Guest Post, by Alice Violett, PhD Candidate, University of Essex

Most people are aware of persistent stereotypes of only children: that they are spoilt, selfish, precocious, and socially inept.  My doctoral research into the public perceptions and personal experiences of only children between 1850 and 1950 shows that such attitudes date back to at least the mid-nineteenth century, possibly as a result of increasing concerns about declining middle-class family sizes and the role of nurture, as opposed to nature, in determining how children turned out.  However, British and American child guidance writers and psychologists who wrote on the subject during this period did not confine the effects of only-childness to childhood, and claimed that one’s upbringing as an only child had a direct effect on adulthood, fitting nicely with the ‘Agents of Future Promise’ agenda.  According to these writers, only children were at risk of becoming mad, immoral, lonely, and anti-social adults.

Madness was a particular concern of nineteenth-century writers about only children.  Child guidance writer John S. C. Abbott, and physician Henry Maudsley, both provided examples to illustrate the harm that could result from an only child being brought up without due care and attention.  Abbott described in his 1852 book, The Mother At Home, an ‘only son’ whose widowed mother was overly-generous with her love and indulgence towards him.  As a result, the son became tyrannical, ‘ungovernable’, ‘self-willed, turbulent and revengeful.’  This culminated in his setting fire to her house in a rage, leaving her impoverished while:

‘He was imprisoned as an incendiary, and, in his cell, he became a maniac, if he was not such before, and madly dug out his own eyes. He now lies in perpetual darkness, confined by the stone walls and grated bars of his dungeon, an infuriated madman.’[2]

A child’s upbringing, then, was clearly linked to their adult destiny.  It seems that Maudsley, writing in 1867, also had the influence of childhood in mind when he felt it necessary to mention that a 38-year-old patient ‘was the only child of indulgent parents’.  While her father was ‘harmlessly insane’, the woman in question’s upbringing apparently took her madness this point.  According to Maudsley, she was unable to restrain herself, ‘extremely violent in conduct’, and a pathological liar.  When she could not obtain drink, she was ‘abusive, mischievous, quarrelsome, full of complaints of the injustice done to her, and truly intolerable.’  Her irredeemable character meant she was constantly in and out of various asylums.[3]  Perhaps here we can see childhood spoiltness reaching what seems to be its logical conclusion.  Certainly, Victorian self-help guru Samuel Smiles made such a connection when he referred to writer Mary Anne Schimmelpennick’s observations that the asylums her friends had visited contained a disproportionate number of only children as their ‘wills had therefore rarely been thwarted or disciplined in early life.’[4]

Immorality was a more minor theme that was nonetheless connected with adult only children at various points over the course of this period.  Like his nineteenth-century contemporaries Abbott and Maudsley, in an 1851 parenting manual W. C. Todd used a vignette to illustrate the risks involved in raising an only child.  He wrote about a boy called John, whose initial promise was ruined by his parents’ practices of granting all of his requests, failing to punish his bad behaviour, and always letting him have his own way.  John was thereby transformed into a ‘vicious’, ‘headstrong’ and ‘depraved’ truant, eventually running away to sea where he distinguished himself in ‘bold wickedness and daring’ and ultimately ‘fell in a drunken quarrel with a fellow sailor’.  The moral of this tale, according to Todd, was ‘guard early tendencies’, again creating a link between poor parenting and anti-social adults.[5]  This link was reinforced by physician Cecil Willett Cunnington, who in 1913 proclaimed that only children would not thank their parents for, among other things, their immoral characters, and by nurse Mary Scharlieb, who in 1927 connected only-childness to violence and even murder by adults.[6]

“Mary Scharlieb c.1875” by Unknown. Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Commons

