The Boarding Out System: Foster Parents in the 1800s

The boarding out system involved orphans and deserted children being placed with foster parents. It was first established in 1868, but the idea of boarding out occurred in earlier times when some guardians did it of their own volition. Boarding out was essentially British welfare that allowed local authorities to place a child in a foster family or voluntary establishment and pay for the child’s care.

boarding out system - cover to one pamphlet

Cover to one pamphlet that showed the correspondence between the guardians of the Whitechapel union and the local government board for the boarding out of pauper children in 1870. Public domain.

Because boarding out seemed like baby-farming there was sometimes confusion between the two. Philanthropist Florence Davenport Hill, who was the younger sister of Rosamond Davenport Hill, embraced and promoted the idea of boarding out in England. Florence elucidated the differences in a paper she presented before the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science in 1869. She noted of baby farming and boarding out:

“The former plan crowds many infants under the care of a single nurse. Boarding-out places one infant in the care of one foster-mother. Boarding out seeks before all things to preserve life. Baby farming rarely cares to save – often it actually desires to destroy … Baby-farming assembles many infants under one roof … Boarding out distributes them singly in families … Baby-farming is undertaken for the sake of profit alone. In boarding-out, the foster-parent is invited to share in a benevolent action; profit, if considered at all, is a minor object, and the payment offered is so regulated as to prevent the children being taken as a source of gain. Baby-farming strives for all possible secrecy. Boarding-out challenges the utmost publicity. Baby-farming is in the hands of those whose character is rarely even doubtful – often abominable. Boarding out is entrusted to those alone whose characters are above suspicion. Baby-farming withdraws itself from inspection. Boarding-out involves, as an essential feature, close and constant supervision.”[1]

Florence Hill’s sister. Rosamond. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The “Boards of Guardians” were responsible for the poor in Wales and England and were composed of ad hoc authorities who administered the Poor Law in the United Kingdom between 1835 and 1930. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 created the boards to replace parish overseers of the poor. Boards of Guardians also administered workhouses either by order of the Poor Law Commission or by the common consent of the parishes. In addition, each board was composed of guardians elected annually.

England’s interest in the boarding out system first started around 1845, but the idea of boarding out was established in Scotland long before that time. Although the Boards of Guardians were responsible for the poor and for workhouses, the origins of boarding out in England appears to have started with concerned women worried about children being placed in workhouses:

“Thousands upon thousands of young lives, compelled to worse than uselessness by the work house schools, had fallen in the struggle for existence before Mrs. Mary Carpenter and Louisa Twining and others convinced the Boards of Guardians that instead of bringing up the children in the workhouse they should be settled in real homes, and that the ancient custom of fosterage should be revived for the benefit of the fatherless and destitute.

Mrs. Archer of Swindon … thirty years ago, first began the plan by finding a home for destitute little girls in the cottage with two elderly women. She was the wife of a chairman of the Board of Guardians of Swindon, and by her husband’s help she succeeded in inducing the board to take up the scheme. Colonel Grant, of Bath, discovering in 1868 what good work Mrs. Archer’s system was doing, published a pamphlet on the advantages of the boarding-out system, and secured its option by his own board. Several other boards followed the example of Swindon and Bath. In 1870 the Local Government Board drew up regulations on the subject of boarding-out.”[2]

By the early nineteenth century, the problem of abandoned or orphaned children in urban areas, especially London, reached alarming proportions. The workhouse system had been instituted in 1834 to house orphans as well as other vulnerable people in society who could not support themselves in exchange for work. But it was a brutal environment where vulnerable orphans and abandoned children, lived and worked alongside the mentally ill, physically disabled, unmarried mothers, and the elderly.

“The Boys’ Workhouse, Helsinki,” by Albert Edelfelt 1885. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

To help with orphans, orphanages had been established in the late 1700s. However, young children were generally “boarded out” in rural areas and girls over fourteen years old sent to industrial training homes. Boys between the ages of thirteen and seventeen were trained for various occupations for which it was determined they were mentally and physically fit. Moreover, conditions in orphanages were sometimes as bad as workhouses. Charles Dickens was aware of the problems related to orphans and poor children. He consequently became involved in Victorian era Ragged Schools and used the distress of orphans and abandoned children in his novels to focus on their plight realizing that such stories would have a greater impact than any pamphlet he could write.

Another problem related to orphaned or abandoned children was that adoption was not a feasible alternative in the 1800s. There was no legal status for it in England and Wales until 1926 as that is when the first act was passed which regulated adoption and resulted in similar legislation being approved in Northern Ireland and Scotland. Prior to that time, adoption was an informal and secretive process that gave adoptive parents absolutely no rights. This meant biological parents had the upper hand. They could remove their child from an adoptive parent at any time based on any whim even if they had not seen or supported the child for years.

