Ancestry UK

Boarding Out

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Boarding out was the practice of placing workhouse children in the long-term care of foster parents who usually received a weekly allowance for each child staying with them. The system, which is usually said to have originated in Scotland, was seen as the nearest approximation to a 'normal' home life that could be provided by a union, and was also financially economical.

Boarding-out first came under official consideration by the central Poor Law Board in 1868. Up until then, the Board had been informally opposed to the system since it handed over the control of children to whose main aim would be to make a profit from the weekly maintenance payments. Fears of possible neglect, cruelty or exploitation of boarded-out children made the Board extremely cautious about sanctioning its use. In 1869, the Board asked its inspectors to report on the use of boarding-out in England and Wales. It was discovered that only twenty-one unions in England and Wales used boarding-out, covering a total of 347 children, generally with good results. One union, Warminster, had successfully used boarding-out for more than twenty years. The Board also commissioned a report from one of their inspectors, Mr Henley, on the operation of boarding-out in Scotland. Henley noted some particular attributes of the Scots — their generally good level of education, and the existence of a class of crofters or small occupiers (a class relatively unknown in England) who proved to be good foster parents.

The Board agreed to a wider trial of boarding out and in 1870 issued a formal framework for boarding-out in the form of the Boarding-out Order (1870). The Order specified that:

  • A Boarding-out Committee be formed in each union to supervise the boarding-out arrangements — Committees were to have at least three members at least one of which was to be female
  • Only orphans and deserted children to be boarded out
  • Only children aged between two and ten to be boarded out
  • No more than two children to be boarded out in the same home unless brothers and sisters
  • No child to be boarded out with foster parents of a different religious persuasion
  • Foster parents to sign an undertaking agreeing to "bring up the child as one of their own children, and provide it with proper food, lodging, and washing, and endeavour to train it in habits of truthfulness, obedience, personal cleanliness, and industry, as well as suitable domestic and outdoor work"
  • Weekly maintenance fee not to exceed four shillings a week
  • No child to be boarded out in a home more than a mile-and-a-half form a suitable school
  • No child to be boarded out in a home more than five miles from the residence of a Boarding-out Committee member

A revised order in 1877 prohibited the boarding-out of children with foster parents who were themselves in receipt of poor relief. Further orders were in 1889 which also provided for the boarding-out of children outside their own union. In 1885, the Local Government Board appointed a lady Inspector, Miss MH Mason, who along with two female colleagues regularly visited the thousand or so children boarded-out beyond their own union.

By the end of the nineteenth century, around half unions in England and Wales were using boarding out, with around 8,000 orphaned or deserted children placed in homes. Although occasional cases of ill-treatment emerged, these were far outweighed by stories of children filled with dread at the possibility of being taken away from their foster homes. Although boarding-out established itself one of the most popular ways of dealing with children in the care of a union, it rarely proved possible to find enough families willing to take on the role. It was also only suitable for children in long-term care — for the many children came and went more quickly, scattered homes were a more suitable solution.

As well as boarding out with a family, from 1862 Boards of Guardians could board out children at establishments known as Certified Schools.


  • Chance, W (1897) Children Under The Poor Law London: Swann Sonnenschein.

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