Loneliness was also associated with adult only children throughout the period.  Once again, we are treated to an example by a nineteenth-century writer: ‘Mrs Warren’, aka domestic advice writer Eliza Warren Francis.  In her 1865 child-rearing book How I Managed My Children From Infancy To Marriage, the fictional narrator recounts the sad story of Fanny Mavor, a 60-year-old only-child spinster who was prevented from getting married in her prime by her overly-possessive parents, who died when Fanny was 38.  The narrator blames Fanny’s subsequent solitude and reduced standard of living on her ‘selfish’ parents, who wished for her to nurse them in their old age instead of having own family.  At least, unlike the other children in this blog post, Fanny is portrayed as a stoic and a dutiful daughter.[7]  As before, Cunnington and Scharlieb repeated the idea that adult only children were lonely, though both associated this more explicitly with misery.[8]

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given contemporary concerns with mental health and ‘fitting in’ with others, anti-social tendencies among adult only children were a particular concern of the twentieth-century writers in this study.  Nurse Mary Chadwick described in 1925 how only children’s difficulties attaining a ‘spirit of comradeship’ at school persisted even in ‘early professional life’.[9]  Only children were a particular concern of the Individual Psychology movement of the 1930s; in 1930, Alexandra Adler, daughter of the movement’s founder Alfred Adler, particularly described how the only child’s assumed autocracy in the home and lack of early practice in sociability’ led to ‘difficulties in later life’.[10]  Once again, Scharlieb supported such ideas by describing only children as ‘square pegs in round holes’ as adults, partly due to the jealousy and self-interest formulated by their upbringings.[11]

We have seen, then, how throughout the period of 1850-1950, only children were seen as ‘bad future adults’, whose parents needed to take special precautions not to overindulge them or make them feel special compared with others.  While only children were viewed overwhelmingly negatively, however, middle-class parents did reduce their families to 2-4 children, and the reason for this appears to have had some basis in consideration of their children’s future as adults.  In an 1872 treatise (published in 1878) extolling the virtues of small families, radical thinker Austin Holyoake reasoned that having a smaller family meant that the eldest son might be sent to a school that turned him into a ‘bright man’, and that, despite popular thought, being ‘dragged up’ and forced into early independence as a member of a large family did not necessarily produce especially ‘industrious and useful citizens.’[12]  Consideration of their children’s adult lives might not have been the sole influence for parents who restricted their families, but they seem likely to have had the future in mind nonetheless.

[1] Cecil Willett Cunnington, Nursery Notes for Mothers, (London, 1913), p. 20.
[2] John S. C. Abbott, The Mother at Home; or, the Principles of Maternal Duty Familiarly Illustrated, (New York, 1852), p. 25.
[3] Henry Maudsley, The Physiology and Pathology of the Mind, (London, 1867), pp. 313-4.
[4] Samuel Smiles, Character, (London, 1871), p. 180.
[5] W. C. Todd, ‘Guard Early Tendencies’, in Mrs H. B. Pratt, Rev. C. Stone, WM. C. Brown, and Rev. H. G. Park (eds.), The Mother’s Assistant, Young Lady’s Friend and Family Manual, (Boston, Stone & Pratt, 1851), pp. 116-8.
[6] Cunnington, Nursery Notes for Mothers, pp. 19-20; Mary Scharlieb, The Psychology of Childhood: Normal and Abnormal, (London, 1927), p. 91.
[7] ‘Mrs Warren’ (Eliza Warren Francis), How I Managed my Children from Infancy to Marriage, (London, 1865), pp. 62-3.
[8] Cunnington, Nursery Notes for Mothers, pp. 19-20; Scharlieb, The Psychology of Childhood, p. 91.
[9] Mary Chadwick, Psychology for Nurses, (London, 1925), p. 32.
[10] Alexandra Adler, ‘The Only Child’, in Alfred Adler and associates, Guiding the Child on the Principles of Individual Psychology, (London, 1930), p.195.
[11] Scharlieb, The Psychology of Childhood, pp. 88, 91.
[12] Austin Holyoake, ‘Large or Small Families?  On which side lies the balance of comfort?’ in What does Christian Theism Teach?  Verbatim report of the two nights’ discussion between the Rev. A. J. Harrison and C. Bradlaugh, January 9th and 10th 1872, (London, 1878), pp. 3, 5.

