Guy Oates (1905 – 1987): Life and Labour – Part Eight

On the 7th July 1948, Poor Law ceased, having been revoked by parliament. Out went public assistance institutions and hospitals, these now become homes for the aged and infirm, or become hospitals under the National Health Service’

(Oates, 7:38).

Social Welfare Committee Children’s Homes, Nottingham 1945 – 1962

Photograph of staff and some children on ‘The official opening’ day in 1948 (7:89).

The move from Ormskirk to Nottingham signified huge change in Guys life, when at the age of 40, he decided to take his career in a different direction, and in 1945, Guy and Doris become the Superintendent and Matron, of the Social Welfare Committee Children’s Home in Nottingham. For the first three years of Guy’s time here, the children’s home remained governed by the Poor Law, but on the 7th July 1948, ‘the Law was revoked (. . .) and in its place, came the new Children’s Act’ (7:12), which fell under the jurisdiction of the Home Office. Similarly, the Poor Law had become the New Health Act, and ‘incorporated all the new hospital health scheme’ (7:12), and when the change came into force, Guy and Doris were 43 years of age and had ‘just 17 years’ before they could retire. Like all the other Masters and Matrons in the Poor Law institute, Guy and Doris had to undergo assessments, which were carried out by the Ministry of Health, to ensure that they were suitable to work within the new system. During this, a comprehensive file was put together, documenting every position they had held, any qualifications they possessed, and any letters of recommendation. 

A letter informing Guy and Doris of the end of the Poor Law (7:91).
‘To Lord Mayor, and this is from the man, who as chairman of my committee when we first went Nottingham swore to me, and I swore back, from that day stood by me and supported me, which he did.’

The Children’s Home

The accommodation for resident staff was situated in the ‘main administrative building of the central homes, at Hartley Road’ (7:12), in Radford. Here, Guy and Doris’s living quarters were much smaller than their previous dwellings, which during the later years of their career, had been generously sized. However, in Nottingham, they were only permitted the use of four rooms, ‘a dining room, lounge, and two bedrooms’ (7:12). The rooms were small and basic, and Guy thought that the living conditions were ‘a retrograde step’ (7:12). Located within the same grounds as the staff accommodation, there were four additional homes, which included, ‘a boy’s home of 22, a girl’s home of 14, a nursery for 22 children under 5, and a receiving home for 30’ (7:12). Collectively, the site could provide accommodation for 88 children, and in addition to this, Guy and Doris were responsible for five ‘scattered homes (. . .) and two nurseries’ (7:12), which the committee had failed to mention during the interview. Guy felt that they had been ‘tricked’ (7:13) into taking the job, and the committee had been unfair by doing this, ‘but there was little anyone could do about it now’ (7:13). Consequently, Guy and Doris continued to be responsible for the scattered homes and nurseries, which could hold ‘over two hundred children’ (7:13), and together, this meant that they could have almost 300 children in their care. Having applied for a position which cared for 88 children, this must have come as a shock to Guy and Doris.

Due to the numerous buildings, the site of the central homes provided little space for children to play, and Guy was concerned about what the children would miss out on by not being able to engage with one another through play. He understood the importance of this, as ‘all [his] life from a mere child to an old man, [he had] laid a lot of stress on play’ he insisted that it was ‘an essential part of everyone’s life’ (7:22), and he would like to be able to encourage all the children to partake in it. The small space that was available, was restricted further by the presence of a ‘high wooden fence’ (7:22), which ran between the boy’s and the girl’s homes. On many occasions, Guy witnessed children trying to interact and play with one another, by leaning up against the fence, which sadly, made them look as if they were ‘caged animals’ (7:22). Annoyed by this, Guy declared that ‘something had to be done’ (7:22), and he approached Mr Hawthorn and the chairman, Mr Braddock’ (7:22), and requested that the area ‘be opened up [to] give everyone more space’ (7:22), and enable the children to run, play and ‘be allowed to mix’ (7:22). The two men discussed the idea and the potential risks, and when considering some of the children’s ‘ages and what could happen’ (7:22), they asked if Guy had thought about this. Of course, he ‘had given this a lot of thought and [his] wife and [him], were prepared to put [their] position at stake, and assured [the men] that nothing untoward would happen’ (7:22). Eventually, Mr Braddock gave permission to ‘take the fence down’ and assured Guy that he would ‘explain [the decision] to the committee’ (7:22), who went to ‘the grounds to see for themselves the difference. Many were surprised to see the boys and girls running about playing, some of them saying, “why didn’t we think of this”’ (7:22). This is another brilliant example of the type of man Guy was, and it demonstrates the skills and qualities which helped him to be successful in the Poor Law, and evidently, the new systems which followed it. 

