Tag Archive: Britain

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, Helen Roche gives a full report on the event.

By Helen Roche, Research Fellow, University of Cambridge

Does it matter if adults use children for their own ends – especially in politics?

Is the instrumentalisation of children by grownups (past, present and future) always fundamentally exploitative?

Should we care? And if so, how might we help?

These were some of the questions which a workshop held recently at King’s College London, entitled ‘Children’s Burden or Benefit: Using young people to promote ideas of the future’ set out to answer.

Wellcome Library, London

Given that I’m currently writing a history of the most prominent Nazi elite schools, the Napolas, the title of the workshop caught my eye as soon as it was advertised. For the former Napola-pupils with whom I have been working and conducting interviews over the past few years, the pressure and responsibility of living up to the ideals of the National Socialist regime, and of proving oneself worthy of having been selected as a putative future leader of the Third Reich, have often been immense. So, although the researchers running the project – Laura King, Vicky Crewe and Lindsey Dodd – were primarily focusing on the history of childhood in Britain and France, the potential parallels and insights which they could provide for comparison with the German case seemed fascinating, even just from a quick look at their project website.

Part of an AHRC-funded project supported by the History & Policy initiative, their research focuses on children as ‘agents of future promise’ in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain and France. Building on this foundation, the workshop aimed to explore the ways in which children are often forced to bear the burden of adults’ expectations, particularly when they are used collectively to promote visions of a brighter political or social future.

The idea of a “workshop” might conjure up visions of the usual smattering of academic papers with a predominantly historical focus – just another word, in fact, for a miniature one-day conference. Instead, those attending were presented with a veritable smorgasbord of insights, not only from the historians involved in the project, but also from representatives of children’s charities (War ChildPlan International) and campaign groups (Let Toys be Toys). The day was brilliantly structured so as to allow plenty of time for discussion, which so often gets short-changed or hijacked at academic conferences – so, participants were encouraged to debate and reflect upon the key questions raised by the presentations, not only after each speaker had given their paper, but also in small groups throughout the day.

The day began with a brief introduction by Laura King, the ‘Agents of Future Promise’ project’s principal investigator. She established a theoretical framework for thinking about the various presentations which we were going to hear, touching on contemporary debates which represent childhood as a social construction whose definition is constantly changing.

I for Image

From the Abécédaire du Maréchal Pétain (Bureau de documentation du Chef d’Etat, 1943), author’s collection

Historically – or even in the present day – there often exists a tension between defining children wholly according to their current, often highly dependent, ‘child’ status (their ‘being’) – or defining them according to expectations of what they may achieve as future adults (their ‘becoming’). And yet, if we only see children in terms of what they may one day become, do we too easily lose sight of them as actors in the present? And if some children, such as the offspring of asylum-seekers, are assumed to be less good ‘investments’ for the future than others, what detrimental impact may that assumption have on policy in the present?

We were then treated to Laura’s own paper, entitled ‘How were children mobilised to represent the future in World War II Britain?’ Using a variety of sources, including newspapers, documentary films, parliamentary reports and election materials, Laura’s research showed that anxieties about children’s health and safety, in the context of rationing and the wartime evacuation programme, meant that children were more actively invoked in British politics during the Second World War than ever before. These were, after all, the ‘citizens of the future’, and as such, needed to be protected and fostered, both mentally and physically. This rhetoric of ‘investment’ in the nation’s children in order to secure Britain’s future was seized upon by an amazingly diverse range of politicians and organisations – from Labour MPs to Churchill himself; from children’s charities such as the NSPCC to margarine manufacturers, or even the Norwich Union insurance company – whose advertising slogans during this period included ‘The leaders of tomorrow are amongst the children of today!’ Whether in terms of advertising, fundraising, or political grandstanding, such visions of childhood provided a cogent economic rationale for spending on children, in a way which seemed to transcend the usual political or social boundaries.

We then moved on to Lindsey Dodd‘s paper, ‘How did the Vichy Government in World War II France involve children in the pursuit of its goals?’ Drawing mainly on material from the French National Archives, Lindsey’s research examines the ways in which the Pétainist regime not only instrumentalised children, but allowed them to become political agents in their own right. Whereas children are often defined in terms of lack, incompetence, irrationality, and dependence – in short, as non-adults, or as projects rather than people – she argued that Vichy France in some sense empowered not only women, but children too, allowing them to participate in, and even influence, the life of the polity (even if, in terms of the Pétainist battle for births, ‘having children’ was still ultimately prioritised over ‘being children’).