On 3rd September 2015, we held a workshop about the use of children to represent the future at King’s College London. Here, Laura Tisdall gives her thoughts on the day in a guest post.

By Laura Tisdall, Stipendiary Lecturer, St Anne’s College, University of Oxford

Barbies are often criticised for encouraging gender stereotypes. I liked to customise mine. This is Jack.

Are children human ‘beings’ or human ‘becomings’? This issue is frequently discussed in sociological literature on childhood, usually in order to criticise the ‘deficit model’ of human ‘becomings’ (1). These terms are getting at a deceptively simple dichotomy that becomes a bigger problem the more you think about it: should children be viewed and treated primarily as future adults (‘becomings’), or is it more beneficial to value childhood in the present (‘beings’)? Those who support the latter model argue, roughly, that it is not enough to define children by what they cannot do in comparison with adults. It’s better to think about the positive contributions that children and adolescents can make in families, communities and societies. This is obviously sensible. To an extent, it reflects the views of many (although not all) mid twentieth-century British child-centred educationalists, who argued that childhood must not be seen simply as a preparation for adulthood. For example, JE Sadler and AN Gillett wrote in a popular teaching guide of 1962 that ‘The child may be compared with adults, but this may lead to wrong conclusions, since adults frequently make the mistake of assuming that childhood is necessarily unsatisfactory or incomplete, a kind of illness to be cured by schools… Nowadays more people than formerly regard childhood as good in itself.’ (2) Nevertheless, my own work on child-centred education in British schools, which I’ll talk about a little more in a bit, has suggested that an exclusive focus on childhood as ‘complete in itself’ could be problematic as well.

The Children’s Benefit or Burden? workshop, which emerged from the AHRC-funded Agents of Future Promise project, provided a lot of food for thought on how precisely these theoretical issues can contribute to analyses of childhood in the past. The workshop ostensibly focused on how children are used as symbols of the future, both historically and in the here and now, with some fascinating presentations from Matt Ruuska (War Child) and Kerry Smith (Plan International UK) on how charities can respectfully use images of children to advertise their work. However, the tension between children as ‘beings’ and ‘becomings’ was present in many of the papers. Dr Lindsey Dodd’s fascinating paper on children in Vichy France, which you can get a taste of in her blog post here, emphasised how children were used by the regime as both passive symbols of the future – for example, in discussions about increasing the birth rate – but also as active intermediaries, often encouraged to re-educate their own parents. For example, she described how children under 14 were encouraged to earn two francs to contribute to the Vichy government, and how this was seen as a way of influencing the adults around them. This treated children as active ‘beings’, but also manipulated their developing consciousnesses.

Jess Day’s fantastic presentation on the Let Toys be Toys campaign, which challenges gender stereotypes in the marketing of toys, also indirectly raised issues about solely valuing childhood as a stage in itself. She questioned why children are encouraged by gendered toys such as male-coded doctors’ kits to occupy a pink-and-blue fantasy. While children may frequently encounter female doctors in reality, these toys often have a more powerful hold over their imaginations, stranding them in a separate childhood world rather than connecting them to the reality of adult occupations. We often think that childhood needs to be happy, protected and safe, but this evidence indicates that by making childhood playtime so at odds with reality, we’re actually damaging children by restricting their plans for the future. If you only think about what children need in the present, you may be distorting their opportunities in adulthood.

