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Visionary Women and Visible Children, England


“By focussing on pioneering women’s work to improve childhood and the social status of children, Mayall re-writes the history of the early women’s movement in England, showing how women pioneers in the early 20C fought for justice for both women and children. Childhood emerges as a social status in society, and children as the new generation on which the nation’s prosperity depended. Alongside their suffrage work, women were at the forefront of work to ensure that children acquired rights and status as deserving of national and international inter- vention. Through analysis of memoirs, Mayall casts new light on elementary school children’s status as contributors to the economic survival of their families.” —Virginia Morrow, University of Oxford, UK

Berry Mayall

Visionary Women and Visible Children, England 1900–1920

Childhood and the Women’s Movement

Berry Mayall Visionary Women and Visible Children, England 1900–1920 Childhood and the Women’s Movement

Berry Mayall UCL Institute of Education London, UK

ISBN 978-3-319-61206-5 DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-61207-2

Library of Congress Control Number: 2017949480

ISBN 978-3-319-61207-2


© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2018 This work is subject to copyright. All rights are solely and exclusively licensed by the Publisher, whether the whole or part of the material is concerned, specifically the rights of translation, reprinting, reuse of illustrations, recitation, broadcasting, reproduction on microfilms or in any other physical way, and transmission or information storage and retrieval, electronic adaptation, computer software, or by similar or dissimilar methodology now known or hereafter developed. The use of general descriptive names, registered names, trademarks, service marks, etc. in this publication does not imply, even in the absence of a specific statement, that such names are exempt from the relevant protective laws and regulations and therefore free for general use. The publisher, the authors and the editors are safe to assume that the advice and information in this book are believed to be true and accurate at the date of publication. Neither the pub- lisher nor the authors or the editors give a warranty, express or implied, with respect to the material contained herein or for any errors or omissions that may have been made. The publisher remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institu- tional affiliations.

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I am grateful to my grandson, Louis Mayall, who worked as a research assistant in the early stages of this study, collecting and analysing useful background information. Many thanks to Abigail Knight who provided a valuable link to interviews carried out in Ambleside; also to Priscilla Alderson for discussion of children’s rights; and to Virginia Morrow for her expertise on the law relating to education. I am greatly indebted to the UCL Institute of Education library staff, who, unfailingly helpful and kindly, have helped me track down books and papers; and given me access to the very valuable archives held at the Institute.


Chapter One



Chapter Two

The Women’s Movement and Childhood,



Chapter Three

The Economics of Childhood: Home and Neighbourhood


Chapter Four

Experiencing Elementary School


Chapter Five

Women and Children and the Great War Years


Chapter Six

After the Great War


Appendix A


Appendix B: Legislation and Other Board of Education Documents Relating to Children 1870–1918






A note on currency

For those familiar only with decimal currency, that is UK money since 1972, I give some notes on the currency in the earlier part of the twentieth century. During the course of the book, I include some details about incomes and expenditure.

One farthing—¼d; one quarter of one penny, 1d. (the d. is short for denarius, Latin for a Roman penny…) One half penny, or ha’penny—½d; one half of 1d. One penny: 12 pennies—one shilling 1s., 144 pennies—one pound: £1 Farthings, ha’pennies and pennies were coppers. Money above this level was in silver. Sixpenny bit—6d. or half a shilling One shilling—12d., or 24 ha’pennies Five bob—5 shillings, 20 shillings—£1 Half a crown—two shillings and six pence or 2/6. eight half crowns—£1 One pound: £1 One guinea: £1.1s.0d.

We also have to note that weights for food were in pounds and ounces. A pound is about half a kilo and 16 ounces make one pound.



whAt Incomes dId PArents of elementAry school chIldren receIve?

For an unskilled male worker, weekly income might be between 18s and 28s. This is shown in Pember Reeves’ list (1988) of the incomes of 31 families studied in Lambeth in 1911–13. Another good source of information is Clementina Black’s edited col- lection of papers on married women’s work (1915). Generally, these women earned half a man’s wage, and many of the occupations were ‘women’s jobs’, not unionised, including work carried out at home for employers, notably dress-making work. The memoirs also provide information. Rolph’s father, a sergeant in the police, was earning 28s. a week, when Rolph was born (Rolph p. 12). Rolph emphasises that they were not poor—this salary was enough to house, feed and clothe the family of four (two parents and two children) in London. But he went to school with barefoot children and family income was clearly reflected in clothes. On the other hand, Jasper’s father, a drunken casual labourer, gave his wife only 8s. or 10s. a week. She tried to make up for this by making and selling clothes. But they were often short of food and boots and some- times fell behind with the rent. (Jasper passim) Rent for housing might vary from 5s. to 8s. a week. Commonly, the city houses offering three or four floors would each house three or four families, each having two rooms on a floor. Washing and laundry facilities and lavatories were commonly shared. In rural areas, agricultural labourers often lived in a tied cottage, that is, rent free and owned by their employer— the farmer, but their wages might reflect this, and 10s. a week is noted for male agricultural workers (for detail on earnings see Len Thompson’s account in Blythe (1972) pp. 31–38). Those in tied cottages sometimes had a garden, so they could grow vegetables and keep chickens and pigs.

whAt could these moneys Buy?

An illuminating account is given by Robert Roberts, whose mother kept a corner shop in a slum area of Salford. Most of the money she took in each day was in coppers: farthings, ha’pennies and pennies (Roberts 1977, p. 104). Families bought food by the day, sometimes shopping both morning and evening. This is partly because they had nowhere safe, dry and clean to keep food and partly because income was insecure—some



fathers were paid by the day (Pember Reeves chapter 8). Some women shopped late at night, because then the perishable food was reduced in price (Rolph 1980, p. 75). A good source is Pember Reeves, who collected detailed accounts of weekly income spent by Lambeth housewives (chapter 10) (See my Chapter Three). They had to budget in fuel for heating and to cook by; often funeral insurance (since a child might die); money for boots and clothing. On food, Pember Reeves notes, the main expense was for bread, which cost about 2½d. a loaf (this was the main food eaten for breakfast and the evening meal). Sugar was 2d. a pound (used for sweetening tea) and fami- lies might use 3 or 4 pounds a week. Potatoes were cheap at about ½d. a pound. Meat, mostly for the father, was a once-in-the-week buy (for the Sunday main meal) and might cost 2s.6d. a week (2/6). Mid-week, a fish or a rasher of bacon or an egg might be bought for the father’s evening meal. Bennett records that a haddock or bloater was 1½d. or 2d. (Bennett, p. 22). Pember Reeves records the average spent on food per person per day; in most of her 31 families it is about 2½d. each per day. Children could earn money. But just as women were paid half of male wages, so children were paid even less. Girls might ‘mind’ a neighbour’s

