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Children's Experiences

Ellen Frances Comfort (Case file 4993)

Ellen Comfort entered the protection of The Waifs and Strays Society in October 1895 (as The Children's Society was known in the Victorian and Edwardian eras - called The Society throughout this case summary). She was 13 years old, an orphan and disabled on account of impairment to her hip.

Her father died before she was two years of age and her mother, who remarried, died in early 1894. Both of her parents died of consumption (tuberculosis). There is little information regarding Ellen's stepfather, but it would seem that he was either unable or unwilling to look after her. We do know, however, that he and Ellen's mother did have a son whom, presumably, he was able to care for. Consequently, in the period before she was admitted to the St Nicholas Home for Crippled Children at Byfleet, Surrey, Ellen was a resident of the Dorking Poor Law Union Workhouse.

A significant amount of the case file is made up of correspondence between the Poor Law Guardians of the Dorking Union and The Society in the period prior to Ellen's admission. The Guardians were determined to assist Ellen and viewed The Society as the best opportunity for overseeing her care and providing her with the opportunity to train for a livelihood. Shortly before Ellen entered the St Nicholas Home, Miss Edith Corderoy, writing on behalf of the Guardians was "anxious she should be in the Home before our workhouse fills up with people who have been in the hop fields and with other inmates who may not be desirable companions." A fellow Guardian - a Dr W. Batson - commenting that Ellen could not walk without crutches added, "she is, however, a very bright and intelligent child and exceedingly active, and I have no doubt that there would be no difficulty in easily teaching her to earn her own living." The Poor Law Guardians assured The Society that they were happy to provide financial support for Ellen.

Little is known about Ellen's time at the St Nicholas Home prior to her transfer to St Chad's Home, Far Headingley, Leeds, four years later. The small amount of information that is available however, suggests that Ellen was not, perhaps, in the best of health. In 1897, for example, it is known the Ellen spent an unspecified period in a convalescent home in Swanley, Kent, prior to being admitted to St Thomas' Hospital, London, for an operation. There are no details in connection with Ellen's medical condition other than a comment that "she is doing well."

In November 1899, when Ellen was 17 years old, she was transferred to St Chad's Home, Leeds. She spent almost two and a half years at St Chad's and, whilst it would appear that Ellen was provided with the opportunity to learn skills and hopefully provide for herself in the future, her health continued to decline. In November 1901, the Home's medical officer wrote that she was unfit for the work undertaken at St Chad's, though he added, "she would however be able to follow a lighter employment such as dressmaking." Shortly before this, Colonel Beresford Peirse, writing on behalf of St Chad's, informed The Society's Secretary, Edward Rudolf, that "it hurts her side to knit at the machine." He added that "she is a painstaking nice girl, and has a good influence and is a good needlewoman." Consequently, The Society sought ways to remove Ellen from St Chad's and find a home better suited to her capabilities.

In April 1902, shortly after Ellen's 20th birthday, she moved to St Agnes' Home in Croydon. Supporting her transfer, Edward Rudolf had written to the matron of the home stating that Ellen "was a good needlewoman and of good character," but "not sufficiently robust to stand the cold weather of the North." At the same time, Mr Rudolf also wrote to the Clerk of the Dorking Poor Law Union, and commented that "owing to her delicate state of health, she is unable to be trained in the knitting industry carried on at St Chad's."

Throughout the period Ellen spent at St Agnes' Home, efforts were made to find a means for Ellen to support herself. She became proficient at basketwork, for example, though it was understood that this in itself would not be sufficient for her to earn a living. However, while both The Society and the Guardians of the Dorking Union sought a means for securing Ellen's future, her health continued to decline. In April 1904, Ellen attended Croydon Hospital "for some time" for a condition with her eyes. Miss Warton, Honorary Secretary of St Agnes' wrote to Edward Rudolf informing him that Ellen "can see to do very little and there is no chance at present of us getting her out."

By the following February, Ellen's general condition had worsened. An appointed medical officer, Arthur Carpenter, wrote to Mr Rudolf informing him that Ellen suffered repeated ulcers of the cornea that impaired her vision. He also remarked upon the condition to her hip causing occasional attacks of pain and discomfort, and that her digestion required a special diet. A few short months later Ellen was gravely ill. On 29 June 1905, we learn that Ellen is seriously ill with tuberculosis and that she is in isolation. Three days later, on the 2nd of July, Ellen Comfort died in St Agnes' Home of tuberculosis. She was 23 years old.

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