The Children's Home was founded in 1869 by T.B. Stephenson along with two Methodist friends, Alfred Mager and Francis Horner. Moved by the plight of children in Lambeth, they conceived the idea of a home for young boys in an environment free from poverty, crime and godlessness. Their first house was in Exton Street, Waterloo, a site now marked with a blue plaque. Girls were admitted when new premises were opened in Bonner Road, Bethnal Green in 1871. In 1872 the gift by James Barlow of a property (by J.J. Bradshaw) at Edgworth, Lancs, where Mager was the pioneer, brought further expansion. Property at Hamilton, Canada (1873) facilitated emigration (see below) and an 'Industrial School' at Gravesend (1875) tackled juvenile delinquency. Princess Alice Orphanage in Birmingham (1882) was for 'the orphan children of Christian families'. The number of children increased rapidly, but Stephenson knew that, because they needed love as well as food and shelter, care must be offered in family units with not more than 12-15 children in the care of mature staff. The Children's Home Sisterhood, founded in 1878 for women dedicated to the care of children, was a forerunner of the Wesley Deaconess Order.
On the initiative of the Rev. Joseph Peck (1836-1900; e.m. 1858), Primitive Methodism opened orphanages at Alresford, Hants in 1889 and at Harrogate in 1907. These became part of the NCHO following Methodist Union in 1932.
Children were placed in foster homes as early as 1905 and adoptions were arranged, a few before and many after the Adoption Act (1926). The recommendations of the Curtis Committee on Child Care (of which John H. Litten was a member) were put into effect by the Children's Act (1948). The NCH had set up its own training college in 1935 - Stephenson Hall, London, the country's first college for training residential care workers - and already had a high percentage of fully trained staff. As the training of local authority staff rapidly improved, NCH, led by John W. Waterhouse (Principal 1950-1979) and Gordon E. Barritt (Principal 1969-84), was more able to co-operate with them. In the 1950s NCH expanded residential special education and community-based work in family centres, where the emphasis was on preventive action. In the 1970s and '80 residential care became limited to small units for children with severe disabilities or emotional and learning difficulties. A home-finding service continues and aims to match children with special needs with adoptive or foster parents. Counselling is provided for victims of sexual abuse and for divided families. The proportion of children referred and paid for by public authorities has steadily increased until two-thirds of annual income comes from that source.
In 1871 the first monthly issue of The Children's Advocate appeared. From 1888 this was continued under the title Highways and Hedges, which from 1934 became Children: the monthly magazine of the National Chidren's Home and Orphanage.
Stephenson and Horner visited Canada in 1872 and reported that 'The tone of society is remarkably moral - and a very large part of the population are under the influence of religion.' As a result, the first party of children, led by Horner, was sent as emigrants in 1873: 34 boys and 15 girls. Between 1873 and 1931 a total of 3,200 children were sent out, most of whom were settled in homes and farms in south-west Ontario, only15% returning to Britain or to the USA. A receiving home was established in Hamilton, Ontario and when this closed in 1933 the care of the remaining teenage immigrants was transferred to the new United Church of Canada. Involvement in the Child Migration scheme ceased in the 1950s under the leadership of John W. Waterhouse.
Originally founded as 'the Children's Home', it became 'the Children's Home and Orphanage' on the foundation of Princess Alice Orphanage in 1882. In 1908 it became the National Children's Home and Orphanage (NCHO) to reflect its Countrywide spread. With the dramatic reduction in the number of orphans in care by the mid-twentieth century, from 1950 'and Orphanage' was dropped from its publicity and from general usage, though the legal title was not changed until 1965. Known as 'NCH Action for Children' from 1994 to 2001, it then reverted to 'NCH', but in 2008 became 'Action for Children', while retaining its link with its Methodist origins. From 1990 the ministerial Principal has been replaced by a lay professional, but the organization still reports annually to Conference.
Work in Scotland began in 1954 and in Northern Ireland in 2000. In the Developing World a Sister was working in Nigeria in the 1960s. To mark the centenary in 1969, a home and training centre were opened in Jamaica and social workers and training staff were sent to the Eastern Caribbean, Belize and Zimbabwe. In 2019, its 150th anniversary, a campaign was launched encouraging the government to commit to an action plan to give all children a safe and happy childhod.
'Some members of the executive felt that the Home was rushing too quickly into the Child Migration scheme. What was the experience of children who had gone? In a private note to Litten, John Waterhouse, by this time principal-designate, made known his own reservations. He echoed the concerns of C.F. Walpole, the general secretary, T.O. Buck, the financial secretary, and Alan Jacka, the education secretary. This opposition may have considerably dampened enthusiasm and prevented the Home from becoming more heavily involved. As it was, from 1950 to 1954 it sent only ninety-one children to Australia compared with the national figure of 2,324 between 1945 and 1955
'Child migration continued unto the 1950's, though the Home appears to have been the least enthusiastic of its proponents.The dissent in the executive had dented any possibility of a large-scale involvement from the beginning and perhaps Waterhouse's succeeding of Litten dealt the final blow.'
Terry Philpot, NCH Action for Children: the story of Britain's foremost children's charity, pp.45-6
'Some twenty years ago the General Committee sought the approval of the Charity Commissioners to delete the words "and Orphanage" from the official title of the Home. At that time the Charity Commission had advised against such action. A further approach has, however, recently been made, and the Commissioners would not now raise any objection provided that such omission is approved by a resolution of Conference. The General Committee earnestly requests the Conference to strike out these words which are, not least, an embarrassment to the children of whom only a small proportion are orphans.'
Methodist Conference Agenda, 1965