Whitechapel Boys And Girls Boarding Out

For children growing up in the East End of London in the late 19th century, the battle for health was a constant one. Polluted air and filthy streets meant that the majority of them were constantly affected by ill health.

However, there was the chance of an annual escape for these children, which was known as the Boarding Out System, whereby the children were sent from London to lodge with foster parents in the countryside, sometimes for a few weeks, sometimes for longer.

A group of East End children.
East End Children.


On Friday the 2nd of September, 1887, The Tavistock Gazette took an in depth look at this system:-

As the holiday season comes round for the rich we get the annual appeals for a day in the country for the poor; or, better still, for money to board out pale-faced London children for a fortnight in country cottages.

The Bishop of London issued an appeal for the above object a month ago, and owing to the liberal response of the public some thousands of children have already enjoyed this delightful break in the monotonous drudgery of their lives; but there are yet other thousands waiting and longing to secure the same privilege.

Most of the schools are closed, the absence of many of those who constitute the wealthier classes in Norway or Switzerland, in Scotland or Ireland, leaves trade dull; and lots of children keep enforced vacation in the noisy dusty streets.


The ideal holiday for children is to the sea-side; but then charity has its limits, and the breezy commons of Kent and Surrey are perfect paradises to Whitechapel girls and boys, while the journey is inexpensive and the living cheap.

Five shillings a week is the usual payment for board, washing, and lodging of each child; and you will get some women, whose own children have grown up and gone out in service, to take four small strangers at a time and make the arrangement pay.


On their first arrival the children present the usual pale faces, with dark rims round the eyes, feeble Whim, and listless habits. They are furtively suspicious of their strange new surroundings, and only thaw gradually to the affection of the warm country hearts.

The vast open space which surrounds them; the mysterious stillness of nature, awe the children, used to the constant turmoil of town. One small boy even confessed that he was afraid of country nights, they were so large and dark.

Gradually the fresh air brings colour to the cheeks, while the healthy fare gives vigour to the limbs, and the children grow daily brighter and stronger.

They begin to appreciate the boundless freedom and beauty of rural life, and to enjoy their new surroundings with that intense pleasure which is only born of complete contrast.


This summer has been perfection for these visitors to our villages, and most of the children have spent the whole of the fourteen days of their stay entirely in the open air.

After a hearty breakfast the caretakers will supply them with large lumps of bread and cheese and send them off for the day with orders not to drink out of the ponds, but to ask at a farm for milk if they are thirsty.

So they roam away across the heather-covered common to the shade of the woods, where they make the acquaintance of squirrels and dormice; birds of all kinds from the tree-creeper to the hawk, and insects as beautiful as they are numerous.


The most enthusiastic students of nature are always those who have lived much in large towns, and the keen little Londoner is apt to think the country lad very dull, because he betrays little interest in the movement of the bees amongst the purple heather.

Familiarity has bred indifference in Hodge junior, and his slow nature is roused to new observation by the delight of the strangers in the common objects round; he recalls all the wondrous instincts of birds and beasts he has witnessed, and relates them to the town children, who, in return, tells marvellous stories of the great city to these possible Dick Whittingtons.


It is to be doubted whether the villagers do not benefit as much by the boarding-out system as their visitors do; all the best traits of their nature are called forth to sympathise with their small charges, and they learn to understand a different side of life.

The sorrows of childhood are so slightly comprehended that few would believe how the starved hearts and super-acute brains of the small Londoners are soothed and rested by the homely kindness of their country friends.

As the time of parting comes near both caretakers and charges express their sorrow, though there is a large amount of motherly pride displayed in sending back the children, so sunburnt and fat, that their nearest relations have difficulty in recognising them.


Special cases of ailing or delicate children are sometimes boarded out at the request of district visitors or hospital sisters; children with sore eyes, hip disease, abscesses, or crippled in some way which makes them ineligible for convalescent homes, and to whom the bracing country air is of inestimable benefit.

One baby who had had an injury to the hip, followed by abscesses, was such a weakly, pallid wee thing, that it was shown about at the hospital as a curious object of interest under the name of “the white baby.”

There seemed small chance of its recovery so long as it remained in the heavy atmosphere of town, so it was sent to a clean cottage on a breezy heath in Sussex, where it fell into loving hands as well as healthy surroundings.

The fragile little morsel so won its way into the heart of the foster-mother that she would gladly have adopted it, had there not been a real mother eagerly awaiting the return of her child.

Gradually the baby lost all claim to its rather fantastic title, and when sent home at the end of a month was a rosy, fat little thing, perfectly able to walk alone, and with no signs of abscesses remaining.


These cases specially call forth the loving kindness of the caretakers, and it is seldom that a child is returned to its home without some small addition to its wardrobe, or a present of new-laid eggs or home-made jam.

One foster-father of an ingenious turn of mind rigged up an awning in his garden to protect the small convalescents from the sun, and also constructed a quaint hand-carriage in which the children could be wheeled about while lying flat on their backs.


All these things are proof that the boarding-out system is a good one, and capable of great development.

It is a great pity that more of our pauper orphans are not thus disposed of.

There are many of our country cottages where the wives, left with little to do in the day, would be glad of the human interest given by having some helpless being dependent on them, and equally glad of the small sum they could thus earn.

There is not the slightest difficulty in finding suitable holiday homes in which to board out the children for their fortnight’s holiday. There are plenty of cottages and plenty of children; the only thing wanted is funds.