Sophia Wilkens was a pioneer of institutional care in Sweden during the late 1800s.
Sophia Wilkens was born in Kristianstad in 1817. Her father, Per Thomé, was a sheriff and a judge-advocate – namely a state servant within the police, judicial, and military authorities. Her mother gave birth to five children, of which the first and the last both died in infancy. Sophia Wilkens’ mother died in 1826, just aged 29, when Sophia Wilkens was eight. She had been living with her maternal grandmother, a widow named Wideman, in Karlskrona since the age of four. Sophia Wilkens attended the Mamsell Kronholm girls’ school in Karlshamn. She was also briefly employed as a teacher at the school when she was in her 20s. She had to give up her job when she married businessman Rudolf Wilkens in 1838. The couple settled in Karlshamn.
If one was to describe the social reality which Sophia Wilkens believed she was intended to improve then it was a very dark one. Poverty was on the increase in Sweden and the reasons for this were a combination of population growth, failed harvests, famine, and unemployment. Not everyone was able to emigrate and head to America. There was no organised medical care either for those who had property or those who did not. Further, Sweden was ravaged by a cholera epidemic during the 1850s. Public schools were in their infancy and did not cater to the most vulnerable children. There were no teacher-training programmes for female teachers for junior schools. Daily existence for a large part of the Swedish population involved living in precarious circumstances and a lack of opportunities.
Sophia Wilkens belonged to the upper level of society in Karlskrona but was far from being impervious to the wider social reality. She had lost her mother at the age of eight and then lost her youngest child, Thomina, to scarlet fever when the child was only four years old. As noted above, two of her own sisters had died as infants. One of her sons spent his entire adult life in a mental asylum. Her brother, Göthe, was a qualified doctor who offered his services when the cholera epidemic hit Malmö in 1850, only to die of the disease himself that same year.
Sophia Wilkens made her greatest social contributions on behalf of deafmute children and the poor. During the 1850–1877 period she set up and ran three organisations in Karlskrona and the surrounding area: Barnhemmet (the children’s home), Dövstuminstitutet (institute for deafmutes), and Skyddshemmet (the shelter home). She began her enterprises “to help poor and deprived children”. It became apparent that the need for organised care was primarily greatest amongst children who were extremely poor, deaf and those referred to as “feeble-minded”. The children often suffered from a combination of several of these elements. She set up her enterprises at a time when no legislation regarding the rights of such children to any kind of support existed at all. Enrolment at these homes was significant because no other similar organisations existed. The emerging enterprises can be described as both philanthropic and pedagogic in nature.
Sophia Wilkens’ enterprises were financed by benevolent individuals within the wealthier social circles. It must be assumed that her family and relatives were major contributors. One of the factors which enabled her to implement her plans was her personal connections within the local and national upper classes. Initially she found helpers from among her own friends. Some of those who needed support also had skills which could benefit the enterprise: a poor widow who sought assistance and support for her four children turned out to be a suitable children’s home matron at the home initially known as Herberget and subsequently at the Karlskrona barnhem. Half of the children were deafmute. One of the reasons that so many deafmutes enrolled was that Sophia Wilkens knew sign language and envisaged improvements in the options available to this section of society. The education for girls that she offered was very infuential and of high quality, for the time. She also had a skill for employing the right people in both financial and practical positions and felt it was important that the teachers were part of the enterprise. From an early stage she prioritised the preparation of older deafmute girls for vocational activities.
Four years later there were 73 children living at Barnhemmet, almost half of which were deafmutes. It was then decided that the deafmute enterprise, namely the so-called Tysta skolan (silent school), would become a discrete organisation known as Dövstuminstitutet (the deafmute institute). Those deemed to be “feeble-minded” remained at Barnhemmet. The construction and running costs were covered by the county council, who took this on of their own volition. It was not until 1889 that a law was passed in regard to education for deafmutes which established that the county council’s responsibility in the matter was statutory. It was recognised that the older girls had care needs that could not be provided at Barnhemmet. This then gave rise to Skyddshemmet which in later years would be termed a workhouse. Some of the “feeble-minded” girls moved into Skyddshemmet where girls were put to use weaving rugs and canvas as well as baking bread. These products were easy to sell, some of them at public markets. It was easier to find jobs for the older boys. Handicrafts jobs were procured for them through local connections and sometimes they even served as “ship’s errand boys”.
Sophia Wilkens attended the first Nordiska Abnormskolemötet (meeting of Scandinavian schools for abnormal students) in Copenhagen in 1872. Two of her instructors also attended the meeting, one of which was her niece Octavia Wilkens. She later trained at Skolan för sinneslöa barn (the school for “feeble-minded” children) in Stockholm, run by Thorborg Rappe. Octavia Wilkens was the first qualified teacher for “feeble-minded” children in Sweden and she was employed at the Emanuella Carlbeck facility in Skövde.
The Copenhagen meeting was divided into sections for deafmute, blind, and “feeble-minded” enterprises: Denmark played an influential role in each section. The discussion within the deafmute and “feeble-minded” sections focused on the classification of both pedagogic methods as well as degrees of functional impairment and potential for learning. These were important issues to Sophia Wilkens regardless of the fact that she held an opposing view to which she remained steadfast. She realised that communication between the various homes required a form of integration which was particularly important for the “feeble-minded”. At the second meeting held in Stockholm she submitted a topic of discussion regarding the value of stimulation generated by mixing up students of different skills and mental challenges. This approach generated opposition from the national health board’s inspector of facilities for the “feeble-minded”.
Sophia Wilkens ran her various enterprises until 1877 at which point she turned 60 and retired. Her role was taken on by Sophia Ulfsparre. In 1890 Dövstuminstitutet was incorporated within the county’s deafmute authority. As official support methods became available Sophia Wilkens’ further enterprises were subsequently dismantled: the school closed in 1907 and the workhouse was shut in 1911. Barnhemmet, however, was not shut down until 1957. Today (2018) all that remains of Sophia Wilkens’ enterprises is a trust which provides financial support to needy children.
Sophia Wilkens died in 1898. During the last 15 years of her life she ran the Sandbecksmåla farm in Augerum parish. She was, thus, a woman with significant personal resources and her family owns the high-quality drawings and paintings that she made.