Summer Camp – 1961 (7:39).
Day out – 1950 (7:39).

Foster Mothers

In his role as Superintendent, Guy was required to provide guidance and advice to children’s homes and foster mothers, via a detailed report, which was given to the committee to consider. Unsurprisingly, Guy provided a comprehensive report which included a range of rules, suggestions, and advice (he does like to explain things thoroughly), which would help the children’s homes to run smoothly. The full account of this is too big to include in this post, but, some of the suggestions can be seen below.

  • Foster mothers will be expected to manage the homes in the same manner as if the children entrusted to their care, were members of their own family. 
  • Foster mothers are PERSONALLY responsible for the cleaning of the home, cooking and mending of children’s garments and laundry. 
  • VISITOR BOOK: Which shall show the name of every visitor, and the time of entry and departure, and the object of their absence. 
  • To arrange meals in accordance with the maximum scale as allowed by the committee. They must eat with the children, breakfast and dinner, no separate diet for the foster mother.
  • On Sundays, children are to go to Sunday school.
  • Foster mothers are allowed one day off duty each week, from 9:30am to 9:30pm, and every fifth Sunday from 10am to 9:30pm.
  • Allow ministers of religion to visit the children.
  • No other visitors. 


The guidelines above provide a small insight into the expected behaviours of foster mothers, and their treatment of children, and while I am certain that Guy remained professional when composing this, I can’t help but wonder if his own experiences influenced his advice. The mealtime rules suggest that they may have, given that they attempt to prevent food shortages and lack of adult supervision during mealtimes (two of the biggest issues Guy faced at school).

‘Children @ Buchwood Home’ (7:40).

In response to Guy’s report, the committee held a meeting to discuss the suggestions put forward, and with some support from the chairman, they agreed to implement ‘most of what [he] had asked for with regards to staff appointments’ (7:34). Alongside this, many of the other suggestions and rules were approved, and Guy says that because of this, ‘the house parents were full of praise for Doris and [him] and they were very pleased something was being done to help their lot’ (7:34). Once the new staffing systems were put in place, ‘there was a much happier feeling’ (7:34), amongst the house parents, who felt that someone understood [their] difficulties and had [their] interests at heart’ (7:34). Sadly, despite Guy’s efforts, some issues continued, and his report was unable to ‘end all of [their] worries’ (7:34), but nevertheless, he helped to implement many crucial changes which improved the system.

Still Learning

If you have read Guy’s Education and Schooling posts, you will know that he did not enjoy being in the classroom environment, and avoided it where possible. However, six years before Guy and Doris’s retirement, the Home Office decided that all Superintendents and Matrons must attend a selection of ‘courses in childcare’ (7:74). The courses, which lasted for two weeks, were held at a variety of ‘large mansions, standing in their own grounds’ (7:74), and during their stay, Guy and Doris were expected to attend all lectures. However, upon receiving his invitation, Guy’s mind instantly focused on his lack of education, and he refused to attend, knowing that he ‘would be most uncomfortable and unhappy trying to keep up (. . .) with academics in children’s work’ (7:74). However, the children’s officer and the committee, insisted that Guy attended all courses, and ‘more or less pushed [him] into going’ (7:74), and with no other choice, Guy accepted his invitation.

Despite being held in Surrey, in a ‘beautiful house in lovely grounds’ (7:75), Guy was unable to relax and enjoy himself during the two week stay. Being the oldest there, and the only married couple, Guy felt out of place straight away, and reverting to his old ways, he became ‘a bit of a rebel’ (7:75). He continuously insisted that it ‘was too late to try and teach [him] now (. . .) [he] had been a senior official for over twenty years in Poor Law, [he] could not be expected to start, at [his] age, to learn all about the new Children’s Act’ (7:75). Nevertheless, he attended the lectures and feigned a level of interest, ‘but [he] didn’t care a damn’ (7:75) for learning. Fortunately (for Guy), during a break, he attempted to make conversation with one of the younger men, and he quickly discovered that they both enjoyed playing cricket. In an instant, Guy was heading to his car to fetch his ‘bat and two of [his] string balls’ and ‘about 5 of [the men] started having a knock up’ (7:75). Unsurprisingly, the rest of Guy’s trip was spent either playing cricket, or waiting for lectures to end, so that he could play more cricket, and although he insists that it was a waste of time, and he ‘learned nothing’ (7:75), he continued attending the courses. 