Mid-century child-centred educational programmes based along gender and class lines were often justified by the claim that they appealed to children’s natural ‘interests’, and children learn best when their present interests are engaged, rather than by focusing on what will be good for them when they are adults. For example, writing on secondary modern schools in 1958, the prominent educationalist HC Dent commented that the ‘interest in learning’ of a large proportion of these 11+ ‘failures’ ‘can only be evoked and retained when they see before them immediately obvious, readily attainable, and personally relevant goals’.(3). Like much child-centred pedagogy, he therefore agreed with the traditional recommendation that boys do woodwork or metalwork, and girls cookery, but used newer psychological language to justify this divide. Despite the references to the general characteristics of childhood and adolescence, Dent explicitly argued near the end of his text that these recommendations were directed at the secondary modern intake because ‘at some point in the intelligence scale the capacity for systematic and progressive learning becomes so slight as to be almost negligible’.(4) In other words, these working-class pupils would never possess the capacity for logical, theoretical thought that their middle-class, grammar/public school equivalents would eventually gain, and so had to learn through concrete experience. In psychological terms, they would never really leave their early adolescence and participate in a fully adult future. Ironically, therefore, focusing on childhood as ‘good in itself’ could lead to a narrowly vocational curriculum that actually contradicted its central tenet by focusing on the presumed adult roles of these pupils. It also emphasised that these children were incomplete in comparison with (middle-class, male) adults.

Obviously, we are all human ‘beings’ and human ‘becomings’. Adults look forward to a projected future in the same way as children do. It’s possible to value children for what they are now without forgetting that they have the right to plan for their own futures, and to participate as far as is possible in the adult world. One question asked by this workshop was whether or not representing children as images of the future is harmful to the children themselves, and how children engage with, and produce these images. This is a hugely important task, and I’m really looking forward to reading more of the work that emerges from this project.


(1) For example, see James et al, 1998; Qvortup, 1994; Lee, 2001.

(2) A.N. Gillett and J.E. Sadler, Training for Teaching (London, 1962), 85-6

(3) H.C. Dent, Secondary Modern Schools: an interim report (London, 1958), 171

(4) ibid., 197

In this film, Principal Investigator Laura King (University of Leeds) discusses the upcoming workshop on 3 September 2015 at King’s College London, which will consider how and why children have been represented and mobilised for political purposes, past and present. It will bring together historians, campaigners and policy makers. Find out more, have a look at the programme and book now.

By Laura King, Principal Investigator, School of History, University of Leeds

‘Have mothers and parenthood been sufficiently recognised in their contribution towards the community? More attention should be paid to this question of the future generation as well as under what conditions children are to be brought into the world and reared. Otherwise, in a few years’ time the part which the British race will be taking in the future will be a dwindling part because we shall be a dwindling race.’

In 1942, MP and feminist campaigner Eleanor Rathbone addressed the House of Commons with these words, as it debated the question of woman-power during the Second World War. She highlighted the importance of children as future citizens and their role in ensuring the success of the British nation, race and empire in the future. And in this, she argued for a better recognition of women’s role in helping ensure the success of that future generation.

Evacuees in Britain during the Second World War

This example demonstrates some of the key themes of the ‘Agents of Future Promise’ project, and some issues to be discussed in our 3rd September workshop. Using historical research, we’re examining how children have been used to represent the future in the past. Does this matter at all today?

We think it does. Our research is opening up at least three important questions about children and the future. These are as relevant today as they were a hundred or fifty years ago, and these are important issues for those who work with or for children.

Firstly, if children are the future, can this help campaign groups mobilise support and funding to tackle child poverty, ensure better education programmes, attract resources for improving child health? Does it mean that children and young people themselves can use this idea in their own lobbying – if children are the future, shouldn’t they have a say in contemporary politics?

Secondly, if boys and girls are future citizens, are we moulding them into particular stereotypical gendered roles? Does this put too great an emphasis on girls’ roles as future mothers, and boys’ duty as future workers or soldiers – to protect the future of the nation?

Thirdly, does using children to represent ideas of the future for the interest of a political grouping actually harm children in some way? By using children’s potential and innocence to represent a political ideology, do we encourage the idea that children can be used for someone else’s ends?

The use of children to represent the future is an important and present concern – a potential benefit and burden for young people.

