By Vicky Crewe, Project Co-Investigator, School of History, Archaeology and Religion, Cardiff University
What sort of impact did the Boer War (1899-1902) have on children in Britain? To decode the messages conveyed by the toys and games that I’m looking at for my historical case study, it’s important that I interpret those objects in the context of contemporary British social and popular culture – especially children’s culture. How did children find out about the war? Did it affect their lives, despite taking place thousands of miles away? In this blog post, I want to explore how children were exposed to the Boer War, and some of ways in which we can see their lives changing because of the conflict.
Children will undoubtedly have been exposed to much of the popular discourse surrounding the war at home, at school or in the street or workplace. The war was covered in minute detail by the popular press, with cheap newspapers keeping an increasingly literate adult population informed of the conflict’s progress. The general public lapped up the events, characters and progress of the conflict; this is famously demonstrated by the celebration of the relief of the town of Mafeking in May 1900, when huge crowds of people took to the streets to rejoice.
Children gained awareness of the existence and progress of the war from events such as this, and from older youths and adults around them, while many will have known family members or friends who were away fighting. Even long after the war, children were still being informed about it; the historian Kenneth Morgan recalls being taught a jingle as a child during the Second World War by his grandmother, who presumably remembered it from her youth around the turn of the century:
Lord Roberts and Kitchener, General Buller and White
Went out to South Africa to teach the Boers how to fight.
Prior to the outbreak of war, of course, children’s education already emphasised the importance and perceived superiority of the British Empire. For the political establishment, this ensured that children learnt about their national identity and Britain’s role in the world, but it was also an appealing way of learning for many children, for whom militarism and imperialism were very attractive concepts. Stephen Humphries collected oral histories from people who had experienced working-class childhoods in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, making an interesting observation about why this may have appealed to some youngsters:
…working-class children were generally much more responsive to lessons and activities that were inspired by imperialism… Many children clearly welcomed games lessons, colourful stories of heroism and national glory and imperial celebrations as a relief from the monotony of school routine. Most important, however, the ideology of imperialism made a direct appeal to working-class youth because it reflected and reinforced a number of its cultural traditions, in particular the street gangs’ concern with territorial rivalry, and the assertion on masculinity.
The periodicals that children read in this era, such as the Boy’s Own Paper and Chums, also informed them about the war. These cheap magazines, usually published weekly or monthly, often featured stories from the South African arena of war, reports on sieges and battles, and biographies of key military figures in the conflict. For example, the Boy’s Own Paper in December 1899 featured a map of South Africa, allowing readers to picture the geography of the region. Underneath the map were line drawings of key military figures from both sides, including the Boer leader Paul Kruger and the British officer General Sir George White, commander of forces in Natal at the start of the war. This was part and parcel of the broad imperial focus of periodicals, especially those aimed at boys, both before and after the Boer War; these publications were filled with adventure stories set overseas and tales of military heroism, of which the war was just one part.
Periodicals marketed at girls tended to discuss the war less overtly than those aimed at boys. However, recently Kristine Moruzi has shown that periodicals such as Girl’s Realm did encourage girls and young women to engage with the war, albeit in a different way from boys. Girl’s Realm clearly stated that girls could and should be heroic in the war, although their strength, duty, courage and bravery was expected to take the form of stoically waiting at home for loved ones, nursing, writing sympathetic letters to soldiers and fundraising. The periodical did include some stories of female heroism in the conflict itself, covering the siege of Ladysmith (from November 1899 to February 1900), but the women involved were praised for their strength in the face of lack of provisions and in keeping children safe within the town, rather than any military prowess. Indeed, the editor of Girl’s Realm in 1900 stated that women could fight the war by example and ‘by helping to bring up the children rightly’.