In 1959, The Nottingham Superannuation Act was passed in parliament, and the government ‘realised that children need an awful lot of personal attention, and to be with children, you must be young yourself’ (7:82). After this, Guy and Doris began to think about retirement, and although Doris was ‘more fed up with the job than [Guy] (. . .) she agreed to carry on [until Guy had worked for 40 years], realising it would give [them] another three years towards [their] retirement’ (7:82). During this time, they made plans to move to Leighton Buzzard, so they could be closer to their daughter Marion, who had recently moved to Aylesbury, following her marriage to ‘Roger D Owen, a qualified dentist’ (7:83). With their retirement planned, they continued to work, and when the three years were up, on the 30thMarch 1962, Guy and Doris retired. It seems that the only fitting way to truly appreciate Guy’s career, is to do so through his own words: 

The 30thJune 1962 arrived, my career such as it had been was ended. I had worked continuously for over forty years with only about six weeks off in all for sickness. During all this time, I had seen much poverty, sadness, filth, and people living in deplorable conditions. I had lived among and dealt with men, who in many cases, were the scum of the earth. I had seen what could happen to children brought up by parents who were never fit and should never have been allowed to breed, the child being forcibly taken from them and the misery and unhappiness that child, or children, suffered (. . .) as with all children who passed through my hands, if any one, be he small or big, has in anyway benefitted or improved by knowing me, then my life has not been in vain.I have seen much sickness, but perhaps worst of all, the separating of husband and wife, who after living happily together for thirty, forty, or more years were parted on entering the workhouse, simply because the committees responsible had not gone to the expense of providing married quarters. I had met one doctor and one professor who had fallen so low as to end their days in the workhouse. In all it had been a life mainly of seeing other people’s troubles and sorrows. Fortunately for me, I was born of a happy nature and could always get a smile out of others, and do a good turn now and again.  

‘”Mill Farm” Hoveringham. Guy and Doris brought some of the children here for a holiday. It was a ‘place of happy memories and wonderful people. 1945- 1962’ (7:85).

Thank you, Guy Oates! It was a pleasure to write about you and your wonderful life – Sarah and Tasha.

‘My greatest treasure’ (7:98).
Guy and his daughter Marion.

If you have enjoyed reading about Guy’s life, you may like to explore the full collection of Guy Oates Posts.

If you would like to read some of our fellow Writing Lives students blogs, then look no further! Here are some of the posts Tasha and I enjoyed for this particular theme:

Joel O’Toole: blog post focuses on Olga Pyne Clarke. Olga knew how to use her strengths correctly as she always used her knowledge of horses to find work. Jenny Dalton’s author Rosa Bell was a true working-class lady, who had numerous jobs throughout her life, but most importantly she was a writer.

Rosa Pocknell’s post on Maud Clarke shows the various roles of a work-class woman although her jobs were mostly domestic she was also able to earn her own salary.


Oates, Guy. The Years That Are Gone.Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, Vol. 7. 

Further Reading:
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363. 
Rogers, Helen and Emily Cuming, ‘Revealing Fragments: Close and Distant reading of Working-Class Autobiography’, Family & Community History, 21:3 (2019): 180-201.
Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 1 (1992): 47- 70. 
Savage, Mike. Social Class in the 21st Century. London: Penguin, 2015.
Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247. 

Barringer, Tim J. Men at Work:  Art and Labour in Victorian Britain.  New Haven CT: Yale UP, 2005. 
Burnett, John ed. Useful Toil: Autobiographies of Working People from the 1820s to the 1920s London: Routledge, 1994.
Fowler, Simon. The People, The Places,  The Life  Behind Doors. Barnsley: Pen and Sword Books, 2014. 
Longmate, Norman. The Workhouse. London: Temple Smith, 1974.
Savage, Mike. Identities and Social Change in Britain Since 1940:  The Politics of Method. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011.

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