On 3 September 2015, our workshop at King’s College London will bring together NGO expertise and new historical and archaeological research to investigate the representation of children and its consequences.

Short presentations by historians, civil society practitioners and policy makers will be followed by small group discussions to reflect on historical research and contemporary policy and practice. The workshop is aimed at researchers, NGOs, policy makers and others working with and for children.

By taking part in this event, participants can:

  • Understand how and why children were mobilised and portrayed in the past for various reasons
  • Reflect on the implications of this history for policy and practice today
  • Share expert knowledge about children’s agency in their portrayals and mobilisation, past and present
  • Understand the policies and practices of NGOs working with and for children, past and present
  • Learn about how historical research can inform contemporary practices

Find out more by looking at the workshop programme.

Booking is now open through the King’s e-store. We have some travel bursaries available for those working in non-profit organisations, and students – email Laura King for more information.

Dodd picture (118x150)

Interested in these topics? Think about attending our workshop on 3 September 2015 in London.

By Lindsey Dodd, Project Co-Investigator, School of Music, Humanities and Media, University of Huddersfield

Composite image of 1940s children in an archive

Ghostly children in the archives [composite image: corridor of the National Archives superimposed with image of children; both images cleared for non-commercial use with modification]

Some of the historical documents I’m using for my research are letters written by children to Marshal Pétain, the Head of the French State during the Vichy years. As my previous blogs have shown, Pétain’s regime made vigorous use of pre-adolescent children as both the objects and subjects of its propaganda; that is, there was a lot of propaganda about children as the future of France, and a lot of propaganda for children. Many were drawn into letter-writing campaigns to Marshal Pétain, but others wrote to him of their own volition. In a country where families were divided and many fathers were absent (as prisoners-of-war or forced labourers in Germany, or in hiding, perhaps) writing to Pétain may have provided some comfort. His office always replied in his name with a personalised response and often a gift; some children replied to this response, and a dialogue was established. As I have shown, many letters glorified the Marshal; others vaunted the right-wing, nationalistic values of the regime. And these letters were written by children, some as young as six.

The response when I explain this to people – friends, colleagues – is usually disgust: that the regime could coerce or manipulate children in this way is further proof – were any needed – of its baseness. Why is our moral outrage more exercised when children are invoked? Isn’t the corruption of adults – the decision-makers in society – of greater cause for concern? Don’t all societies manipulate children to embrace certain ideological principles? And is this just a story of simple manipulation: what choices did children make?

These questions set me thinking about historical research using primary sources created by children.

Doing this research on children in the past has revealed them to me as social actors in their own right. The idea of a child as passive, as a pawn, as simply vulnerable to adult machinations is a useful trope with a ‘common sense’ underpinning. Yet social scientists and some policymakers recognise children as ‘heterogeneous, active agents, playing out and shaping their lives’ and as ‘competent individuals – knowledgeable about their own experiences and situations’. While this values children’s production – their words and cultural outputs – it could also suggest that such production can be treated in the same way as adults’. But while children are competent social actors in the world, their worlds are different – not inferior – to adults’. They lack the accumulation of knowledge and experience of the adults around them, as Owain Jones has written, but ‘have fully blown imaginative, social lives’. They loved Pétain, they entered into an epistolary relationship with him, they received gifts of date jam and writing-paper, they responded with pictures and affirmations of loyalty, pride and obedience. What Pétainists they were! But were they? They cannot bear the same moral responsibility as adults; they did not shape policy; their views went unheeded. What did they think when their hero fell from grace in 1944?

