standard Growing Up in an Orphanage: Tales of Personal Resilience

Professor David Divine who is pursuing doctoral studies at Durham University on the resilience of young people in a care setting, shares excerpts from his recent book, Aberlour Narratives of Success. While orphanages are usually portrayed grimly in popular media, David found through his ethnographic research, including interviews with former residents and staff at the Aberlour Orphanage, along with his own childhood experience there, that personal sense of resilience and community within these institutions allow young people to eventually lead successful lives as adults.

In the first of a series of posts on the subject of personal resilience, David shares an insider’s view of living in a residential care setting. 

I was admitted to Aberlour Orphanage at the age of 18 months from the residential nursery in Edinburgh, and entered Princess Margaret Nursery School in 1955. As I grew older I slowly realized that I had not been wanted in my original birth family and was ejected because of how I looked and never reclaimed. That still hurts and I am now in my late fifties. But I also grew to feel a strong belonging to Aberlour Orphanage and to the carers at the Orphanage, and particularly to Aunty Phylis, my Housemother at Spey House (one of the houses for boys at Aberlour Orphanage), where I stayed from leaving the Princess Margaret Nursery School until I left Aberlour at the age of 11 in 1964. I then entered foster care hundreds of miles south in a coal mining village, four miles outside Edinburgh.


Aberlour Orphanage 1875, from Arberlour Narratives of Success

Aberlour Orphanage was founded in 1875 during a period in the UK characterised by rapid increases in both population and poverty, resulting in wretched conditions for many children especially those living in slums of the cities. One of the responses to this was the growth of what became known as ‘Victorian Philanthropy’; essentially rich capitalists providing for the poor through charity. Children were seen to be in need of rescue from the desperate conditions in which they lived. The underlying philosophy was that they needed a whole new life, completely separated from the past. There was spontaneous and simultaneous growth across the UK of institutions — mainly located outside of cities — where children could be given a new start, free from the drudgery of their previous lives. The institutions provided a focal point for philanthropic giving as they developed a model, providing all of a child’s life requirements.

It is painful reflecting on my childhood and early adulthood, reminding myself that a large part of my early life was defined and shaped by the circumstances of my birth and my parents who disowned me at the age of three months, and abandoned me. I sometimes think how a baby could cause the parents such distress and anxiety that they can place their child outside the family with strangers and move on with their lives, without the child. No contact with the child. No cards on special occasions like birthdays, no presents at Christmas. Nothing. Such was my start in life in 1953.

Having a white single parent mother who already had two illegitimate white children to two different men, who was living in poor conditions and whose boyfriend at the time, my father, a black man, was in the American Air Force stationed in Scotland, was a tragedy waiting to happen in the early 1950s. Racism was rife, mixed relationships between white and black people were frowned upon and of course the effects of that settled upon the children of such unions. I came along and the wider family, my mother’s parents and the local community (which was small, everybody knew each other, and there was a strong religious element as well), could not cope with the shame of a visibly recognized illegitimate child and the only course open for mother and family at that time was to have the child removed from the home, so that things could return to ‘normality’.

Group of children from orphanage including David Divine (pictured right) and carer.

Group of children from orphanage including David Divine (pictured right) and carer, from Arberlour Narratives of Success

During my first 19 years of life, Aberlour Orphanage was the only ‘home’ I had and the only ‘family’. The Housemother of Spey House where I lived, Aunty Phylis, was the only mother I had and I saw her as such, as did all the other children in the House, some 28-29 of them. We did not have anybody else. Most children in the Orphanage did not have any direct contact with their birth families during their time at the Orphanage, and so we had to make do with what was available. We made friends, we sought out parental figures, we created our own families; we formed a life for ourselves. I felt loved there. I thought I belonged there. Of course there were unhappy periods particularly at Christmas and birthdays precisely because you were reminded that you were on your own, regardless of the wonderful efforts of the staff to make you feel part of something special. On occasions I remember thinking if only my mother would turn up at the Orphanage and say she was taking me home. I would not question her, I would gladly go and put behind me the loss, the pain, the tears, and follow her. Unfortunately my mother never turned up and life moved on. I was thirty years old when I met my mother again.

It is now 48 years since I left Aberlour Orphanage and I have had a very successful professional life since, covering three professions. I travel globally and have my home in Canada now. I am happily married and have three wonderful children, the eldest of whom was married in the autumn of 2012. On reflecting back to my own childhood at Aberlour Orphanage, I am reminded of what I owe to that institution and to the care and support staff, my only home and family as a child and young person growing up. It gave me a belief that I was loved, simply for being me — that I did belong there — that I was valued, wanted and respected. Such a sense of security and seeming permanence helped me later in life to withstand the trials and tribulations of life, and overcome them and thrive.

Copyright 2013 David Divine. First published in 2013 by the School of Applied Social Sciences, Durham University, Elvet Riverside 2, Durham, DH1 3JT, UK. Not to be reproduced without permission. David’s PhD research is supervised by sociologist and social worker Professor Lena Dominelli.

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