Similar messages about the importance of domestic and maternal duties for girls and women in the wake of the Boer War are seen elsewhere. As I’ve already discussed in a previous post, the war brought into sharper focus national concerns about the wellbeing of the nation and its ability to defend itself and the empire. The high infant mortality rate was also a concern for the same reasons. For girls and young women, these worries led to a greater emphasis on their role as future mothers. The historian Anna Davin made this point back in 1978:
A poor military performance in the Boer War had dramatized fears of national inadequacy and exposed the poor health of the working class in Britain, from which were drawn both soldiers and sailors to defend the empire, and workers to produce goods with which to dominate the world economically. At the same time the findings of the 1901 census confirmed that the birth rate was still falling, and the medical statistics suggested that infant mortality was actually rising. The result was a surge of concern about the bearing and rearing of children – the next generation of soldiers and workers, the Imperial race.
Doctors, politicians, military leaders and other commentators blamed mothers, especially working-class mothers, for many of the illnesses that children were suffering from and for the deaths that often followed. These commentators conveniently ignored the real culprits – poverty, bad sanitation, poor-quality housing and inadequate nutrition – in favour of the simplistic explanation of ‘bad mothering’. The result of this anxiety was a focus on mothering and home-making skills in girls’ education, including classes on feeding and caring for infants, cookery and temperance. In 1904 the British Medical Association petitioned the Board of Education for the teaching of health-related subjects in schools, ‘in order that the conditions which lead to deterioration of the national physique may be understood and as far as possible prevented’.
Essentially, then, in the national crisis that followed the Boer War, we see girls and young women being trained to be ‘good’ mothers and raise ‘better’ children in the future. Their role is to produce the men who will defend and maintain the empire. In the context of this project, it’s interesting to see that writers of the time explicitly linked empire, national identity, children and the future, as this quote (admittedly written some years after the Boer War, in 1916) from Dr T.N. Kelynack in the Child Welfare Annual shows:
For long we have been accustomed to speak of the children as the most valuable of Imperial assets. Now it is for us to realize fully that the future of our existence is wrapt up in the well-being of the children of the present…. War has forced child welfare work into the forefront of national responsibilities. The problem of the conservation of childlife is of paramount importance. The child of today… will be the citizen of the coming years and must take up and bear the duties of statesmanship, defence from foes, the conduct of labour, the direction of progress, the maintenance of a high level of thought and conduct, and all other necessities for the perpetuation of an imperial race.
Finally, a well-known outcome of the Boer War, and one which directly impacted upon children, was the establishment of the Boy Scout Movement, although this did build on a longer tradition of militarily-inspired youth movements (for example the Boy’s Brigade was established in 1883). The scouting movement in Britain was founded by Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, with the first camp taking place on Brownsea Island in 1907. Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys was published the following year and became a cult book. Baden-Powell had achieved celebrity status as commander at Mafeking during its siege (despite serious questions about his conduct there, including his brutal treatment of the town’s black inhabitants during the siege). While there has been some debate about whether the intention of the movement’s early leaders was merely to create useful citizens or to explicitly train future soldiers, there is no doubt that many children were exposed to military activities such as drills and rifle shooting, and other outdoor and sporting activities, all washed down with a dose of patriotism and hero worship inspired by Baden-Powell himself.
By the time peace was declared in South Africa on 31st May 1902, the Victorian era had ended and Britain’s empire, too, was faltering. Questions arose during the war about national identity and the state of the nation. Although Victorian ideals were being replaced with more modern views of the world, including on gender roles, the notion that young girls and young boys had different roles to play in the maintenance of social, cultural and political norms was pervasive; boys were expected to do this through military and sporting interests, girls through stoicism in the face of hardship and by producing the next generation of future citizens. The challenge for me over the coming months is to work out exactly where and how toys and games fitted into this.
 Morgan, K.O. 2002. The Boer War and the media. Twentieth Century British History 13 (1): 1-16 (see p. 10).
 Humphries, S. 1981. Hooligans or Rebels? An Oral History of Working-Class Childhood and Youth 1889-1939. Oxford: Blackwell (see p. 41).
 Moruzi, K. 2009. Feminine bravery: the Girl’s Realm (1898-1915) and the Second Boer War. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 34 (3): 241-254 (see p. 247).
 Davin, A. 1978. Imperialism and motherhood. History Workshop 5: 9-65 (see p. 12).
 Cited in Davin 1978, 24-6.
 Cited in Davin 1978, 43.
 Morgan 2002, 7.