child for a penny or two (1d. or 2d.) a session. Jan Jasper was paid 6d. for

a long day helping with an expedition of people out to Epping Forest (but

his mother forced the employer to stump up 2/6) (Jasper 1974, p. 68). Clifford Hills was in more regular employment from the age of 9: he worked in the big house from 7 a.m. till 10 a.m., then went to school, then worked from 4 p.m. till 6 p.m. and on Saturday from 7 a.m. till 1 p.m. For this he was paid 2s. a week (Thompson T. 1981, pp. 57–63). Pember Reeves details the wages earned, by children, in families where the father was out of work or had only intermittent earnings. For instance the eldest girl in one family was earning 6s.per week working full-time in a factory and her brother earned 2s.6d. as a milk delivery boy, working two hours before and again after school plus ‘several hours’ on Saturday and Sunday (Pember Reeves, p. 181.) Rolph (pp. 64–65) gives some detail on what children could buy with the amounts of money they might personally have. In his relatively well-off family, he had weekly pocket money of 1d. With a quarter of that,

a farthing, you could buy a toffee apple, or a foot-long strip of toffee or a

sherbet dab (a hollow stick of liquorice poking out of a screw of sherbet). With a penny, you could frequent the Marks and Spencer’s penny bazaar,



which sold toys (such as dolls and tin model vehicles), painting books, pencils and crayons. Bennett (p. 21) also notes the cost of sweets: four ounces of toffee for 1d. or a farthing’s-worth of sweets.

lIst of ABBrevIAtIons


Charity Organisation Society


East London Federation of Suffragettes


Fabian Women’s Group


International Labour Organization


Independent Labour Party


London County Council


Local Education Authorities


London School Board


New Education Fellowship


National Federation of Women Workers


National Union of Teachers


National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies


Save the Children Fund


School Leaving Age


Socialist Sunday Schools


Times Educational Supplement


Theosophic Fraternity in Education


Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948


United Nations Convention on the Rights of the


Child, 1989 Women’s Co-operative Guild


Workers’ Educational Association


Women’s Industrial Council




Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom


Women’s Labour League


Women’s Social and Political Union


Women’s Trade Union League



Said the Socialist to the Suffragist:

‘My cause is greater than yours! You only work for a Special Class, We for the gain of the General Mass, Which every good ensures!’

Said the Suffragist to the Socialist:

‘You underrate my Cause! While women remain a Subject Class, You never can move the General Mass, With your Economic Laws!’

‘A lifted world lifts women up,’ The Socialist explained. ‘You cannot lift the world at all While half of it is kept so small,’ The Suffragist maintained.

The world awoke, and tartly spoke:

‘Your work is all the same:

Work together or work apart, Work, each of you, with all your heart— Just get into the game!’

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1911 1




This Book—iTs PurPoses

In this book I consider and deploy some (fairly well known) sources of information and use them to explore a neglected topic: a topic which, however, is not hard to identify in a wide range of studies. I aim to study how the women’s movement in England worked to improve the condition of children and the social status of childhood in the early years of the twentieth century. In a nutshell, this means considering how far women defined themselves mainly as feminists—or suffragists and suffragettes— fighting gender wars and how far they took a wider view and engaged with socialism—the transformation of society towards a better society for all, including children. 2 ‘Children’ here means the next generation of people, and includes consideration of their participation in the maintenance and forwarding of the social order. Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a key thinker on this topic. She was an American scholar who worked as a member of the transatlantic women’s movement in the 1900s. Her work was, it seems, widely read in England. She came to England at least twice, and did lecture tours on feminism and socialism. 3 She saw children as the next generation, participants in taking civilisation forward. I discuss her work in Chapter Two. This book draws firstly on the extensive body of work on the women’s movement in the early twentieth century. This was a movement famously aiming for suffrage, so it was centrally concerned with gender relations, but it led some women into fundamental analyses of how society worked and how it might work better. I draw on a wide range of studies here 4 and will refer to them along the way; and I note the very useful work carried out on women reformers, with particular reference to the education of children. 5 Secondly, there is a perhaps equally large body of work on the implications for children and for childhood itself, of the decision in 1870 to school the nation’s poorest children. 6 These two sets of studies, carried out over the most recent half cen- tury, have had, in general, differing and distinctive focuses; the first col- lection of studies is concerned mainly with adult relations—ideas about women, gender relations, women’s activities, their status in society, and their relations with the socio-economic order. The second group of stud- ies has been concerned with adults’ work for children: the educational, health and welfare issues that arose as a consequence of the appearance in publicly provided institutions of poor children, required from 1870 to attend school; most authors concern themselves either with child welfare



or with schooling. 7 Both these sets of studies are concerned with what women thought and did. And both sets of studies—by sociologists and historians—have, as ever, not been much concerned with attempting to consider childhood experience, though they have been concerned with children’s status in society. In this book, I shall build on this large body of work and shall supple- ment it with explorations of women’s written work at the time. I shall move on to consider how social life, including school—and more broadly education—was experienced and valued by children. This means using the available data—memoirs, interviews—to explore these experiences. I append a note in this Introduction on ‘using’ these data. Many women who worked in the early twentieth century women’s movement were fighting not just for themselves, but for a better society for all social groups. Socialist women campaigned most deliberately, not for women-and-children as an indissolubly linked grouping; and not, cen- trally, for children as a childcare issue. Instead they worked for children regarded as a constituency in society—what nowadays we call a social group. Children, they proposed, had rights to education, health and wel- fare services, tailored to the specific character of childhood within the socio-economic order. Children journeyed through a specific develop- mental process, which had implications for both health and education ser- vices. By virtue of their subordinate position, vis-à-vis adults, children, as women increasingly argued, had rights to both protection and enablement. So my aim in this book is to study the interlocked lives and fortunes of women and children in the early twentieth century. To do this, I have adopted a two-pronged approach. Firstly, I consider the work women did about and for children in the contexts of their explorations of how society might be better organised. My aim is to investigate the proposition that one important strand in the work women carried out in the women’s movement in the early twentieth century was a mission to conceptualise a better society for both women and children—and even, in some cases, for men (though men constituted a more formidable problem). Sylvia Pankhurst, for instance, worked on all three fronts (see Chapter Five). However, feminist women had to work, to some extent, within the param- eters that were laid out in men’s assumptions about women. For at the time a common view among men was that women had a distinctive orien- tation to the social world, in contrast to men: because it was women who bore children, they had a natural instinct to care for children, and to




