By Laura King, Principal Investigator, School of History, University of Leeds
One difficulty for historians of childhood and children is finding the voices and perspectives of children themselves in the historical record. Children’s testimonies are often few and far between and haven’t always survived. For this research, I have mainly been looking at newspapers and parliamentary debates, to consider how children were used and positioned by adults within a wider political discussion of the future. But what about children themselves? Were they aware of their role as future citizens and future leaders of the nation?
I am also looking at some literature aimed at children, such as the Daily Mirror’s children’s section, as well as comics like Beano and Dandy, which were incredibly popular in this period (c.1939-55). But these stories and other content that were targeted at children were highly escapist, often fantasy tales or unrealistic, and had very little to say about the future. Comics like Beano and Dandy had to genuinely appeal to children to be successful, and the excitement of tales of fictional characters and their adventures were naturally much more appealing than reminders that children had a responsibility for the future. Like the toys children were given, writing for children did, however, instil certain moral codes and ideas about gender. To give a famous example, Enid Blyton’s books, though highly popular and very squarely aimed at what children themselves wanted, had some clear messages about how children should act. In the ‘adventure’ series, for example, the two boys regularly look after their two sisters, and are expected to behave in this ‘gentlemanly’ manner by protecting them. When in The River of Adventure (1955), Jack and Philip lead the girls, Dinah and Lucy-Ann, into some danger, the children’s stepfather reprimands them. They agree they’ve done wrong, and so through parental instruction but also children’s behaviour and beliefs, Blyton reminds readers of certain gendered ideals. Her books also contained some quite definite – and often, to today’s audiences, unpalatable – attitudes about class and racial hierarchies, too. Focusing on those would be a whole other blog post, but in her messages about class, race and gender, Blyton encouraged a particular worldview for children. In her popularity with children themselves, we can suggest that these ideas did most likely shape the attitudes of the readers who were tomorrow’s citizens.
The Daily Mirror, in the late 1950s, held a competition of children’s writing, and published collections of the best pieces, as judged by a panel. This continued for some years, with different categories available for different age groups, and they encouraged both poetry and prose writing. Looking at this material can also give us an insight into what children were writing about but also what kinds of writing and ideas the panel of judges wanted to promote. The entries and subject matter that were published were incredibly wide-ranging, though, like in the writing aimed at children, a conception of themselves as agents of future promise is not prominent.
Where children do start to envisage themselves as part of a particular future is when they talk or write about what they want to do when they grow up. Are there any collections of children’s writing that tackles these sorts of subjects? I don’t know (but I’d be grateful for any suggestions!). However, when researching another subject entirely I came across a fascinating discussion of this idea in the autobiography of Bryan Magee, a writer, politician and philosopher who was born in 1930. He was writing as an adult, of course, and this makes the source somewhat problematic – we still haven’t got to the voice of the child him/herself. But Magee’s insistence of his strong recollection of this particular event is compelling. Moreover, he discussed how it was inspired by the intense periods he spent reading comics, and in particular the heroes they depicted. This, combined with his education in history, and in particular a lesson on Napoleon, coupled with what he’d been told about England, the British Empire and the values it embodied, led him to a particular vision of the future. He wrote:
‘the teacher said that Napoleon had wanted to rule everybody, to govern the world. And I found myself thinking: ‘What a good idea!’ I gave it a bit more thought, and then decided: ‘That’s what I’ll do, I’ll rule the world.’ And from then on, that became what I was going to do. It was clear to me that Napoleon’s mistake had been to imagine that he could beat the English, but I was not going to have that problem because I was English, so for me there was no such snag, and I could succeed where Napoleon had failed. The English currently ruled a third of the world anyway, through the British Empire, and we were always being told what a good thing this was, and how beneficial it was for everybody else, and how much they enjoyed it and admired us for it. So all I had to do was take England over and then bring the advantages of British rule to everybody else. People were bound to like that.
I find it difficult now to convey the character and feel of those thoughts, because I was wholly unaware that they were fantasies. I supposed that they were facts, facts about the future. Without any question, they were what was going to happen when I grew up. There was no element of aspiration involved.’
Magee, Clouds of Glory: A Hoxton Childhood (London, 2004), p.232.
This raises an interesting question of whether a strong vision of being a future leader or a positive force within the future nation as a child correlates to being successful. Magee did not, of course, become a world leader. But he was a very successful man; having grown up in working-class Hoxton, he went to grammar school, then Oxford, then did influence the political direction of the country to at least some extent in his role as a Labour MP from 1974-1983, and through his writing and broadcasting too. Do children who have a particular notion of their role as agents of future promise succeed? Is this kind of thinking beneficial for them? Can we ever know?