When the idea for boarding out was suggested, not everyone saw it as a feasible alternative to workhouses or orphanages. One person designated as “your humble servant” wrote to the editor of the Ulverston Advertiser questioning whether it was good practice to board out children in the late 1800s:

“Sir – The question of boarding out of pauper children is one beset with many difficulties, and the first consideration of the Guardians should be, What class of the population are likely to receive the children into their homes, and what are the reasons which will induce them to be so received? Secondly, Can the Guardians institute such a system of continuous and regular inspection as will guard against the children being ill-treated, and also guarantee that they are provided with sufficient food. Unless they can satisfactorily answer these questions, the responsibility of sending the children out is great. For my own part, looking abroad at the way in which many of the children of the poorer classes in the town are brought up, looking at the pitch-and-toss Sabbath desecration which may be weekly seen on the outskirts of the town, and listening as you pass by to the horrible blasphemies and ribald language indulged in by mere boys, I am inclined to think that the children will be more likely to become good men and women when reared in the house than if they were subjected to the tender mercies of outsiders, who would have no interest either in their spiritual or worldly welfare beyond the weekly money payment for their maintenance. In a country village the case is widely different; and even in Ulverston, if the Guardians can ensure that the children are entrusted to religious and respectable men, then the system might be tried, but not unless they can so assure themselves. There is only one valid objection (or rather there ought to be only one) against children being reared in the Workhouse, and that is that the taint of pauperism follows them and often obstructs their future prospects. With regard to cancelled indentures, inability on the girls’ part to do domestic work, these are, or ought to be readily answered. To the first I would reply that we only hear of apprentices who have disagreed with their masters, and we also frequently hear of similar cases out of the Workhouse pale. We do not hear of the many who give good service, and who advance themselves in life, and who become estimable members of society. For why? Because such do not like it to be known that they were reared in the workhouse. Lastly, if the Workhouse is properly managed, surely there is work enough in it to teach the girls the rudiments of house work, and they ought to be there better instructed for service than when brought up in a cottage, where the polite amenities of social life are surely seen or practiced. Regarding education, I held that the Workhouse children have better facilities, from their smaller numbers, than have the pupils of public schools. These are reasons which ought to weigh with the Guardians before deciding on the course to pursue, and will, I trust, plead my apology for troubling you on the matter.”[3]

boarding out system - children at Crumpsall Workhouse

Children at the Crumpsall Workhouse 1895. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite critics, there were many English proponents who supported a boarding out system. Part of the reason they supported it was because Scotland had been boarding out children for years with great success. Their successes were promoted in numerous books and pamphlets published in the 1860s and 1870s touting its benefits. One person who found boarding out beneficial was the chairman of the Edinburgh’s Parochial Board, Bailie Skinner. He wrote favorably on the system stating:

“I have great pleasure in stating my opinion as to the beneficial effect on the pauper children of the system adopted by the City of Edinburgh Parochial Board of boarding them out in families in the country. I can only speak from personal experience … and have been exceedingly gratified to see the excellent way in which they were kept and taught, and the affection which existed between the children and the parties having the care of them. In almost every case the children appear to accept the nurses in room of the parents they have lost, as their own. I recollect on my first visit to the children, on calling at one of the houses, a fine-looking well-dressed young man was seated at the fire; and on asking the nurse as to the children’s welfare, after answering, she added, referring to the young man, ‘that this was one of them too.’ He looked on her as his mother, and had made her home his home; and I understand this is a common occurrence. The children boarded out acquire a real family affection … and in after life ever revert to family their houses as their home, and in trials or sickness seek for the advice and comfort. Such never can be the case with children brought up in the poorhouse, for there is no house to turn to unless as a pauper, and no friend to counsel and advise.”[4]

One Edinburgh counselor noted the success he had witnessed with children who were boarded out since 1845. The governor of the prison of Edinburgh, a Mr. Smith, also favored a boarding out system for pauper children citing it as being “entirely successful” over the last twenty-five years and noting that it was “physically and morally” advantageous to the children who enjoyed it. There was also a Bailie Lewis of Edinburgh who lauded boarding out’s success and remarked:

“I am not aware of a case where one of these children sent out young enough came back upon the workhouse … Of 192 whose names were removed from the roll of children boarded out by the City Parish from 1866 to 1868, 5 are reported as having died, 64 boys apprenticed to tradesmen, 72 girls sent to service, and 51 taken off the roll to be brought up by friends. As giving considerable attention to the causes of pauperism and how to deal with them, extending over a period of nearly twenty years, the system of boarding out those unfortunate children appears to my mind as the only green spot in connection with our pauper institutions.”[5]