empathise with children. Whether or not women agreed with this mater- nalism thesis, they could use it as justification for their suggestions for better childhoods. Judging from the available data, we can see that some women were envisaging a new society that would work better than the existing one, in the interests of all social groups, including children. Secondly, since the existing work on family, neighbourhood and school in the period 1870–1920 has focused mainly on adult–child relations, with the emphasis on adult activity and experience 8 (although studies of working class motherhood give tantalising insights into what childhood meant to children 9 ), I try here to contribute a child standpoint to this work about childhood. This means investigating what were children’s ‘takes’ on childhood—on their social positioning in the family, in the neighbourhood, on child–adult relations, on women’s lives, on schooling. For if women can be understood as working for better childhoods, it is important also to explore and maybe arrive at some, however tentative, understandings of what those childhoods were like. At root, this investiga- tion turns out to be about how children understood gendered intergen- erational relations in the context of their material, economic lives. Thus, whilst throughout the book I present women’s work for children, in two chapters (Three and Four) I concentrate mainly on what we can glean from memoirs about how English children experienced childhood. I have chosen to limit this exploration to children who attended elementary schools, for one main reason: they constituted the biggest group of chil- dren. It was these children who, newly visible en masse to the adult eye, aroused concern about their schooling and about their health and wel- fare—and in so doing caused adult commentators to reconsider the divi- sion of responsibility, as between parents and the state, for child welfare and for the quality of childhood more generally. The long sustained campaigns women embarked on from (at least) the mid-nineteenth century towards legal recognition for themselves as peo- ple with rights in the public arena found women forming societies to dis- cuss women’s issues, such as the Langham Place group in the 1860s; 10 engaging in programmes of research, for instance as pioneered by the Fabian Women’s Group; speaking at public meetings, writing books and journal papers arguing the case for equal rights for women. As Rhoda Garrett (1841–82) noted in 1872, it was ‘the very unreasonableness of men’s prejudices’ that made it so hard for women to argue against them; 11 but this ‘unreasonableness’ demanded of women that they produce solid arguments to support their cause. And these arguments led them to full-



scale analysis of what was wrong with the social order and how it might be improved. It was not just the gender order that needed consideration, it was also the generational order—how the older generation had, or had not, enabled childhoods to flourish, in the interests not only of childhood experience but of the future health and prosperity of society. Given the huge disparities in wealth and influence between the upper and lower classes, it is no accident that during this period people, includ- ing women, joined socialist organisations. It was also an age when people wrote utopias. Clear-sighted people could see that capitalism had pro- duced massive poverty; and nothing less than full-scale change was required. In such a climate, utopias provide visions of what, ideally, one might aim for, even though in practice the ideal is not achievable. That is why, in this book, I have devoted a section (in Chapter Two) to what the utopians envisaged; and in particular to the work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, sociologist and feminist, who worked on the reform of society for many years. Most people who live in the minority world and read this book will have little difficulty in agreeing that women should have equal rights to men: economic independence, the right to vote, to do paid work, to express their own views—these then-controversial topics are relatively uncontroversial in the UK nowadays. More difficult is to gain agreement with the proposition that children are not deficient or incomplete adults, not developmental projects, not just objects of concern. Even after some 35 years in which people have argued for sociological approaches to child- hood, it is common (even at academic conferences) to meet people who continue to think predominantly in terms of child development towards the gold standard of adulthood. So I have thought it relevant to set out here some key sociological ideas about childhood and its relations with adulthood. Finally, in this introductory section, I re-emphasise that this book focuses on women’s work for children who attended elementary schools. Of course there are other strands of research that investigate middle- and upper-class childhoods: the children protected (and confined?) in well-to-do households and educated at home or in private schools. 12 Such research includes reconsideration of the stories written for children at the time and what they tell us of conceptualisations of children and of child- hood. Well-to-do childhoods emerge as a special time, to be protected and celebrated, but also controlled; and studies also suggest that childhoods were understood, in part, in relation with empire and patriotism. 13 The




pioneering women discussed in this book may well have been influenced in their conceptualisations of childhood by such ideas current at the time, but they also had much larger understandings of childhood’s positioning in society. For, through their theoretical work and their hands-on work, they gained a wide appreciation of the social and economic status of the majority of childhoods.

sociological aPProaches To childhood

Some years ago, 14 it was pointed out that if women who theorised their own adult gendered position in society wanted also to rethink their relations with children, it was going to be necessary to rethink childhood as well, to move beyond traditional emphasis on babies’ needs for mothers’ care: in essence to sociologise childhood. That is what some of us have tried to do in the intervening years. Both gender and generation must be addressed. So here I lay out some of the foundational points in the sociological approach to childhood, since it forms the basis of arguments in this book. For one aim of this book is to consider, as far as is possible at this distance in time, what the social status of elementary school children was in the early twentieth century: how did they experience childhood and child– parent relations and what was the salience to them of the schooling they were exposed to? To what extent were adult commentators conceptualis- ing children as a social group in society? And, since some thought of chil- dren as children of the state, what were their arguments in favour of this view? In giving a discussion of these topics, I aim to provide a basis for thinking about what were the challenges that women faced in trying to improve childhoods. I discuss in a separate section (below) the difficulties of trying to get at childhood experience, but I emphasise here that I think it important to try to counterpose childhood experience with the views of adults at the time and in the more recent studies. Thus we may find through consideration of these childhoods what were the ways in which social forces impacted on childhoods; and, in turn, what were the possi- bilities for improving those childhoods. In the UK the movement to take account of children and of childhood in sociological analyses took off in the 1980s. The early work focused on children’s contributions to the division of labour; in Western societies this could be seen as having changed from direct involvement in the work of the society to an indirect contribution, once children had been gathered together into schools. 15 Children could and should be understood, it was



argued, as contributors to the functioning of the social order through their learning at school, but also through their contributions to relations

with adults. This idea focuses on children as active participants in a gen- erational order; for child–parent relations and child–teacher relations are not one-way; each side contributes to the interactions. And what each side contributes to the interaction makes a difference to the other partner’s contribution to the interaction. 16

A further development in thinking about children in society is to con-

ceptualise them as a minority social group. This means considering whether there are features of childhoods which are common across childhoods; thus, notably, it can be argued that children, everywhere, at any time, are subordinate to adults. This arises from the biological dependency of young children, and is sedimented in social arrangements as children get older. 17 I have found that this point meets with resistance from many adults: they are uncomfortable with it; they say surely child subordination to adults is not essential; surely we can work towards freeing children from their sub- ordination and instead support their agency. Yes, we can and should sup- port children’s agency, and one of the key themes in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC 1989) is children’s par- ticipation rights. Indeed, we have to have a separate rights convention for children, emphasising their participation rights alongside provision and

protection rights, just because of that difficult placing: children as a social group are subordinated to adult social groups—both individually and in terms of laws and practices established over time.

If children constitute a social group, we are then able to investigate a

key theme in a sociological approach: how social, economic and political forces impact in specific ways on children as a social group. There are parallels here with the women’s movement; for clearly, investigation of this key theme was central to women’s investigations into women as a social group; how women experienced their gendered subordination to men, at all lev- els, individual and structural. An important relevant theme here is provided in discussions of the relations of ruling; for if women’s lives, experiences and understandings are structured through men’s control of ideas, policies and practices, then women’s accounts of their lives, experiences and

understandings provide a key way into understanding how gender issues are played out in societies. 18 Similarly, we can investigate how adult ideas about childhood and children’s lives structure children’s experiences and understandings; and this exploration gives us better knowledge of how generational issues are played out in a society.




