Agents of Future Promise

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Children and the future in Britain during and after the Second World War


laura kingBy Laura King, Project Principal Investigator, School of History, University of Leeds



In 1945, as Britain was reckoning with the end of the Second World War and the prospects of peace, filmmaker Humphrey Jennings’ film A Diary for Timothy was released. This short documentary was made for the Crown Film Unit set up during the war as part of the Ministry of Information. It made propaganda films, yet A Diary for Timothy was a poignant and artistic film, rather than a factual piece of propaganda. It spoke directly to baby Timothy, born on the fifth anniversary of the start of the war in September 1944, and who was said to represent Britain’s future. With words written by the novelist E.M. Forster, the narrator Michael Redgrave told the boy,

‘you are one of the lucky ones, you’re alive, you’re healthy’

He went on to describe how the farmers, miners, engine drivers and servicemen were all fighting on his behalf. It concluded with the question,

‘are you going to make the world a different place?’

This baby represented a different kind of future for Britain, one at peace with Europe and prospering, in contrast to conditions after the First World War, and reflecting a particular conception of children in this period.

In their innocence from the war experience and in their representation of the future potential of the nation through their youth, children were an important symbol of hopes for the future. This also linked the a particular emphasis on the family as the key to Britain’s future – strong nuclear families were seen as crucial to ensuring the success of the nation and its citizens. A focus on family and home helped move away from the war experience: men were coming home to enjoy the benefits of victory, women were told motherhood was even more important than ever, and the children born in the years following the war were seen as crucial to the nation’s prosperity.

Yet, we know that men’s return home wasn’t always easy – Alan Allport’s book Demobbed gives lots of examples of difficult returns; the book starts for example, with the extreme case of Cyril Patmore who killed his wife Kathleen after learning she was pregnant with the baby of an Italian prisoner of war. The emphasis on motherhood reduced the status women had acquired through their war work. They moved back along the gendered ‘double helix‘ described by Margaret and Patrice Higonnet, in which women were always a step behind men in their power and status. What about children? Did the emphasis on their potential mean they were prioritised in the new welfare state? Or did it have a negative impact?

This case study will explore how, why and to what effect children have been used to represent political and cultural futures, tying in to ideas about Britishness and national identity important during and after the war.

You can find out more about the project by reading other posts about Agents of Future Promise, or why not watch A Diary for Timothy?

This blog will be an online ‘notebook’ of our findings, to which all team members will contribute. You can join us on Twitter using the project hashtag #children2015 – we’d love to hear from you.


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