District schools and the erosion of parental rights under the Poor Law: a case study from London 1889-1899

Rachel Pimm-Smith

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This article investigates the empirical backing for the claim that poor law officials needed legal authority to refuse poor parents’ right to the custody of their children in order to stabilise children’s welfare institutions during the nineteenth century. Although workhouses were capable of accommodating children, Victorian lawmakers feared children would model themselves on adult paupers to become permanent burdens on the state. To tackle this problem, a system of children’s welfare institutions called ‘district schools’ was introduced to train children to become industrious adult labourers. Children were usually classified as orphans or deserted so they could be sent to district schools without fear of family intervention. However, children with ambiguous parental circumstances were labelled as ‘other’ and considered a problematic class because they were perceived to be at risk of having on-going contact with their birth families. Lawmakers feared parents of ‘other’ children would undermine reformation efforts by asserting their custody rights and passed the first laws in English history to allow the state to restrict parental rights on this basis. This article explores the claim of unwanted parental involvement, and in doing so, seeks to contextualise the origins of public law interference in the family sphere within a narrative of imposed citizenship rather than protection.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)401-423
Number of pages23
JournalContinuity and Change
Issue number3
Early online date2 Dec 2019
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2 Dec 2019


  • Poor Law, child protection, parental rights, child welfare

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