Young and far from heaven

19th January 1996 at 00:00
Children Childhood in Western Society Since 1500, By Hugh Cunningham, Longman Pounds 32, Pounds 10.99. Growing Up Poor: Home, School Street in London 1870-1914, By Anna Davin, Rivers Oram Press Pounds 19.95. Hooligans or Rebels?: An Oral History of Working-Class Childhood and Youth 1989-1939, By Stephen Humphries, Blackwell Pounds 13.99

Julia Thorogood finds that the history of childhood is all too often a bleak catalogue of growing pains. Hugh Cunningham begins his survey of changing attitudes towards children and childhood by quoting the eleven year old Zlata Filipovic as she laments her life in the siege of Sarajevo "A schoolgirl without a school, without the fun and excitement of a school. A child without games, without friends, without the sun, without birds, without nature, without fruit, without chocolate or sweets, with just a little powdered milk. In short a child without a childhood."

Some have doubted the status of Zlata's Diary as a child's unaided work and, although Professor Cunningham does not waste his time with such speculation, he notes elsewhere that children's diaries may say more about the expectations of their adult readers than about the experience of being a child. Did Zlata select the elements of "a childhood" alone or in conversation with her parents? The message of Hugh Cunningham's book is that definitions of childhood are primarily adult constructs which are then inflicted on the lives of children.

This may be for better or worse. The coming of Christianity to the Roman Empire, for example, transformed infanticide from a pragmatic solution to neo-natal deformity into a crime punishable by death because Christian children had souls. Later children, born into the most zealous Protestant households of the 16th and 17th centuries, might be forgiven if the had occasionally regretted their immortal spark. The onus was on parents to bring them to salvation. As Susanna Wesley wrote of her own family "when turned a year old (and some before) they were taught to fear the rod and to cry softly by which means they escaped abundance of correction which they might otherwise have had"

With the relative decline of belief in original sin, 18th-century attitudes to children changed to such an extent that by the end of the century Wordsworth envisaged the child "trailing clouds of glory" as it came from God. Childhood became something to be treasured and revered for those who could afford it.

Poorer families, meanwhile, were succumbing wholesale to the pressures for survival which forced their children, the cheapest labour, into the factories of the industrial revolution.

Children and Childhood follows the growth of middle-class philanthropy then state regulation of children's lives on until the late 20th century. This, the self-styled century of the child, has arguably seen the greatest changes of all. As it draws to its close some are coming to believe that the idea of childhood as a special, protected stage of life is almost redundant.

Hugh Cunningham conducts his survey as much through historiography as through history, a method which does little to bring his readers close to the experience of individual children and their families.

Growing Up Poor, Anna Davin's portrait of children's lives in London, is supported by an impressive mass of primary research, using school log books, attendance registers, inspectors' reports and parliamentary papers as well as oral material collected by herself and by members of the Essex Oral History Project and Hackney People's Autobiography.

From such sources emerges a humane and often moving account of the difficulties faced by working-class families between 1870 and 1914 as they struggled to survive financially and to cope with the increasingly peremptory diktats of authorities who were determined that all children's lives should conform (at least outwardly) to the post-romantic ideal of dependent childhood.

The introduction of compulsory schooling had a profound effect on the ecosystem of the working class family. Certainly it removed children from full-time work or from a life on the streets. It also removed baby-minders from the home so restricting their mothers' opportunities to earn. Increasingly it let in school board visitors, health inspectors and educationalists enforcing alien standards of punctuality, cleanliness, obedience to authority, moral conformity and gender stereotype. (And it had to be paid for.)

Well-intentioned legislation had unintended results, as when the children of homeworkers, forced to attend school during the day for fear of fines, began their hours of work when they returned home. Otherwise "they don't get no dinner an' no tea . . . if the kids don't work there isn't the money to buy it".

Where Growing Up Poor is usually content to leave readers to make their own assessment of the balance of advantage and disadvantage to actual children entailed in new theories of "State parenthood", Hooligans or Rebels? is unequivocal in its rejection of the "Whig view" of childhood and youth as "a history of progress and enlightened reform, moving irrevocably towards more humane standards of care, protection and learning"

According to Stephen Humphries late 19th and early 20th century reforms are in fact "social imperialism", a concerted attempt by the dominant middle-class to achieve cultural hegemony. Hooligans or Rebels? presents aspects of working-class resistance, conscious or unconscious, to this invasion by the bourgeoisie, from the school strikes in 1889 and 1911, through individual acts of classroom defiance, "larking about", truancy, vandalism, to the activities of street gangs and the desperate escape attempts of those who were committed to the reform institutions.

All such acts of rebellion were ruthlessly suppressed and there was much public talk of delinquency, degeneracy, brutalisation and "moral rottenness". Against such pontification Stephen Humphries chooses to set people's own words, collected by oral history groups in Essex, Manchester and Bristol.

"Bitter? I should say I was," remembered one man who had lied about his age on official advice, joined up at 16 and served in the trenches then returned to no job, no money, a silver medal and a workhouse suit. "You was feeling revolutionary. I know I nearly did go off the deep end. Only those who went through it knows. That why we nearly had a revolution in Bristol, smashed the tram cars up" Hooligans or Rebels? was first published in 1981, in a year which saw gangs of youths rampaging through many major cities, causing moral panic in most sections of the press and at least as much anguished windbaggery as was evoked by the school strikes in 1889 and 1911.

Its republication today may serve to remind us that every article about the "alien sub-cultures" of modern youth or the creation of a disaffected "under-class" refers to particular people with individual problems and aspirations. Should we wait until they are octogenarians before we ask them to describe themselves?

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