As regards children, some of the women I focus on in the book were particularly alert to socio-economic impacts on children. Margaret McMillan, for instance, having studied child development theory, argued that if the nurturing of a child was deficient at a particular point in that child’s life, the child could never make good the lack or deficiency. Eglantyne Jebb and colleagues recorded how malnutrition during the Great War left Viennese two-year-olds unable to walk, with stunted, twisted bodies and legs, whereas their mothers could, just about, with- stand starvation. Many people saw that children were routinely subjected to indoctrination, for instance into Christianity, during their childhood, when they, unlike adults, had few possibilities for investigating other approaches to morality and religious belief. In response a few people began to organise Socialist Sunday Schools, which aimed to provide chil- dren with an introduction to socialist thought and practice (see Chapter Two, pages 39–41). A general point made by many who thought about childhood was that children constituted a new generation, the only hope for the society of the future; and on that basis alone, they should be care- fully fostered. The idea of children as a social group implies a fundamental theme:

childhood as a social status in relation to the other major status: adulthood. In using the term childhood, one is thinking in a relational way, for the defining characteristic of childhood is that it differs from adulthood. And this profound difference shows itself in what is allowed to each status. Just as women were paid less for doing the same work as men simply because they were women (for instance in factories and in elementary schools), so children were paid even less for their work in factories and agriculture, because they were children. These distinctions apply today, for nowadays, people will say children cannot be allowed to vote, because they are chil- dren; and children are ascribed qualities on the basis that they inhabit the status ‘childhood’; thus children may be assumed to be morally unreli- able. 19 Yet these two statuses—childhood and adulthood—are indissolubly related to each other; and a change in one will result in a change in the other. For instance, at a relatively macro level, if children are accorded rights, their social status rises in their relations with adults. And at a micro level, if women take their place in the public world of work and so acquire increased social status, then that alters their relations with their children, for whom their mother is not only their mother but a (valued?) worker in the public domain.



One of the purposes of this book is to consider generational relations

between children and adults in the early twentieth century from the point

of view of children. I have devoted considerable space, in Chapters Three

and Four, to trying to gain some understanding of these relations, through consideration of the available data. The data seem to me to indicate forc-

ibly, for instance, that child–parent relations were founded on the concept of duty—children had a duty to participate in keeping the household economy going. Furthermore their parents had unquestioned authority over them. It was parents who decided whether a child should attend school that day, or do a day’s paid work, or take clothes to the pawnshop.


key example in this book is about taking up places in secondary school


age 11. These places were hard to come by and might be prized by the

boy or girl who qualified. But parents could and did refuse to allow their child to accept the place. Their argument was that it was time for the child to get a proper job and contribute to the household finances. To conclude these notes on children’s status, I note that for the pur- poses of this book, a child is a person under the age of 18. This fits with many assumptions of the time (and since then). Successive education acts (up to and including the 1918 Act) recognised state responsibility for the education of people up to 18. People under the age of 18 who did paid work were paid at a child rate. People could not (legally) join the armed

forces full-time until the age of 18. Of course, if childhood is status, then

it is a relational status. I am still my mother’s child; and parental care for

children does not stop at 18…. For the period I am focusing on (1900–1920), it is important to stress that working-class childhood was less firmly separated from adulthood than now, in crucial—economic—respects. Whilst nowadays children can readily be understood as operating in physical and ideological spaces (school, home) distinct and separated from the spaces inhabited by adults

in the workplace, in 1900 children of the lower classes not only did unpaid

work at home and in the neighbourhood, but they were out and about in streets and fields doing paid work, running errands, minding neighbours’ children, engaging in trading work. Children’s play took place in streets and fields. And children took part in social and political events. They are

to be seen in photographs of the time, at suffragist meetings and celebra- tions, in trade union marches. 20 Most children were in full-time paid work from the age of 13 or 14, and many engaged in industrial protests and marches, as I shall indicate along the way. It is argued by some scholars that childhood at this time was becoming privatised, but the focus here on




the vast majority of children, those who attended the new elementary schools, tells a somewhat different story. 21

sTrucTure of The Book

The book has five longish chapters. Each of the chapters is fronted by a brief note on one of the pioneering women who helped to change the status of women, and, I argue, that of children. The women have been chosen partly because there is a solid body of writing about them and partly because their work seems to fit well with the main topics of the chapter. But throughout the chapters I have also thought it important to give space to the many women, both well-known and known very little, who spoke up not only for women but for children. Chapter Two starts with a note on one of the well-known pioneers for children: Margaret McMillan. She worked for measures to improve chil- dren’s health and pioneered nursery education. I consider what the term ‘the women’s movement’ comprised; and the implications of the fact that children, since the 1870 Education Act, were now in the public arena. I introduce more fully some of the topics outlined here in the Introduction and consider some aspects of McMillan’s work. I argue that socialist femi- nist women saw children as a social group and I discuss four arenas in which they worked to improve childhoods: insurance, health services, education and Socialist Sunday schools. I then discuss some of the more general ideas current at the time, through description of some utopias, including the one by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Finally I take up one of the themes in writing at the time and more recently: how far it is appropri- ate to understand children as children of the state. Chapter Three is fronted by Maud Pember Reeves, whose research study with colleagues for the Fabian Women’s Group (1913) showed clearly that families could not be adequately fed, clothes and housed at current wage levels. This serves as the preface to detailing, through mem- oirs (autobiographies and interviews), what life was like for elementary school children and mothers under these circumstances. (Fathers are less visible in the accounts, as they were in the lives of their children.) I show that children were regarded as subordinates to parents and had a duty to help through hands-on work around the home and through paid work, if possible. The accounts show that children’s lives were very busy; and that family—and to a lesser extent neighbourhood—were the centres of their lives.



Chapter Four starts with Mary Bridges Adams. She is one of many women whose work in education has been written out of standard histo- ries; however, her work has been painstakingly explored by Jane Martin. Mary argued for a common school for all, free at the point of use, with a clear ladder of progression from the youngest up to university. The short biographical note provides the frame for the school system experienced by children, who varied widely in their appreciation—positive and negative— of what was on offer. This chapter exposes the complex lives of children who combined school attendance with domestic work and with paid work when they could get it. I explore the point that children acquire education in a variety of settings, and that some children thought school offered lit- tle education. Chapter Five focuses on a particularly dramatic period in the lives of children, the Great War (1914–18). The chapter starts with Sylvia Pankhurst, who worked in the East End of London during the war years and fought for socialism, for a better life for women, children and men. But she also found herself offering a welfare service, since recruitment to the armed forces left many women and children without adequate finan- cial resources—not only initially but over the duration. This chapter shows that the war brought children increased responsibilities at home:

many were drafted into paid work and some, as schoolchildren, also responded to the government rhetoric about contributing to the war effort. Sylvia’s work deliberately focused on encouraging working-class people, including children, to participate in the great task of developing a socialist society. Chapter Six moves on chronologically to the end of the war and to some changes in understandings of women and children. Some women got the vote and children were accorded rights to protection. So the chap- ter focuses initially on Eglantyne and Dorothy Jebb, who founded Save the Children, and on Eglantyne who wrote the first Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1924) in Western Europe. I consider how far this declaration was about protection and how far about rights. This chapter explores the question of whether ideas about childhood change in the early years of the twentieth century, and if so how. It revisits the notion of children as children of the state, and the often-stated contention that chil- dren were a new generation in whose hands lay the future of the society. Finally, I summarise women’s work through socialism towards a better society for all, including children.




