The History of Childhood in Modern Britain

All societies establish norms that regulate the environment, interactions and care of those who are most vulnerable, especially children. The boundaries used to categorise acts and impacts as harmful or unacceptable, however, are historically and culturally specific.  As an historian of modern Britain, my research explores these boundaries. I am interested in children’s experiences and subjectivity, in family relationships, and in the impact of changing welfare policies on social inequalities.

It is possible to conceptualise the history of child welfare since the 1880s through a linear narrative that explains how Britain came to be increasingly attentive to the unique vulnerability and malleability of the young. Unsurprisingly in the context of the modern British state, each of the pioneering interventions was the result of makeshift collaborations between the national government, local authorities, voluntary associations, mutual organisations, and professional expertise. We know quite a lot about the politics that made this public investment in future citizens’ lives possible over the last 140 years. Changes included the creation of legislation and organisations to protect children from abuse and neglect from the 1880s; state support for infant welfare services, free school meals and medical inspections from the 1900s; and the payment of family allowances (from 1975 child benefit) and free healthcare in the aftermath of the Second World War. Many of these changes were the result of fleetingly publicised ‘scandals’. Moments of public attentiveness made grumbling concerns briefly into national priorities, for instance through W.T. Stead’s sensational journalism in The Pall Mall Gazette in 1885. At other times, child welfare became an unintended priority during larger national crises. For instance, childhood psychological distress and urban poverty were made prominent by evacuation during the Second World War, but the underlying problems were novel neither as social problems nor as areas of expertise. As modern childhood was increasingly sharply and universally defined by age-specific education, welfare and laws, it is possible to write a simple history of child welfare that focuses attention on adult-led, public and short-term responses to newly perceived risks.

‘“Hurrah” for “Northern Weekly Gazette”’, Northern Weekly Gazette, 10 November 1900, p.15

‘“Hurrah” for “Northern Weekly Gazette”’, Northern Weekly Gazette, 10 November 1900, p.15

Historians know far less, however, about the people that lived with and grew through these initiatives. My research seeks to understand children’s experiences and their interpretations of their own lives, when they were still young. I currently use two complementary bodies of sources material. Between the 1870s and the 1930s, many provincial newspapers included children’s columns, which attracted up to 300,000 child members. Some of these columns were participatory and adult editors included up to six pages of content authored principally by named working-class children. As the first generation to benefit from compulsory elementary schooling, these young people were more literate than their parents. They were keen to use the tool of writing, which was for them excitingly modern, to become powerful producers, not merely consumers, of print. Their letters, drawings, poems and stories offer unique insights into the experiences, opinions and identities that children chose to make public. The second body of source material offers a window into the lives of the youngest and least articulate children, who were more seldom published authors, especially by the mid-twentieth-century. As national and civic interest in child welfare expanded, archived case files allow us to examine how welfare provision was used and how these uses – sometimes unintentionally – contributed to changing family dynamics and cumulative disadvantage. We need to examine both public and private investments in the early years of people’s lives to understand patterns of inequality in modern Britain.

The Faculty’s cluster of researchers interested in the history of modern childhood has allowed us to create a new Special Subject on late-Victorian childhood and citizenship. Designed and taught with Christina de Bellaigue and Kathryn Gleadle, ‘Becoming a Citizen 1860-1902’ explores this period of franchise reform and increasing public investment in social welfare. Third-year historians interrogate what children did with the growing concern that adults expressed for the education, socialisation and protection of the next generation of citizens. A high proportion of the set texts are personal sources, such as children’s diaries, letters and manuscript newspapers, or their later autobiographies. These are complemented by public texts that reveal how (and how successfully) adults sought to shape children’s lives, including through parliamentary debates, medical literature, educational treatise, periodicals, and children’s games, including sources that allow us to use the Bodleian Library’s rich special collections. Students examine how fundamental differences – of class, gender, religion, locality and ethnicity – were moulded into ideas of modern citizenship. In their extended essay, students have the opportunity to assess whether historians should conceptualise the young as active agents in social, cultural and political change, rather than merely the passive subjects of these processes.

One of the privileges of working in Oxford over the last three years has been the chance to also think about these themes with colleagues from other disciplines. Since 2015, I have been developing an interdisciplinary collaborative research project with Lucy Bowes, associate professor in experimental psychology, that applies historians’ understanding of the contextually- and temporally-specific meanings of adversity to attempts to measure and explain the life-long impact of these experiences. Qualitative understandings of mid-twentieth-century experiences (such as poverty, domestic violence, neglect, abuse or family instability) can be applied to the quantitative longitudinal datasets to refine current interpretations by epidemiologists and psychologists.

It is not surprising that a lack of resources or care in childhood had a significant impact on later life, but, importantly, our research also seeks to understand what has worked to support people following early life adversities.  One of the most thought-provoking parts of my work this year has been the chance to work on our on-going Knowledge Exchange project, Changing Lives. Funded by the University of Oxford’s ESRC Impact Acceleration Account, as well as Magdalen College and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), we organised a workshop in July to bring together experts from national charities such as the NSPCC and The Children’s Society, from children’s social care and community health services, and from across the humanities, social sciences and medical sciences. The event began a series of conversations from which we hope future collaborations will develop to think about how we can better work across sectors to bring together strong evidence for what enables children growing up in adversity to thrive in modern Britain. These dialogues are always difficult, but I hope they are worth having if it can help to ensure that historians asks questions and communicate findings in ways that are most likely to contribute to improved care for children.

Since its foundation in 2003 by Laurence Brockliss and George Rousseau, the Oxford Centre for the History of Childhood has supported and promoted research into the history of childhood and children. The Centre’s impact has stretched far beyond Oxford, but it does make Oxford a particularly rewarding place to teach about and research children’s lives. 

-Siân Pooley