The place of anti-social behaviour in government policy in the United Kingdom is attracting increasing attention. Particularly interesting are residential projects aiming to rehabilitate ‘problem families’. Nevertheless, to date, attempts to view these initiatives in historical perspective have been limited. This article reconstructs the history of one such institution, the Brentwood Recuperation Centre for Mothers and Children, within the broader context of the problem family debate. The argument is that, unlike in the Netherlands (whose pioneering efforts in this field were widely noted at the time), Britain tended to steer clear of residential options for families, regarding these as an expensive last resort. Nevertheless the Brentwood Centre was an important experiment, with its rise and fall mirroring broader changes in the relationship between voluntarism and the state; social work theory and practice; and attitudes to the segregation and social integration of families. Letters from the mothers also challenge the idea that stays in residential institutions were always punitive and unpleasant.