sTudying childhoods: MeThodological issues


In order to explore childhoods in the early twentieth century, I have used only some of the available autobiographies and interviews—referred to in this book as ‘memoirs’. The criteria for inclusion are that the child was born early in the century and attended elementary school in England at some point before 1920. There are two main reasons for this choice. One reason is that the new state system was developed in order to reach the poorest and the majority—those not already catered for; and investiga- tion of these children’s experiences seems to me worthwhile in itself. Children who attended the new state-provided elementary schools and the non-provided schools (run by religious groups but increasingly under the state umbrella), were the vast majority of the child population. This may be obvious, but it is substantiated in the calculations made in the 1860s in London, for example, about the numbers of children who would need the new state-provided places: 84 per cent of children aged 3–13 were not in schools for which their parents paid 9d. a week or more, or were educated at home; even if you subtract those for whom no school place was immediately required (children in work, at home ill or disabled, or, in the eyes of parents, too young) still 67 per cent of London children needed a place. 22 Secondly, a body of work already exists which focuses mainly on the early days of the state education system from 1870 to 1900. 23 I wanted to focus on a time when some changes—thought at the time to be positive— had been made, both to the education system and to the welfare of chil- dren. Thus, in brief, by 1910 the curriculum had widened somewhat, a shaky ladder to secondary education had been established, teachers were better trained, the health and welfare of children had been the topic of legislation and had led to some developments in services. Furthermore, the children now attending school were the second, or even the third gen- eration so to do. Perhaps children (and parents?) now accepted the schooling offered; perhaps the battles to ensure that children became schoolchildren were over. But perhaps not… The autobiographies and interviews are about children living in many parts of England. Disproportionate among them are the memoirs of London children; this is partly to do with what I, working mainly in London, was able to find. However this bias also reflects the movement of



the population, from rural to town and city areas. 24 But I have been able to include both urban and rural childhoods and in particular I spent some time investigating childhoods in north-east Suffolk; and a colleague pointed me in the direction of interviews carried out in the Ambleside area of the Lake District. So I have been able to make some (tentative) com- parisons between urban and rural childhoods, including local socio- economic working and living conditions and the character of schooling offered. The autobiographies include 14 full-scale published books, of 100 or more pages. Other memoirs are shorter written accounts; thus John Burnett in a radio programme asked people to send in their memoirs; of these, five ten-page memoirs fit my criteria. A further source is accounts given to Thea Thompson, who interviewed people and presented the resulting data as autobiography; I include four of these. Finally, I read two unpublished, typed, autobiographies, on childhoods in inner London. Details on all these sources of information are given in Appendix A. In all I draw on 25 accounts. Other sources of information include logbooks of elementary schools. These are the records kept by headteachers, recording special events, dif- ficulties, inspections, visitors and children’s achievements. In order to help with the comparison between rural and urban childhoods, I limited this investigation to London and north-east Suffolk logbooks. I also studied school histories in these two areas and elsewhere; these are especially use- ful on children’s activities and often include accounts written at the time by children in school magazines, recounting, for instance, agricultural work during the war, the physical character of the school, particular teach- ers and their idiosyncrasies. Again, lists of these schools are given in Appendix A.

Autobiographies and Interviews as Sources of Information

Oral history as a source of information presents such an array of problems that using it seems not only daunting but unlikely to prove useful. 25 We learn that what people write or say may be (probably is) biased, unreliable, unduly influenced by nostalgia, and by pressures at the time of writing (interviewer’s aims, authorial concerns). For a positivist historian, seeking to find the truth, memoirs are not helpful. Some commentators are more willing to work with oral history, since they accept that history is made up of varying accounts and perspectives, both which change over time. The




past is not to be set in stone. Burnett, who collected hundreds of testimo- nies, remarks that one of their great virtues is precisely that they do pres- ent a point of view. They present what the author aims to present; and while interviewers may have an agenda, so too does the interviewee, who may well subvert or comment on the interviewer’s approach. 26 Of the overviews by commentators, I recommend Harry Hendrick’s chapter. 27 He is not only a historian of childhood, he has worked alongside the developing discipline of the sociology of childhood. He notes the many objections to taking children’s testimonies seriously. He fully accepts chil- dren’s subordinate social status, but also celebrates their contributions to knowledge as social actors and in particular he acknowledges that they, like other social groups in society, have a specific standpoint—a way of under- standing their own status and that of other groups, based on their experi- ence of social, generational relations. Some people who write their memoirs have also commented on what it is they are doing. For instance, Storm Jameson remarks on the impossibil- ity of writing autobiography. She says she is trying ‘to eat away a double illusion: the face I show other people and the illusion I have of myself—by which I live. Can I?’ And indeed her autobiography includes many com- mentaries on what she is describing, for instance, on how she is now inter- preting what she experienced; and how she is rethinking what sort of person she was and is. She goes on to say that another pitfall is that she dislikes writing about close friends and can write only the least intimate facts. This, she notes, falsifies the record. ‘But what can I do? Nothing.’ 28 Her consciousness of the difficulties of her task makes for reflective and constantly interesting reading. Laurie Lee, who grew up in a Cotswold village with his mother and seven siblings, notes that if each one wrote about his or her childhood lived there, each account would differ from all the others. And he asks, how do you encapsulate for a reader, in fifteen pages, in fifteen minutes’ reading time, 5000 hours of experience of schooling? His account of his experiences of his village school, which blends some probably remem- bered incidents with accomplished evocation of atmosphere, activity and feeling, is the work of a skilled writer. He says his 200-page account of his childhood, took him two years to write, and was written three times. 29 He remarks that he is writing about his childhood, but also telling the story of the village—which he points out was passing through its last years before motorised transport changed it forever. Here he is on the topic of school- days. He focuses on the school as a sensorily complex, lived experience,



providing a narrow kind of rote-learning suitable for the lives the children would lead as adults.