Just as in wartime Britain, children were portrayed as symbols of ‘restoration’ and ‘the rebirth of hope’. However, in propaganda terms, the Vichy regime saw children as miniature ‘Trojan horses’ who could pass Pétainist values on to their families, reeducating those adults who were still tainted by their decadent prewar past, and setting them a good example. Children were encouraged to earn money to send to the Vichy national charity, or to send Marshal Pétain Christmas surprises, such as a drawing of the part of France which they loved most, in order to ‘bring a smile to his face’ (the government received over two million of these!). More questionably, they were also invited to denounce or ostracise any of their peers who refused to cooperate with the regime’s ‘Loyalty Leagues’, which had been founded to abolish cheating and oppositional behaviour in schools. Every child who wrote a letter to Pétain received a reply, which sometimes led to long-standing correspondence, and which generally contributed to children’s sense of responsibility and loyalty to the regime, as well as their engagement with its policies. These, then, Lindsey argues, were truly child citizens, who sought to fulfil the regime’s confidence in their social influence, in as far as this was possible – even if, ultimately, they could only offer Pétain ‘some of my green beans which I’ve saved’, or a drawing of a squirrel.

In the second session, two practitioners, Matt Ruuska from War Child UK, and Kerry Smith from Plan International, took the floor. Both charities’ representatives focused upon the absolute necessity of children becoming ‘stakeholders’ in their own development (a welcome reversal of the adult-centered investment rhetoric which we had encountered previously?). While Kerry highlighted Plan International’s ‘Because I am a girl…I’ll take it from here’ campaign, which aims to eradicate underage marriage, FGM, and other types of female inequality and persecution, particularly in education, Matt concentrated upon the measures which War Child takes to empower the children whose voices they champion. Above all, the charity believes that children should never be portrayed as helpless victims, and that their stories should under no circumstances be criminalised, sensationalised or trivialised. War Child helps children who have suffered terribly, yet survived, to learn what it means to speak out and articulate their human rights, yet without compromising their need for privacy. In one series of cartoon videos which the charity has created in order to persuade runaway children in Afghanistan (and beyond) that they can turn to War Child for aid, most of the animation had been completed by the charity’s protégés themselves. But the most harrowing promotional video of all – one which had apparently moved hardened charity employees to tears when it was first shown – is ‘Duty of Care’ – a Call of Duty-style videogame simulation, which brings to horrific life the trauma and anguish visited upon children in any warzone. Watch it: I guarantee that it will change your perspective within two-and-a-half minutes.

The third session focused on toys – past and present. Vicky Crewe‘s paper, ‘What do toys tell us about children’s roles in the British Empire in the wake of the Second Boer War (1899-1902)?’, explored how toys and games can be used to influence children’s national identification, encouraging them both to empathise with their country’s war effort in the present, and giving them an appetite for war later in life. Toy soldiers, Boer-War-themed games such as ‘The Relief of Ladysmith’ or ‘The Pretoria Bomb’, and even clockwork armoured trains (advertised in toy catalogues as ‘the novelty of the season!’), all helped to make children more enamoured of the war. Meanwhile, prizes such as knives and pens were offered to children if they sent letters to the troops, or solved war-related puzzles. One nine-year-old Irish boy clearly demonstrated the efficacy of this type of indoctrination when he demanded to be allowed to join up and fight straight away. On the other hand, girls’ magazines such as the Girl’s Own Paper contained far less war-related advertising than their male counterparts – and, when the war was mentioned, the focus was firmly placed upon quintessentially feminine activities such as fundraising and letter-writing – or simply upon stoic endurance whilst waiting for one’s menfolk to return.