The chief reporter of the Edinburgh Courant, William Anderson, hoped to sway the English to adopt a boarding out system and became involved after being contacted by influential people that included the philanthropist Florence. She and others interested in spreading the word requested that Anderson republish articles on boarding out to help educate the public and to generate interest in England. Agreeing to do so, Anderson also began to inquire and learn about the boarding out system in Scotland. Although he found some minor problems, he noted in 1871 that philanthropists had done well in trying to provide remedies and argued that workhouses, ragged schools, and reformatories would be completely unnecessary if countries would embrace boarding out. He then further stated:

“The difference in the mode of working would be this, that the evil would be nipped in the bud, instead of having to be afterwards dealt with by more expensive machinery and with less hope of success. Some may consider this to be too sanguine a view of the effects of the boarding-out system; but it is a plan for rescuing children which is not simply theoretical; it is practical, and, so far, has been proved to be thoroughly efficacious. There can be no mistake about its beneficent operations, for the results — real, tangible results — are before us. … One of the most striking facts which can be adduced in favour of boarding … is this, that during the last eighteen months there has not been a single death among the 320 under the care of the Edinburgh city parochial authorities. … The fact that England is borrowing the system from Scotland ought to make us all the more careful that the model presented to our neighbours shall be a good one.”[6]

One of the reasons for success with the boarding out system was that it regulated. Therefore, foster parents and guardians followed a certain set of guidelines that could include such rules as the following:

  • No child could be boarded out earlier than age two.
  • No child could be boarded out without a certificate stating the “particulars” of the child’s health.
  • No child could be boarded out unless his or she was orphan or had been deserted by his or her parents.
  • Foster parents had to be of the same religion as the boarded out child.
  • Foster parents agreed to consider the child as if he or she was their own biological child. This meant they agreed to provide proper food, lodging, medical care and agreed to train the child “in habits of truthfulness, obedience, personal cleanliness, and industry.”[7]
  • No payment was to exceed four shillings a week for the child’s maintenance.
  • No child was to be boarded out farther than five miles from the residence of one of the guardians.
  • Every boarded-out child was to be visited not less than once every six weeks by one of the guardians.


boardig out system - clothing requirements

Outfits needed and considered acceptable for boarded out children that were listed in “A Practical Guide to the Boarding-out System for Pauper Children” printed in 1870 . Public domain.

As the English began to embrace a boarding out system it gained greater momentum and more Englishmen began to support the idea. One supporter was a M.L. Formby of Wolborough, who attended the Newton Board of Guardians in 1894. He noted that boarding out allowed foster parents to provide favorable conditions for children to be brought up in and that such children profited from a loving home environment. He also noted that children in the boarding out system could enjoy a hopeful future as there were many kind people willing to take a “deep interest” and assist the Boards of Guardians in their attempts to place children in loving homes.

Formby alleged that there were serious problems when children were placed in workhouses and he saw boarding out as the solution. He saw workhouses as a way for an innocent child to “pick up” evil. Formby claimed children constantly heard and saw degrading things in the workhouse environment. He also noted that even schoolmasters reported they were unable to overcome the “pernicious evils” children acquired from a workhouse environment because a child’s “natural development” automatically sank to low levels when sentenced to what Formby termed “prison life.” He therefore suggested that boarding out was the only thing that would save children from such destruction, and further remarked:

“The younger we can hand our children to foster parents the better; they get to love the children as their own, and very often adopt them altogether. Home, sweet Home, is the strongest natural feeling, and none is more valued in manhood than the love of home and its early associations; the careful selection of good foster parents gives to the poor and deserved child family life under the most favourable conditions. … The great principle is — take the children away from the Workhouse, do not let them know where the Workhouse is, blot out the stain of pauperism from their young minds, put them on an equality with other children and they will have a hopeful future, separated from evil associations in the Workhouse. We all know … no association can possibly be worse for children than some of these inmates.”[8]


  • [1] Votes & Proceedings, v. 5 v. 6 (Sydney: New South Wales. Parliament. Legislative Council, 1874), p. 44.
  • [2] W. T. Stead, The Review of Reviews v. 7 (London: Office of the Review of Reviews, 1893), p. 561.
  • [3] Soulby’s Ulverston Advertiser and General Intelligencer, “Boarding Out Pauper Children,” February 18, 1875, p. 7.
  • [4] W. Anderson, Children rescued from Pauperism: Or the boarding-out system in Scotland (Edinburgh: J. Menzies & Company, 1871), p. 107.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 111.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 117–18.
  • [7] Boarding out Pauper Children. A reprint of the Memorial of Ladies and subsequent Orders, Observations, and Forms issued by the Poor Law Board. To which is appended Suggestions by a Lady Miss A. Preusser (London: Simpkin, Marshall & Company, 1872), p. 4.
  • [8] East & South Devon Advertiser, “Newton Board of Guardians,” January 13, 1894, p. 5.

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