Our village school was poor and crowded, but in the end I relished it. It had a lively reek of steaming life: boys’ boots, girls’ hair, stoves and sweat, blue ink, white chalk and shavings. We learnt nothing abstract or tenuous there— just simple patterns of facts and letters, portable tricks of calculation, no more than was needed to measure a shed, write out a bill, read a swine- disease warning. Through the dead hours of the morning, through the long afternoons, we chanted away at our tables. Passers-by could hear our rising voices in our bottled-up room on the bank: ‘Twelve-inches – one-foot. Three-feet-make-a-yard. Fourteen-pounds-make-a-stone. Eight-stone-a- hundred-weight.’ We absorbed these figures as primal truths declared by some ultimate power. 30

Caroline Steedman wrote her account of her childhood at a time (the 1980s) when, she argues, studies of working-class childhood were simplis- tic, assuming simple lives based on the struggle for survival and with no time for the complexities of human, including family, relationships. Her own childhood, she says, though it was, in a sense, a working-class child- hood, yet it was distinctive (like any other childhood). 31 She points out that, though we all remember, it is not those remembrances that shape our account written now. ‘The past is re-used through the agency of social information and that interpretation of it can only be made with what peo- ple know of a social world and their place within it.’ 32 Over time we have learned of our social positioning and we recast our story taking account of our understanding. Her book is remarkable, among other virtues, for its continued focus on and exploration of child–adult relations. People who write or speak about their early years may have many motives and aims. It seems fair to say, along with Laurie Lee, that there is no truth, only the separate accounts of witnesses. 33 Between them, the memories I draw on perhaps give, not a fully rounded picture, but enough glimpses into childhoods to allow us later people some insight into childhood experience and into the character of the socio-economic worlds children lived in and through.

Using a Range of Sources of Information

One way of dealing with the difficulties and complexities of memoirs is to set these against other sources of information. By way of example, I set out




here an example of the use of varying sources of information, which may build up into a picture which has some value. What the Great War meant to children who lived through it in England, can be gleaned through considering a range of pieces of information, including what people record about their long-ago child- hood. Some information comes to us direct from the time. Thus, one of the most valuable sources of information is the letters exchanged between children and soldiers fighting the war. Rosie Kennedy explores these, and discusses what they tell us about how fathers at the front helped their children to make sense of separation and to make sense of the war, and about how family relationships developed through the exchange of letters. 34 Perhaps recording facts is a way into exploring experience. Sheer numbers can tell us the importance of events to the people who lived through them. Thus Maclure tells us about bombing raids over London; the worst school disaster was the direct hit suffered by North Street School in Poplar (East London) in June 1917, which killed 18 children. Altogether, he adds, ten schools were wrecked by bombs and 239 more were damaged. 35 So we can be sure that many thousands of people were affected by this devastation, including children, who were required by the London County Council (LCC) to stay in school during daytime bombing raids. However, Dorothy Scannell gives different account of the North Street bombing (no more than 400 yards from her house). It was the school attended by her brothers.

On the day that the North Street infants’ school was hit, Mother had given me some red gooseberries and I was standing at the top of the Grove, enjoy- ing a feast. I was biting into each gooseberry saying ‘Here’s the church, here’s the steeple … ’ when I noticed some aeroplanes overhead puffing little clouds of smoke. Then big Bertha started firing. In spite of the bangs, I went on eating my lovely gooseberries and I was just thinking what a lot of hairs there were on them, when suddenly policemen came running along blowing whistles, stopping trams and carts and turning them all round again. I was just looking to see how many gooseberries I had left when across the road came a galloping coal-cart. The driver had on his back-to- front shovel hat and in the crook of one arm he was carrying a little boy who seemed asleep, but the little boy’s face was covered with something scarlet and so was his shirt. Running behind the cart was a woman in a pinafore and behind her another little fair boy in a white shirt, but it was the fair boy’s face that kept my gaze. He looked so frightened that I thought someone



must be after him. I went home to tell Mother and she cried and I wondered if she knew the frightened little boy… 36

She later learned about the deaths, and then realised that:

the Germans did not stay at the front with my father. It was different at the top of the Grove when we saw a Zeppelin shot down in flames. Everybody danced and cheered. 37

Dorothy’s account, as she remembers an eight-year-old experiencing the North Street disaster, points to a child faced with something initially incom- prehensible and unrelated to her daily life. It was the sight of the frightened little boy running that most immediately affected her and led to her initial interpretation, based on her child’s knowledge—someone must be chasing after him. I think her way into telling of this disaster, focusing on the child’s preoccupation with the gooseberries and with her recognition of the boy’s fear, highlights the huge gap between children’s ordinary daily life and the horrific events that war brought to this part of London. The elementary school logbooks present another set of realities. Each headteacher had to record visits to the school, unusual events, ill- nesses, inspections and exams. Some also record their feelings of exhaus- tion, frustration, anger and delight. Most are not concerned to record children’s war work, although they do record efforts to engage children with the war: through religious teaching and celebrations of Empire Day; many logbooks record visits by old boys, now serving in the armed forces. Nevertheless, as I have tried to indicate, we can get some insight into children’s experiences through the (often dry) record of events. Headteachers recorded children singing hymns in the school hall as bombs fell locally. One of the logbooks I have read—Berkshire Road School, Hackney—is unusual in presenting a page that the headteacher entitles: ‘Children’s Voluntary Work during the War’. 38

Children saved coppers, amounting to 3/-, principally in farthings, bought wool, knitted socks, helmets, mufflers and scarves for soldiers. Caps for wounded sent to Red Cross. Other articles given to children’s soldier friends. Saved coppers and sent £1 to St Dunstan’s Hospital. Saved coppers and bought 1100 cigarettes and sent to Clifden Road Military Hospital for Xmas. Collected farthings 10/- for soldiers’ party. [Verbatim]




This summary points to the writer’s recognition of how tight money was for these children. Three shillings is 144 farthings and a farthing was the means to food. Children would be sent out with a farthing, a ha’penny or a penny, after school, to buy the food for the evening meal. A house- hold would have to think twice before releasing a farthing for a school fund-raising effort. Through his detailed, factual account, the headteacher seems to be noting the enormous commitment involved in collecting the money, and his appreciation of the children’s wish to contribute to the war effort. School histories also provide summaries of children’s war work activi- ties. These were encouraged by the Board of Education and local educa- tion authorities; and teachers organised and facilitated this work (knitting, growing food, blackberrying, sending parcels to soldiers). Notably, the memoirs include almost no mention of these activities, and this suggests that they were of minor importance to those remembering their childhoods. Another kind of information on children’s war work comes from con- sideration of education policy. Many children were ‘released’ from school to work in agriculture and industry—perhaps 600,000, according to Fisher. 39 Maclure says the biggest contribution London children made to the war effort was through junior technical institutes and polytechnics, which were turned over during the war to producing munitions and preci- sion instruments. Under the direct influence of Robert Blair, who was Executive Officer to the LCC, numbers of junior technical institutes were increased from one in Shoreditch to 21 by 1912 and were aimed at boys who wanted to train for a craft and for artisan status; for girls, training in office work (keeping accounts, typewriting). 40 So, setting out a range of kinds of information perhaps allows the researcher, and the reader, some, admittedly limited, insight into what war meant to children. Children had to contextualise the events taking place within their understandings of their daily lives. One of the key themes explored throughout this book is the interrelations between the material and consciousness. What children experienced in the physical, observable world structured their understandings of the social world. Gooseberries were a special treat that her mother had managed to provide, in a family that had to watch every penny; so Dorothy valued every green furred fruit. When she realised that her mother already knew there had been a bomb, which killed some of the community’s children, she was able to process this information and to increase her understanding of what this war meant for Londoners. Though she, of course, knew that her father and two elder



