What I did at the weekend

A long forgotten archive of children's essays gives us a snapshot of Edwardian life. Are children any happier now, asks Luke McKernan

A century ago, schoolchildren across London sat down to write their weekly composition. The theme they were given was "How I Spent Saturday".

Unknown to them, they were taking part in a sociological exercise. Toynbee Hall, the university settlement in London's East End where socially-concerned academics studied amid the working classes, was conducting research into how children spent their free time.

"Saturday is a day of peculiar interest in the child's life," as Thomas Edmund Harvey, the deputy warden of Toynbee Hall, put it. "It is a whole holiday, as far as school is concerned, though anything but a holiday to many London children. It is a day in which the child shares the ordinary life of the home, and, to a larger extent than most people realise, the work and cares of his elders."

Hundreds of essays were analysed in a fascinating pamphlet written by Harvey, A London Boy's Saturday, published in 1906, which provides us with a rare and precious record of childhood from 100 years ago. Written in longhand with quill pens, the essays - around 100 of which survive in the archives of the London School of Economics - are fascinating accounts of home lives, recreations, aspirations and view on the world.

Many writers came from London's poorest districts, and their lives were circumscribed by poverty and drudgery, with little free time or spaces in which to play. Others, in better-off districts, reveal what an adventure playground London could be for those with a few pence in their pocket.

The older children produce the richer accounts. This, from an unnamed boy, describes a day spent selling newspapers: "Last Saturday I earnt about eightpence or ninepence. My mother was very pleased with what I earnt. The reason why I sell papers is because my father has no work, and I have to sell papers. When I took my earnings home to my mother, she gave me twopence to go to the King's Theatre. I came out at a quarter to twelve and went towards home. As I was walking home I met my sister. I and my sister went home to bed."

Many of the children went out to work on a Saturday; selling newspapers was the commonest occupation, while younger boys often sold wood. Staying out past midnight was not uncommon for working-class children. Their parents were often working and it was considered safer - and less trouble - to have children outside rather than in. In several essays boys record going very tired to bed, one having worked on vegetable stalls at Spitalfields Market from early morning to 10.30 at night.

The average day began with children dressing and washing, lighting the fire or doing household chores; cleaning the cutlery was common. There is a marked emphasis on timing, the hour for every activity being faithfully recorded.

For those who did not work, or had some free time after work, street games such as "tip-cat", hide-and-seek, cricket and football were all popular.

The music hall is mentioned several times, but one boy, after a 12-hour day delivering flour, records going to a new form of entertainment: "At 8pm I had finished my work, I called at the Leysian Mission and saw Cinematagraph (sic) scenes. I returned home at 10pm. I had a wash, had my supper and thanked God for keeping me safe through the day and then went to sleep."

There were no cinemas in 1905, but the East End missions were becoming a popular source of entertainment for children, and the magic lantern shows would soon give way to motion pictures.

Despite the pamphlet's title, girls were included in the survey. Harvey found their essays "naturally somewhat less interesting reading", as most worked at home, performing household chores, preparing food, minding babies and doing needlework. Only a minority were able to go out in the evening and the essays reveal lives of drudgery. The girls read noticeably more than the boys, usually school stories and magazines such as Spare Moments, Home Chat and Golden Chains. Girls' street games include hopscotch, skipping, "mothers and fathers" and "school".

Around half of the surviving essays are on another theme, "What I Shall Do When I Leave School". Boys aged 12 or 13 reveal lives mapped out for them by anxious parents, as they prepared to enter the job market at 14. Many said they were to follow in their father's occupation, as post office clerk, clockmaker or milkman. Several hoped to be engineers or rail guards and many of the essays emphasised obedience and punctuality.

George Hosler wanted to be a carpenter: "I shall have to attend regularly and punctually. I shall have to get errands and do odd jobsII shall do whatever my master tells me."

One senses the shadow of the teacher looming over these complaisant accounts of deference, hard work and dedication to saving money. The fear of unemployment underlies them all. Several aim to improve themselves through evening classes, and have the long-term ambition of running their own business. Some intriguingly refer to their "leisure time", when Samuel Welch says he will "attend a library, swimming baths and a gymnasium".

Harvey was looking for ways in which children's supposed free time was being curtailed through a lack of opportunities and education, but the essays reveal not only a rich and creative social life for many of the children (the boys at least), but a growing awareness of a time that should be their own.

It is a world away from the children of the present day, with ample time on their hands, and a leisure culture of video games, PlayStation, television and DVDs. "Many children never get the chance of learning how to play as they might," complains Harvey.

It is debatable whether, in our modern world of play, we have truly learned to value our free time more than those children of 100 years ago.

Luke McKernan is head of information at the British Universities Film Video Council. He discovered the essays during a research project on London's first cinemas

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