That such gendered advertising is not only far from being a thing of the past, but that in recent years it has reached undreamed of heights (or should that be depths?) was amply proved by Jess Day’s presentation on ‘Gender training: What are toys and toy adverts teaching children about what it means to be a boy or girl?’ Jess is part of a grassroots media campaign called Let Toys be Toys, which is gradually gaining ever more momentum. Their raison d’être is quite simple – to persuade toy companies and retailers that there is no need to present their wares in a gender-segregated fashion, with hoardings over the aisles in Toys”R”Us, Boots or Centre Parks, bearing legends such as “Gifts for Boys”, “justboys” and “justgirls”. While any toy that has anything to do with construction, science, locomotion – or even just toy animals – is commonly marketed as “Boys’ Stuff”, girls are left with cosmetics, toiletries, and pink tat – the most egregious example of all three categories combined being a “Hello Kitty Beauty Spa”.

This segregation and “pinkification”, which is now prevalent at all levels of the toy industry, has also made its way into book marketing, and has even gone so far as to infect a certain brand of antenatal scans – half of which bear the legend “Future Athlete” (blue, with rugby ball branding), the other “Future Diva” (you guessed it: pink, with flowers)… Yes, targeted merchandise begins to be directed at children before they have even left the womb.

Depressingly, wordles from the achilleseffect.com website which focused on the toy industry’s gendered marketing language showed that many of the most popular words aimed at girls included “fashion”, “style”, “glam”, “nails”, “perfect”, and so forth, while boys were bombarded with words such as “battle”, “action”, “power”, “attack”, and “beat” (with “friends” hiding away, shamefacedly, in one corner). What could be more calculated to bear out the result of a recent Girl Guiding survey, which found that 87% of girls think that women are judged more on their appearance than their ability? Maybe the truth behind that old Mitchell and Webb skit on gendered advertising is more worrying than we realised…

The negative effect of all this on children who do not fit the industry’s stereotypes should not be underestimated, for all that it bears little comparison with the wartime hardships depicted by the charity representatives. One small girl was almost reduced to collapse after suffering endless teasing at school for her “boyish” clothes and pastimes – and then finding that even the naming of the aisles in her local toyshop deemed her enthusiasm for construction toys to be unnatural. Meanwhile, boys are finding themselves hamstrung by negative stereotypes, particularly about their supposed academic inferiority. A recently-commissioned report on boys’ reading habits found that 18% of boys and 12% of girls think that it is “girly” to read any book at all, and 19% of boys admitted that they would be embarrassed if they thought that a friend had seen them reading. The effect of such stereotyping also has a negative impact on imagined career choices: the medic-themed toys which Jess Day’s own daughter played with, which habitually portrayed men as doctors and women as mere nurses, had a greater hold on her young imagination than did her own lived reality, in which most of the doctors she had ever encountered had been female. Meanwhile, boys are brought up to believe that a career in the caring professions must be a de factoimpossibility. A pitiful list compiled by a class of 9-year-old Canadian boys under the heading “What I don’t like about being a boy” ran as follows:


Jess stressed that, by “not being able to be a mother”, the boys didn’t mean not being able physically to give birth, but merely not being able to be a hands-on father – the idea that men could be engaged parents was basically unthinkable for them.

As a little girl who utterly despised dolls (favouring teddy-bears, or even teddy-leopards!), who loved playing with model railways, Meccano, and toy swords (as well as fashioning heraldic shields out of Ready Brek boxes), and who plastered her bedroom walls and boarding-school pinboards with posters of steam trains – as opposed to the usual fare of ponies, fluffy animals or Leonardo di Caprio – I couldn’t sympathise more with the valiant work that Jess and the Let Toys be Toys team are doing. The idea that the vitality of any child’s imagination – or even ambition – should be curbed and sapped by the “pinkification” strategies dictated by the collective will of corporate marketing machines is highly distressing – and yet it happens every day, all over the world.

To conclude, then: All too often, seeking to join research and policy at the hip, or bringing practitioners and academics together, can seem rather forced – easily discernible as a piece of “outreach” that has merely been designed to tick the appropriate box on a funding application form, rather than being either a joy or a necessity. However, this workshop proved absolutely that, when done well, such initiatives can have true value and real impact – it provided the best kind of model for how dialogue can and should be fostered between academia and the wider world (perhaps it even encouraged us to erase that very dichotomy from our minds!).