All sorts of ethical regulations govern academic research involving children; but children in the archive are not afforded the same consideration. For social scientists conducting research on ‘live’ children, key ethical issues concern access, consent and confidentiality. While certain archival documents pertaining to children in the past may be embargoed if the archivist considers them particularly sensitive, in other cases access to children in the archive is governed by no formal constraints save the standard fifty or seventy year rule. And if you were seven when you wrote your letter to Marshal Pétain, the chances are you’re still alive. Whence the issue of confidentiality: should historians be more careful about anonymising children in the archive? If the documents are in the public domain anyway, is there any point? Certainly, no consent has been given by the child or child-now-adult to use their letter; indeed, as Carolyn Steedman has noted, ‘the historian will always read that which was never intended for his or her eyes’. Perhaps an adult writing to the mayor of his or her town might imagine that a record of the letter, or the letter itself, might be filed away somewhere. But could a child have imagined that a letter, a drawing, would end up in a national, public archive, kept forever? Archives contain snapshots of the past, of people ‘frozen in time’ as children. They had no power or control over the archiving of their words, and now have none over their use.

Finally, I have been thinking about what Owain Jones has called the ‘otherness’ of children and its ‘unknowableness’ – and beyond that, something of the epistemological conundrum of the evidence I find. Children’s worlds, Jones writes, ‘are irretrievably lost to adults’. So while I can read the letters, see what children said and what they did, I can never know what they felt or meant by doing it. When a child wrote ‘Vive Pétain!’ what did that mean? What did she feel at that moment? Not only is there an unbridgeable gap between the child and the adult, there is another between the archive reading room, and the Vichy-era living room, bedroom or schoolroom where the letter was written. The moment the source was created is irretrievably lost. Did her mother stand over her as she wrote? Did her brother write a letter alongside? Was she in her bedroom, alone, later pilfering a stamp from the sideboard to post the letter? Did she write it because all her friends were writing too, or was she a lone voice among her schoolmates? I imagine that child’s act, in a particular place and time. I cannot know it: I try to make this silence speak, but it will not. I can surmise, narrativise, imagine and empathise. I cannot know.

How many contemporary historians want to ‘do justice’ to a Pétainist? Yet I do feel that sense of obligation to these unwittingly-archived children which Steedman described as part of the frenzy of her archive fever. I want it to be recognised that they had loved Pétain, but that was in the past; it belonged to childhood and was comprehensible in the historical context. I want it to be recognised that there was coercion and manipulation, but there was not only that: there was the excitement of writing to a celebrity, to a hero – and getting a response. I want it to be recognised that these children were competent and creative actors, and Pétain was an important part of their social world.

Further reading

Hopkins, P. E. and Bell, N., ‘Interdisciplinary perspectives: ethical issues and child research’, Children’s Geographies, 6:1 (2008), 1-6

Jones, O., ‘“Before the dark of reason:” some ethical and epistemological considerations on the otherness of children’, Ethics, Place and Environment: a Journal of Philosophy and Geography, 4:2 (2001), 173-8

Mills, S., ‘Young ghosts:  ethical and methodological research in children’s geographies’, Children’s Geographies, 10.3 (2012), 357-63

Steedmman, C., Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (Manchester University Press & Rutgers University Press, 2001)



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 dressed up in costume to celebrate the end of the siege of Mafeking in 1900 (source).

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.

A copy of the Boy’s Own Paper from 1891; these periodicals were affordable for children and contained many stories of heroism, adventure and military life, including features about the Boer War in the years 1899-1902 (source).

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’.[3]

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.[4]

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’.[5]

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.[6]

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).[7] 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.


[1] Morgan, K.O. 2002. The Boer War and the media. Twentieth Century British History 13 (1): 1-16 (see p. 10).

[2] Humphries, S. 1981. Hooligans or Rebels? An Oral History of Working-Class Childhood and Youth 1889-1939. Oxford: Blackwell (see p. 41).

[3] 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).

[4] Davin, A. 1978. Imperialism and motherhood. History Workshop 5: 9-65 (see p. 12).

[5] Cited in Davin 1978, 24-6.

[6] Cited in Davin 1978, 43.

[7] Morgan 2002, 7.

laura kingBy 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?

Britain's_War_Babies_Are_Growing_Up-_Everyday_Life_For_British_Children_at_War,_London,_England,_UK,_1943_D17274I 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?