brothers were away in France fighting the Germans, this bomb, so close to home, gave her another perception about what war meant. When bombs fell near a school, girls were required by custom to take charge of the younger children and no doubt were instructed by their teachers to try to calm them; singing hymns, probably also suggested by teachers, was one way to get through the time and to help everyone to face the bombing together. Similarly, the instructions from on high about involving school- children in war work were, presumably, in part a means of maintaining morale. In the course of this book, I shall quote substantially from what the memoirs say. In some cases I shall provide commentary, which may help to tie together episodes in the accounts; or may point to children’s or adults’ understandings of events. But in some cases, I shall let the accounts speak for themselves, or rather speak as they may to the reader. In this book, I am taking on a difficult enterprise, for it involves set- ting quotations like the ones just given alongside large-scale official poli- cies and also alongside the work carried out by women to improve not only their own lives, but the character of society more generally. So it may be that the resulting blend is less a blend than a somewhat uneasy juxtaposition. However, I think that, whatever its faults, this book does provide a new kind of exploration of the existing literature, reconsider- ing interrelations between women’s work and the status and character of childhood. Thus I think it adds to our understandings of what the women’s movement was fighting for.


1. This poem is quoted in Liddington and Norris 1985, p. 237. It is taken from Gilman’s 1911 Suffrage Songs and Verses, New York: Charlton. The middle two stanzas are omitted in Liddington and Norris 1985 (and here).

2. As will become clearer later on, suffragists generally pursued parliamentary and gradualist approaches to gaining the vote, and a group of their organ- isations was the National Union of Women Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Some suffragettes came to despair of this route, and became more militant, in the organisation called the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

3. Lane 1979.

4. For example, Hollis 1994, Vicinus 1994, Rowbotham 2011.

5. For example, Hilton and Hirsch 2000, Martin 2010.

6. For example, Maclure 1970, Hurt 1979 and Harris B 1995.





But see Hurt 1979 and Humphries 1981 for children’s views of schooling.


For instance, Ross 1986 and E. Roberts 1984.


Dyhouse 1989, chapter 2.


Rhoda Garrett was a cousin of Millicent Fawcett, leader of the NUWSS (Crawford, p. 247).


For instance, Dyhouse 1981.


See for instance Richards 1989; Montgomery and Watson 2009; Rudd




See Chodorow and Contratto 1982.


Qvortrup 1985.


Overviews of these arguments are presented by Alanen 2009 and Mayall




Shamgar-Handelman 1994.


Smith D 1987.


Mayall 2002, chapter 6.


For examples of such photos, see Jackson and Taylor 2014, Liddington and Norris 1985, and H.J. Bennett 1980, p. 27.


For full discussion of this topic see Cunningham 1991, especially chapters 6, 7 and 8.


Maclure 1970, pp. 22–23.


For instance, Davin 1996, Hurt and Humphries 1981.



Harris 1994, p. 45, notes that of children born in 1901–1911, 80 per

cent were born in towns and cities; and in 1911, out of a national popula- tion of 45 million, 7 million lived in Greater London.


Paul Thompson’s exhaustive study (1978) of oral history is especially daunting.


Burnett 1994.


Hendrick 2008.


Jameson 1984, p. 16.


Lee 1976. This Longman edition includes Lee’s valuable three-page essay on writing autobiography.


Lee 1976, pp. 40–41.


Steedman 1986, Part One: Stories.


Steedman 1986, Part One: Stories, p. 6.


Lee, p. 220.


Kennedy 2014, chapter 2.


Maclure 1970, p. 108.


Scannell 1974, p. 57.


Scannell 1974, p. 57.


This school is now called Gainsborough Primary School, and it still oper- ates in the three-decker building, dated 1899, on Berkshire Road, Hackney.


Fisher, presenting his education bill in 1917. See Van der Eyken 1973,

p. 222.




Alanen, L. (2009). Generational order. In J. Qvortrup, W. A. Corsaro, & M.-S. Honig (Eds.), Palgrave handbook of childhood studies. London: Palgrave Macmillan. Bennett, H. J. (1980). I was a Walworth Boy. London: The Peckham Publishing Project. Burnett, J. (1994). Destiny obscure: Autobiographies of childhood, education and family from the 1820s to the 1920s. London: Routledge. Chodorow, N., & Contratto, S. (1982). The fantasy of the perfect mother. In B. Thorne with M. Yalom (Eds.), Rethinking the family: Some feminist ques- tions. New York and London: Longman. Cunningham, H. (1991). The children of the poor: Representations of childhood since the seventeenth century. Oxford: Blackwell. Davin, A. (1996). Growing up poor: Home, school and street in London 1870–1914. London: Rivers Oram Press. Dyhouse, C. (1981). Girls growing up in late Victorian and Edwardian England. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Dyhouse, C. (1989). Feminism and the family in England 1880–1939. Oxford:

Blackwell. Harris, B. (1995). The health of the schoolchild: A history of the school medical service in England and Wales. Buckingham: Open University Press. Harris, J. (1994). Private lives, public spirit: Britain 1870–1914. Harmondsworth:

Penguin. Hendrick, H. (2003). Child welfare: Historical dimensions, contemporary debate. Bristol: Policy Press. Hendrick, H. (2008). The child as a social actor in historical sources: Problems of identification and interpretation. In P. Christensen & A. James (Eds.), Research with children: Perspectives and practices (2nd ed.). London: Routledge. Hilton, M. & Hirsch, P. (Eds.). (2000). Practical visionaries: Women, education and social progress 1790–1930. Harlow: Longman. Hollis, P. (1994). Ladies elect: Women in English local government 1965–1914 . Oxford: Clarendon. Humphries, S. (1981). Hooligans or rebels; An oral history of working class childhood and youth 1889–1939. Oxford: Blackwell. Hurt, J. S. (1979). Elementary schooling and the working classes 1860–1918. London: Routledge. Jackson, S. & Taylor, R. (2014). East London suffragettes. Stroud, Gloucestershire:

The History Press. Jameson, S. (1984). Autobiography of Storm Jameson: Journey from the north, vol- ume one. London: Virago. Kennedy, R. (2014). The children’s war: Britain 1914–1918. London: Palgrave Macmillan. Lane, A. J. (1979). Introduction. In C. P. Gilman (Ed.), Herland . London:

Women’s Press.




