Posted: 22 August 2013

Before we existed: The founding of The Children's Society

a pencil drawing of St Anne's Church in south Lambeth

In 1880 a young civil servant in south London was troubled when two young brothers missed lessons at his south London Sunday school. The man, Edward Rudolf, went looking for the boys. He soon found them begging on the streets.

As Rudolf told the story:'There they were, however, discovered in a very neglected condition begging surplus food from the workers at a neighbouring gasworks. It appeared that their father – a decent man – had died, and the widow, who had seven children, declined to sacrifice her independence by going into the workhouse, so the boys had to fend for themselves as best they could.'

There was no social security in Victorian times, which meant that if a family faced dire financial circumstances. They were often dependant on relations for support, lived in extreme hardship or they were condemned to the local workhouse. Overcrowded and offering only minimal assistance, families placed in workhouses were often separated.

The young boys' family faced this situation.

Edward Rudolf'We had very little to live on'

Edward Rudolf was a remarkable man. His life's work stands as testimony to a man dedicated to helping children and young people.

Born in Lambeth, south London, in April 1852, his desire to help children may have stemmed from his own childhood. Due to his father's failing eyesight, Rudolf went to work in 1865 as an office boy in a Blackfriars business house in London, becoming his family's main wage earner at a young age, earning five shillings a week. 

As Rudolf wrote:'As I grew older and my father feebler, I began to realise that we had very little to live on. I was nearly thirteen and longed to earn something, so watched the advertisements in the local paper. I saw one requiring an office-boy in a Blackfriars business house and lost no time in applying. I was successful and felt proud and grateful that I had commenced my working life.'

Recognising that children need support

Rudolf had to leave school and decided to educate himself, spending what money could be spared from his wages on books. To begin with he taught himself French, German, natural philosophy and mechanics. He later added Latin, Greek and chemistry to this list, often studying early in the morning or late in the evening. 

The desire to educate himself reaped a rich reward in 1871, when he was 19 years old. That’s when Rudolf successfully completed the first open, public examinations for the Civil Service and obtained a post in the Office of Works, a predecessor of the Ministry of Public Building and Works.

Even though he was working full-time, Rudolf began setting up evening classes and clubs to help meet the educational needs of the poor in south London. 

A certificate presented to Edward Rudolf by the children at his Sunday schoolHelping children in south London

He first started running a popular educator class to help young people. The following year, 1872, he became the superintendent of St Anne’s Sunday School in south Lambeth.

The next year, he arranged a club for Penny Readings. In 1874, he started a library and boys’ club. In 1875 set up a new night school. 

By working in the government and in his neighbourhood, Rudolf recognised the great scope of destitution across England.

He knew that like his Sunday school pupils that he'd discovered begging and impoverished, there were many children who needed support. Rudolf decided that the Church of England ought to lead the way to helping them.

Our founding meeting

He crafted a plan for a children’s home, and gathered a group of supporters among business people and clergy. On 21 March 1881 the group took part in the founding meeting of what would become known as The Children’s Society.

Following this initial meeting, Rudolf led a delegation to gain the support of Archibald Tait, the Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the Church of England. 

Tait liked the idea, saying: 'I have never heard a plan more admirably urged... If this thing is to be done, this man Rudolf is the man to do it.'


More from our archives

Revisit other pieces digging into our history

Take a look at Hidden Lives, the online archive of our first 100 years
By Ian Wakeling - Research team