gets on with things as best she can.

Are there any fiction or non-fiction books that have enriched your writing and research?

The Foundling Museum in London is a fascinating place that provides an over-view or context of children’s welfare in the UK. A fabulous resource – and I was lucky to see their exhibition on ‘Superheroes, Orphans and origins’ which really made me think in a different way.

Two books – Lucy Faithful – Mother to Hundreds and Bob Homan – Champions for Children were excellent on the welfare side of things and both show how childcare was transformed in the twentieth century. 

Otherwise, I learnt a lot by psychology of children books, googling and following children in care accounts on twitter and occasional features on Radio Four.

Oh, and ‘Long Lost Family,’ My husband leaves the room when its on, but for anyone interested in the emotional side of displaced children’s welfare in the 40s,50s, 60s, 70s – then this is a must-watch. I’ve found it invaluable when I haven’t been crying – and it also was very good on the terrible sending children to Australia scandal of the 50s and 60s.   

For fiction books in the 1950’s – I have read and enjoyed The Librarian by Salley Vickers, Transcription by Kate Atkinson, the Night Watch by Sarah Waters, Small Pleasures by Claire Chambers. The list is endless!

How has Clara’s character grown throughout the series? What can readers expect from her in The children left behind?

Clara’s trajectory is not entirely simple. She moves forward and then takes step back. In the early books, she is nervous, even fearful of children. Soon she grows capable and confident and caring.

She is more than happy to lean on other people – but sometimes doesn’t think herself able – so she grows to trust herself more.

Clara can (like many of us, like me!) take against things irrationally – people, the Festival of Britain, psychologists, cycling – but then she learns to open her mind.  

In The Children Left Behind she has to deal with a blast from the past in the shape of her father – it is a struggle to deal with people especially parents who have let us down and in a way, Clara has to go through this experience and find herself again.  

Did your research uncover anything particularly shocking about children’s homes in post-war Britain?

The series coincides with the passing of the Children’s Act in the late 1940s and triggers a transition from orphanages as neglectful institutions into homely environments. What challenges does Clara face in this clash of the old and the new way of thought? Was there resistance to change?

Well, it triggered an attempted transition. The reality was far bleaker. I think it was the beginning of a change but I don’t think anyone who works in the care-sector would deny that it faced and still faces many problems. It did then and it still does. My books are fictionalised accounts of Clara’s life with the orphaned children but certainly the challenges in that area are great. There is resistance to change, disagreement on what should change, lack of money, lack of resources, lack of long-term thinking, over-arching and snail-paced bureaucracy etc etc – I couldn’t put it all in the series, but I hope readers do get some insight into how complex some of these issues are. I also hope I haven’t white-washed anything but I was concerned not to write ‘misery fiction.’    

Are there any women in history that you admire? And why?

There are so many! I enjoy seeking out the women in the shadows and shining a spotlight on them in my historical fiction.

My first book The War Nurses was about the trail blazing motorcycling WW1 nurses, Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm. They were incredible, they saved so many lives by living so close to the Western Front and were two of the most photographed women of the time.

Then I wrote Daughters of War which was inspired by writer, poet and volunteer nurse, Mary Borden who was a real force of nature. My third and perhaps most popular book ‘When I was Yours’  included mentions of song-writer Lena Guilbert (she wrote the lyrics to Keep the Home Fires Burning) and war-artist and nurse, Olive Mudie Cooke. I also admire the many women who took in the evacuated children like the fictional Vivienne in this story.

‘The Wartime Nanny’ is about two of the 20,000 brave young Jewish women who left their homes in Nazi Germany and Austria to become domestic servants in England and includes another trail blazer who I admire in the field of children’s psychology Anna Freud.

Two more women I admire are also referenced in the Shilling Grange Series:

Dame Myra Curtis ran the Government Inquiry into the care of children in 1946, and most of her recommendations went into The Children’s Act of 1948. She was a leading civil servant and a professor in a time when such roles were rare for women.

And the other is Jane Taylor- one of the original residents of Shilling Grange) Jane was a poet and children’s story-writer and I think since her lyrics for ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ have endured (for over 200 years) – its only fair that her name gets a mention too. 

What can readers expect next from Shilling Grange Children’s home series and Clara Newton?

Book 5 is the last in the series and so there will be a fair amount of wrapping-up to do. I think we need to know the children are in safe (ish) hands.  

Clara is almost going to unlearn what she’s learnt over the last five years and understand that she is important too. It’s the classic: You can’t take care of other people unless you take care of yourself. And maybe Clara will find that there is room for both love AND the children of Shilling Grange in her life? You’ll have to read it to find out!  

Lizzie Page is the author of The Girl in the Photo, published by Bookouture.