In conclusion, Laura, Lindsey, Vicky, and the History and Policy team should all be congratulated for pulling together a programme which surely has to rank as one of the most enjoyable workshops or conferences I have ever attended. The day was full of unique insights, surprises – and, above all, fruitful opportunities to broaden one’s perspectives beyond the purely historical.

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

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.


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?


A 1945 election advertisement for the Labour Party, illustrating their appeal to the future through children

A 1945 election advertisement for the Labour Party, illustrating their appeal to the future through children

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

In my research into Britain during and after the Second World War, I have already come across a number of different reasons why children are used to represent visions of the future. Children are used for political, commercial and more generally ‘rhetorical’ purposes within popular culture:

  • Political: as illustrated in my last post, politicians often used an image of children in the future to help illustrate their actions and decisions in the present. Suggesting that their political stance or policies were going to benefit currently innocent and vulnerable children in their future adult state was an effective tool for persuading voters their intentions were good. Especially during wartime, politicians and military leaders from Britain and elsewhere used this tactic to suggest they were acting for the right ideological intentions. For example, in 1948, an article in The Times reported a speech from the President of France, Vincent Auriol, discussing progress made in implementing the Monnet Plan, which outlined plans for France’s reconstruction after the war. He argued that the nation must push for rapid recovery, through his suggestion that ‘There is no middle way between swift decadence and rapid recovery. We of to-day hold in our hands the fate of our children and of our country for many generations to come.’ Here, the President underlined the gravity of the situation through a reminder of his and the nation’s responsibility for its future generations.
  • Commercial: advertisers also often used descriptions and images of innocent and vulnerable children, and referred to their potential futures, as a way of selling their particular product or service. Appealing to parents in this way seemed to be an effective technique, as it was widely used in this period in newspaper advertising. For example, an advert for Stork margarine published in the Daily Mail in 1942 appealed to potential consumers by reiterating that good nutrition for small children was crucial. They offered a cookery leaflet to guide mothers that was ‘all about food for these future citizens’. In a slightly different vein, charities also appealed to potential donors to help secure the prosperous and happy future of the country by helping to care for deprived British children in the present. For example, the Waifs and Strays Society appealed for donations in 1943 by telling potential donors ‘Remember! Children are the Nation’s Greatest Asset for the Future’.
  • Rhetorical: Finally, some uses of children to represent the future were about helping to make a particular argument, in letters or opinion pieces in newspapers for example. Appealing to the need to help children in the present and therefore adults and the country as a whole in the future was a fairly uncontroversial motivation, and therefore could help make the case for a whole range of different, and often controversial ideas, from eugenic policies to changing the education system. For example, the Daily Mirror published a letter from a Mr R.F. Andrews in 1942, on the topic of women’s war work. The letter writer suggested that mothers’ contribution was too often undervalued, supporting his argument by reminding readers that ‘Little is said in tributes to women’s war work of the mothers tending to the future generation often, I know, going without much of their own rations to ensure that the children are fed and made fit in body and mind to inherit the better world of tomorrow.’ He called for greater recognition for women’s sacrifices.

Highlighting that children were agents of future promise could be very much for their own benefit. In appealing for potential donors, for example, children’s charities drew on a particular image of the children as future citizens and leaders in order to secure funding for children in need, from orphaned boys and girls to those with disabilities of some kind.

But some of the use of children to represent particular futures was clearly not about the children themselves. This way of thinking and talking about children seemed to increase in times of political change, such as elections and during the Second World War, perhaps suggesting this tactic was less about children’s welfare and more for the (political) ends of the adults using this argument. For example, the Daily Mirror reiterated this tactic several times through an editorial on the election in May 1945, reminding voters of the importance of voting because ‘the future of your children is at stake’. The purpose of this article was to encourage readers to vote, and to cast their vote for the Labour party.

As we move into full campaigning for the upcoming election in May 2015, this is also apparent in contemporary political debates – and was effectively satirised by Pub Landlord Al Murray in his recent bid to stand against UKIP leader Nigel Farage. In Murray’s ‘election manifesto’, he noted that ‘I believe the children are the future and there’s no way you’ll get me knocking teachers. Teachers are on the front line, the coalface. Doing their bit to create a level playing field for our kids… although I’m not sure they’re going about it the right way by making sure none of the kids can read and write.’ Though light-hearted, like all effective satire, Murray underlines an essential truth about the use of children in election rhetoric.

