A brief history of the UK care system

Picture of Claudia Roehlen

Claudia Roehlen


At the Drive Forward Foundation (DFF), we strive to create opportunities for care-experienced people, so that they are able to build a future in which they can flourish and thrive. We work with our young people in the here and now, for their futures, supporting them to overcome challenges that arose in the past. Reflecting on this time continuum of past, present and future, I realised that I had never thought about the history of the UK care system in much detail. What has always been important to me is how the system works today and how it could be improved. To mark the occasion, I figured Care Experienced History Month 2021 would be a good time to learn a bit more. 

This short article is an attempt to shed some light on the history of institutional care in Britain. I will draw attention to some of the most important Legal Acts and Figures and provide a rough timeline from the first traces of out-of-home care in 1552 (De Wilde, 2018) to the beginning of our present care system in the 20th century. This article is by no means exhaustive, and only scratches the surface of historical developments that lead us to where we are today. Hence I will signpost a few books and articles that go into more depth about the history of care.  

Early foundations for children in care in Britain 

  • 1552: The Christ’s hospital opens its doors as the first institution supporting “fatherless children”. It was established on royal property to give shelter to children of “humble” background and essentially provided schooling and shelter. In the next 100 years this model of a “children’s home” was adopted across various cities in the UK (Higginbotham, 2017)  
  • 1556: The Bridewell Palace opens. It wasn’t as much of a palace, but rather a prison or workhouse reformatory for homeless children and disorderly women. So called “orphans” became apprentices and learned different handcrafts while staying at Bridewell. This form of out of home care was also modelled by many other cities in the subsequent century. (Higginbotham, 2017)  
  • 1650 – 1700: Several workhouses and charity schools were established in which “poor children, beggars, vagrants, and other idle and disorderly persons” (Higginbotham, 2017, p. 3) found shelter, education and employment.   
  • 1700: Charity schools specifically for “poor or orphan children” increased in numbers. Most of these were day schools, only some were children homes. (Higginbotham, 2017)  
  • 1739: Captain Thomas Coram founded the Foundling Hospital, a new institution “for the education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children” (Higginbotham, 2017, p. 5). It was England’s first charity devoted exclusively to children. Mothers could bring their babies without being identified. The children at the foundling hospital were educated and brought up to labour (boys went to sea; girls were prepared for domestic services). Soon the beds were filled and demand exceeded availability at the hospital. In 1756 the parliament donated a lot of money, so that the hospital could offer open-ended admissions. After 1760 though, this parliamentary support was withdrawn and the hospital relied fully on public funds and donations (Higginbotham, 2017). Today, the institution is known as “Coram – better chances for children” and still offers support for young people in care.  

Care Homes during the Victorian Era   

  • Foster care in the modern sense was first introduced in the United Kingdom in 1853, when Reverend John Armistead removed children from a workhouse in Cheshire and placed them with foster families. The local council was legally responsible for the children. They paid the foster parents a sum equal to the cost of maintaining the child in the workhouse. These custodial decisions were determined by the Chancery Court under a process known as ‘wardship’, but without any legal basis (taken from family-care.co.uk). 
  • The Big Three — Barnardo’s, The National Children’s Home, and the Waifs and Strays Society. Those three institutions were (and still are) among the most recognised and impactful entities supporting young people in need.  
  • 1868: Thomas J. Barnardo opened the first residential care, called “Hope Place” and began to realise the benefits of fostering in 1887. Ever since, the Barnados have played a big and influential role in fostering and adoption.  
  • 1869: Thomas B. Stephenson founded what is now called “Action for Children” and opened his first children’s home with the wish to create a family-like atmosphere. He expanded this concept over the following hundred years until around the 1950s.  
  • 1881: Edward de Montjoie Rudolffounder of the Children’s Society, opened the first home in the same year in East Dulwich. At the time there was a great need for children homes as the “problem of destitute and homeless children […] was enormous” (Higginbotham, 2017 p.108). The Children’s Society began to engage in fostering in two years after they opened their doors.  

