Post-War Orphans

Lizzie Page

The treatment of orphans post-war has proved the inspiration for a series of novels.
The case of Dennis O'Neill prompted the 1948 Children Act.
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Post-War Orphans

The Shilling Grange Series is about one woman’s struggle to run a children’s home in post-war Britain. I’ve long been interested in the changes brought in by Attlee’s reforming Labour government and writing a series set in an orphanage was a chance to explore some of those changes in children’s care.

The series begins in 1948 soon after the passing of The Children’s Act. The Act was a great step forwards for the care of deprived children and children without parents (although there was still a very long way to go). The new legislation came on the back of an inquiry into the care system after the terrible neglect and death of a young boy, Dennis O’Neill, in foster care, and also after the evacuation had highlighted inadequacies in so many children’s welfare.

The Children’s Act imposed new duties on local authorities and was an attempt to establish a comprehensive children’s service. Many children’s homes were reduced in size and ‘housemothers’ like my main character Clara Newton were supposed to make the orphanages less like institutions and more like family-homes. Those working with children were advised to ‘view children as individual human beings, rather than an indistinct mass.’ Clara often comes in conflict with the council in these stories, as the bureaucrats who manage her fail to catch up with the social shift or are down-right obstructive.

Real-life events of the late 1940s and early 1950s feature in each of the books.

The sending of orphaned children to Australia is a big part in Book 2, A Place to Call Home. House-mother Clara instinctively battles to keep the children from such a fate. In Book 3, An Orphans’ Song, the children form a choir and visit and perform at the Festival of Britain in London. There are other conflicts regarding paperwork, financing, safe-guarding and adoptions, several based on real-life incidents.

In Book 4, The Children Left Behind, the children and Clara are impacted by the terrible air disaster at Farnborough in September 1952. The election and the death of the King are also worked in as they affect Clara’s decision-making.

The children are a mix of imagined characters and an amalgamation of children I’ve known. Their problems are genuine and universal. Sometimes Clara deals with them well, sometimes maybe less so. How some issues eg. Child abuse, teen pregnancy, disordered eating, were treated in the past and how they would be treated today differs and I have tried to take care with this. Clara is kind and she puts the children first in ways that sometimes might be seen as very modern. I see her as a trailblazer, and when she reads Dr. Benjamin Spock’s childcare books, she feels vindicated in her more gentle approach. Some of the stories are maybe more ‘feel-good’ than if they had been faithfully replicated. This was a deliberate choice. While the children in Clara’s care have suffered, mostly we see them thrive. In my opinion, this makes the stories heart-warming rather than heart-breaking…

I love blending fact and fiction in my writing and like to see my novels as a gate-way or springboard to finding out more about the lives of ordinary or working-class people of our parents and grandparents generation.

Lizzie Page is the author of The Children Left Behind, published by Bookouture.