At the heart of all of this is a tacit acceptance that children can be used for the motivations and benefits of others. Using a child’s image in an advert is not in itself inherently harmful – but our project is starting to question whether the use of children to represent future promise might contribute to a wider culture in which the exploitation of children occurs and in some instances is accepted. For me, there is a parallel with understandings of gender; as the Everyday Sexism project highlights, small instances of a particular way of thinking can lead to a wider culture in which discrimination, exploitation and inequality are accepted. Is this an over cautious approach to thinking about how children are used, or a legitimate concern about the welfare and wishes of children themselves?

s200_laura.kingBy Laura King, Project Principal Investigator, School of History, University of Leeds

Historians have described the Second World War as a ‘total war’ – as the economy was redirected towards the war effort and because almost everyone was directly affected by the war in one way or another. Men were conscripted into military service or could be held back in reserved occupations crucial to the war effort, whilst those too old or young to serve could join the Home Guard (or ‘Dad’s Army’). Women worked in a whole range of occupations – from 1941 they too were conscripted by the government, into war work in farming or industry, or into women’s military service organisations such as the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) and the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force). And the stories and images of children evacuated out of the big cities from September 1939 into apparently safer rural areas dominate our memory of this conflict.

In explaining the reasons for continuing to fight, and trying to persuade British people about his vision for the country, Winston Churchill spoke about the future generation and their protection. He painted a picture of future generations who were fair and just. Churchill’s use of children might not have been quite so explicitly ideological and politically motivated as the efforts of Marshal Pétain in Vichy France at the same time, but nonetheless, the same kinds of thinking about children informed the way Churchill spoke about the war. In January 1941, outlining his war aims at an apparently impromptu speech in Glasgow, the Prime Minister concluded by describing the faith of the British people in the rightness of their struggle to help liberate countries occupied by enemy forces. This faith, he added, would

 carry us forward to a time when those countries which I have mentioned, who are now subjugated and trampled down, will bless the British name, and we shall be able to hand on to those in this island who come after us, to our children and grandchildren, a record of duty done which will not have been surpassed in all the rugged annals of our island home. (Daily Mail, 18 January 1941)

Some of this way of outlining the future was typical of the grandiose rhetoric of politicians like Churchill. But within these bold statements about passing on not only a safe and peaceful country, but also a history of fighting for justice, to future generations lies a much deeper relationship between children and ideas of Britishness and British values. During war, the connection between the actions of foreign governments and people at home becomes much more closely connected, and politicians, from a range of political backgrounds, used children to symbolise this and to attempt to mobilise the efforts of the British people in the war effort.

In a speech to the Senate and Commons in Canada at the end of 1941, described by the Daily Mail as ‘one of the most moving and magnificent speeches of his career’, Churchill ‘lashed at the Men of Vichy with the deep contempt of which he is supreme master’ and condemned the actions of the German, Italian and Japanese governments. He connected the actions of these governments with British people back home through the symbolic potential of children:

This is no time, according to my sense of proportion, to speak of the hopes of the future or of the brighter world. We have to win that world for our children. We have to win it by our sacrifices. We have not won it yet. The crisis is upon us. The power of the enemy is immense. We cannot for a moment afford to relax, but must drive forward with unrelenting zeal. In this strange, terrible world war, there is a place for everyone, man and woman, old and young, the hale and halt – service in a thousand forms is open. (Daily Mail, 31 December 1941)

Children, as an innocent and vulnerable future generation, provide a way for politicians to connect the military and political actions of their government and the nation as a whole to the people of that nation. In directly linking the fight against foreign enemies to the children at home, Churchill underlined the service of British people in the war effort as crucial and sacrifice as necessary.

The language of home and family has dominated descriptions and metaphors about Britain and Britishness – think of the home front, the Home Guard, and the gendering of the nation as a ‘motherland’ or simply ‘she’. Children figure strongly within this, and using the family as a metaphor for a national struggle to protect its children made everyone responsible for that fight. Churchill’s words reminded citizens that it was not just delivering a peaceful future to Britain’s children that was important, but the knowledge that everyone had done their duty to achieve this too.