All charitable institutions were always looking for more funding. With money being hard to come by, the conditions in childrens homes often were very poor. Childrens homes and institutions concerned with supporting children in residential care homes and foster care came up with creative ideas of how to fundraise money. For example, a self-denial week initiated by Barnardo, where wealthy people could lower their living standards and donated the access money. The Childrens Society started to involve young people in the fundraising by selling home-made, hand-crafted products or doing street collections (Higginbotham, 2017). 

Local Authority Childrens Homes  

In his book Childrens Homes. A history of institutional care for Britains young” Peter Higginbotham shows how changing attitudes and behaviours contributed to the creation of a framework, initially through charitable enterprise, that enabled childrens care in the United Kingdom to be brought under the auspices of local authorities in the post-war era and ultimately to be modernised in the shape of the care system that we know today” (Ben Quail, 2017). 

  • Children’s Charter 1908. Foster families had to be officially registered with the local authority and parents or guardians who ill-treated their children were legally prosecuted. 
  • Adoption of Children Act 1926. “The first legal precedent for adoption (and fostering) was established and since then, almost every decade has bear witness to new laws for increased regulation in the UK” (family-care.co.uk). 
  • Local Government Act of 1929. In theory, the local authorities were now obliged to take over the “duties previously performed by a dozen or more separate unions” such as reformatory and industrial schools, orphanages, etc. (Higginbotham, 2017, p. 237). In practice, this was a very slow process and the poor conditions in children’s homes did not improve much. The action of “boarding out” (aka fostering) only slowly became more common. Mainly white, physically and mentally fit children were deemed suitable to be placed with foster families, leaving behind all those children that didn’t fit these criteria.  
  • The Curtis Report 1945 marked the turning of the tide. The report stated that adoption or fostering shall be preferred to institutional care as it provides the best opportunities for a child to grow and flourish. Institutional care, if needed should only be offered to children for whom fostering or adoptions was not suitable and only eight to twelve young people should live in one residential home at a time. The report also stated the need for better trained staff.  
  • 1948 Children Act “established separate children’s committees in all county councils in the United Kingdom. They were designed to raise the standard of care that was provided. Officers were appointed to see these reforms realised, with no other responsibilities” (Parker, 2001). 
  • Children and Young Person Act 1969. Community Homes with Education, which were operating since the 1930s were abolished. The act aimed to create a “system of care whereby local authorities provided a range of services oriented to keeping children away from custodial establishments and maintaining them in the community” (Higg p. 43). 
  • Children Act 1989. The decline in community homes presented a problem as not all young people were suitable or willing to live with foster families. The children’s act 1989 addresses this and claims a need for secure homes and custodial accommodation.  

Ever since 1989 there were several updates and amendments to the Children Act 1989. The debate about how successful this act is being put into action is ongoing. Recently the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced a new independent review of children’s social care, in which the Drive Forward Policy Forum is eager to play an active part.  

Looking more closely at the conditions of care, the challenges as well as successes of the UK care system (in past or present) exceeds the purpose of this brief summary. Peter Higginbotham provides a lot of detail about the drawbacks and maladministration in many past care homes; for readers who are interested in finding out more about this, I strongly suggest to take a look at his book.  

Main sources 

  • Ben Quali, 2017. Book review About Us — Child Migrants Trust at Book Review (celcis.org)
  • Higginbotham, P. (2017). Children’s Homes: A History of Institutional Care for Britain’s Young. Casemate Publishers. 
  • Parker, Roy (2011) Adoption and Fostering, 35(3), pp.17-29. 


  • Children Act 1948 – full text (educationengland.org.uk) 
  • Children’s Homes: A history of institutional care for Britain’s young by Peter Higginbotham (churchtimes.co.uk)
  • Family Care History of Foster Care • Fostering Statistics • Family Care Group (family-care.co.uk) 
  • Fostering legislation in England | The Fostering Network 
  • Thirty years on, has the Children Act changed family life for the better? | Child protection | The Guardian  h

Care Experienced History Month 2021

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