'She appears a promising child': the role of the c19th orphanage in categorising young care leavers in terms of productive labour. A critical case study of Muller's new orphan homes' Dismissal Books 1830s-1890s

Brooks, K (2023) 'She appears a promising child': the role of the c19th orphanage in categorising young care leavers in terms of productive labour. A critical case study of Muller's new orphan homes' Dismissal Books 1830s-1890s. PhD thesis, Bath Spa University.

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This thesis uses Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) to address the ways in which an evangelical Christian orphanage evaluates the potential productivity of its young people. Plymouth Brethren founder George Muller’s nineteenth century orphan homes, Bristol, were in their day, ‘a wonder even in this age of wonders’, housing over 2,000 orphans in five large institutional buildings. Orphans left around age 14 (boys) and 18 (girls), generally destined to work in labouring jobs as apprentices or in the domestic sector as servants. Covering the latter half of the nineteenth century, the study focuses on the language present in the institution’s Dismissal Books. These were ledgers listing the leaving date and destination of each young person, categorising them as ‘recommendable’ or ‘unrecommendable’ for work. These archive materials have not been used in scholarly research before now, and are not generally available to the public. The findings discussed in this thesis thus focus on this hitherto untold story. I start by using CDA to extend the existing archigraphic approaches to archival analyses, in order to answer calls for more epistemological clarity in archival practice (Moore et al 2016). In doing so I make more transparent the process between archival retrieval, and the eventual, interpretive analysis of materials. My findings reveal that the orphans who were deemed ‘unrecommendable’ were either expelled, or deemed unable to or unfit for work, or were categorised as failing to reach the standard of the Muller institution. These young people were not always returned to family members as the conventional history of the institution states, but could be sent to the workhouse. I use CDA to map out the classifications of these unrecommendable orphans into discursive patterns and themes. I go on to identify how these themes link to wider, ideological discursive formations present in nineteenth century thinking. As the theoretical underpinning for this analysis, I draw on Guery and Deleule’s (1972/2014) concept of the ‘productive body’ in nineteenth century capitalism, as used by Foucault (1977), as the thesis’ theoretical framework. In doing so, this thesis also rectifies the current marginalisation of education in Foucauldian ideas around discipline and dividing practices. This study contributes to wider dialogue, about class, power and the working body in the nineteenth century. The concept of the productive body enables me to show how the institution, whilst exhorting its evangelical rhetoric, works along lines of capitalist efficiency. Whilst the orphans’ souls are saved and their ‘characters’ converted, made respectable, through the institution’s drive for social reform and evangelical conversion, their bodies are judged in terms of productivity. Whilst some are judged fit, reformed and refined, the unrecommendable are deemed ‘spoiled’ products, excluded and marginalised. I go on to argue that such categorisations are ideologically and discursively entwined with the racialised perspectives of imperialist administration, eugenicist rhetoric and pseudo-scientific themes, which operate as nineteenth century, normative common sense. I suggest that the discourses present in the Dismissal Books create norms which bind together those who are ‘normal’ and productive into an imagined community (Anderson 2006) , and portray the unrecommendable, unproductive orphan, as ‘polluted, dangerous, taboo’ (Hall, 1997, p.258). Thus in this thesis’ account of the history of institutionalised care, the orphans are not perceived as ‘rescued’, but are instead conceptualised as fragmented subjects (Guery and Deleule 2014). They are not all saved, but selected. The orphanage, in its role as mediating authority, discursively invites the orphan to accept this process of selectivity and judgement of their working potential as inevitable, factual and true. Their categorisation is ‘proved’ by both the expert scientific observation of their body’s potential productivity by the institution authorities, and by the institution’s assertion that this is ‘the way things are’, and ‘God’s will.’ The child returned to the workhouse is thus conceptualised as belonging there. In setting out this account of the Muller New Orphan Homes in this way, it is acknowledged that this research has not been undertaken in order to denounce or accuse Muller, but in order to understand the discursive processes of the institution’s categorisations. This thesis is not undermining the good of these ‘good works’. Rather, it is locating Muller – for the first time - in the complex social, economic and cultural contexts of nineteenth century Britain, and mapping out, discursively, the ‘messier mingling of good intentions and blinkered prejudices’ (Koven 2004, p.3) which informed such works, as demonstrated in the Dismissal Books. This thesis illustrates how using critical methods of analysis can be used to deconstruct archival materials. It defines the institution as conceptualising, managing and educating the young people in care within the dominant values and ideologies of the time. In doing this, my research enables us to move away from the ‘grand narrative’ of the individual, pioneering reformist in history, and instead trace more critical and contextualising paths through the largely hidden histories of welfare and care.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: critical discourse analysis, 19th century, Christian orphanages, George Muller, Plymouth Brethren, Bristol, labouring, domestic service, archival practice, workhouses, François Guéry, Didier Deleule, Michel Foucault, capitalism, education, class, evangelism, productivity, welfare
Divisions: School of Education
Identification Number: https://doi.org/10.17870/bathspa.00015281
Date Deposited: 01 Mar 2023 11:15
Last Modified: 10 Jan 2024 14:00
URI / Page ID: https://researchspace.bathspa.ac.uk/id/eprint/15281
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