Lee, L. (1976). Cider with Rosie. London: Longman. Liddington, J. & Norris, J. (1985). One hand tied behind us: The rise of the women’s suffrage movement. London: Virago. Maclure, S. (1970). A history of education in London 1870–1970. London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press. Martin, J. (2010). Making socialists: Mary Bridges Adams and the fight for knowl- edge and power, 1855–1939. Manchester: Manchester University Press. Mayall, B. (2002). Towards a sociology for childhood: Thinking from children’s lives. Buckingham: Open University Press. Mayall, B. (2009). Generational relations at family level. In J. Qvortrup, W. A. Corsaro, & M.-S. Honig (Eds.), The Palgrave handbook of childhood studies. London: Palgrave Macmillan. Montgomery, H. & Watson, J. (2009). Children’s literature: Classic texts and con- temporary interpretations. London: Palgrave Macmillan. Qvortrup, J. (1985). Placing children in the division of labour. In P. Close & R. Collins (Eds.), Family and economy in modern society. London: Macmillan. Richards, J. (1989). Imperialism and juvenile literature. Manchester: Manchester University Press. Roberts, E. (1984). A woman’s place: An oral history of working-class women 1890–1940. Oxford: Blackwell. Ross, E. (1986). Labour and love: Rediscovering London’s working-class moth- ers, 1870–1918. In J. Lewis (Ed.), Labour and love: Women’s experiences of home and family, 1850–1940. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Rowbotham, S. (2011). Dreamers of a new day: Women who invented the twentieth century. London: Verso. Rudd, D. (2010). The Routledge companion to children’s literature. London: Routledge. Scannell, D. (1974). Mother knew best. London: Macmillan. Shamgar-Handelman, L. (1994). To whom does childhood belong? In J. Qvortrup, M. Bardy, G. Sgritta, & H. Wintersberger (Eds.), Childhood matters: Social theory, practice and politics. Aldershot: Avebury. Smith, D. (1987). The everyday world as problematic: A feminist sociology. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press. Steedman, C. (1986). Landscape for a good woman: A story of two lives. London:

Virago. Thompson, P. (1978). The voice of the past: Oral history . Oxford: Oxford University Press. United Nations. (1989). Convention on the rights of the China. Geneva: United Nations. Van der Eyken, W. (Ed.). (1973). Education, the child and society: A documentary history 1900–1973. Harmondsworth: Penguin. Vicinus, M. (1994). Independent women: Work and community for single women 1850–1920. London: Virago.


The Women’s Movement and Childhood,


Socialism and Childhood Status: Margaret McMillan (1860–1931)

Margaret McMillan was an early member of the Independent Labour Party (from 1893) and a Fabian. She also worked with women’s organisations demanding the vote. In the 1890s, while working as a member of the Bradford School Board, she fought for measures to improve the health of children. She pioneered medical inspection in collaboration with Dr James Kerr, who was appointed as Medical Superintendent of Schools in 1893, and they documented the ill- health of school-age children. Her campaigns for national medical inspection and treatment in schools were important in leading to the Education (Administrative Provisions) Act 1906, which required local education authorities to provide medical inspections in schools. After a move to London, she campaigned for open-air nursery edu- cation for children. She established the first medical clinic in Bow; with her sister Rachel, she opened a camp school in Deptford in 1911 (where children slept in the open air) and they started an open- air nursery school there in 1914. McMillan proposed that all children should have free nursery and schooling experience, up to and including university. 1 Throughout her career, she saw collaboration between teacher and mother as the basis for good childhoods. She argued that children, allowed to develop according to the natural internal laws that governed their




development, and through nurturing in nurseries and schools, would be a new generation—healthy and happy—inspiring their parents to demand their economic and social rights. 2 Children were to be in the vanguard of social progress.

Women and Children in PubliC arenas

The Women’s Movement

The women’s movement, or ‘the awakening of women’ 3 can be seen as a catch-all phrase, encompassing a wide variety of concerns, political affilia- tions and activities; in that vision it may dissolve into incoherence the more closely it is examined. On the other hand, it can be understood as having a coherence, notably through women’s work across a range of are- nas towards a better, a fairer society; and for some women, suffrage was important because it would enable them to do this work. It can be seen to include the activities and preoccupations of both working-class and middle-class women. It had its roots way back in the early nineteenth cen- tury Owenite revolt against women’s subordination; 4 and can be seen in women’s fiction—as for instance in George Eliot’s detailed and revealing explorations in the 1860s of the lives of Maggie Tulliver, Dorothea Brooke, Mary Garth and Rosamond Vincy. 5 The movement allowed for conservative, anti-suffrage women as well as socialist visionaries; thus Mrs. Humphrey Ward (in the first camp) promoted children’s play centres, while Margaret McMillan (in the second) promoted measures to ensure children’s health. 6 Some of this work required women to negotiate for legal changes, to encourage ministers to rethink the state’s responsibilities. But much of the work took place in ‘borderlines’ between the private and the public—in voluntary work, settlements and women’s organisations and, it can be argued, the effectiveness of such work requires us to rethink what we mean by political work. 7 By the beginning of the twentieth century, English women had begun to take a firm place in the public arena. The first generation of pioneers had established their right to higher education, and to enter the profes- sions. 8 Elizabeth Garrett, the first female doctor (1865) was followed by 500 women doctors by 1914. 9 Pioneers had fought for higher education (Millicent Garrett, Emily Davies) and their daughters, the next genera- tion, were increasingly attending the new women’s schools and colleges.



Elizabeth’s daughter, Louise, became the head of a hospital for wounded soldiers in the Great War. By 1900, there were women nurses, landscape gardeners, interior designers, teachers, clerks and journalists; women sat on school boards, on care committees and as poor law guardians and were prominent in voluntary organisations devoted to charitable purposes. 10 Some of these were women were socially well connected—their fathers and brothers were businessmen or university men, and the linkages across large families by marriage are so large and complex as to defeat the con- struction of comprehensible family trees. But women further down the social scale were also becoming a part of the public scene, not only as workers, but as activists. Women formed the bulk of the new teaching profession, in the elementary schools; they were allocated the under-fives and infants (5–7 years) and also taught older girls; they were able to head the girls’ sections of the new schools. As we shall see, teachers could use their knowledge and position to encourage girls to look to futures not bounded by the drudgery of working-class marriage. Indeed, the history of this period indicates that working-class lives enabled workers of whatever age to participate in political movements. When girls embarked on paid work (aged 10 and upwards), with long hours and low pay, they, like their elders, could engage with wider educa- tional opportunities offered by the unions, by socialist organisations and publications and women’s groups. Women and girls who worked in a vari- ety of trades increasingly joined women’s trade unions, under overall groupings: the Women’s Trade Union League was established in 1874; 11 and middle-class women, such as Clementina Black, supported their work. 12 She edited a range of studies on married women’s work and she argued forcibly for both women’s and men’s wages to be raised. 13 The Women’s Co-operative Guild provided a forum for education, activism and togetherness. The Guild was led by Margaret Llewelyn Davies (from 1899 to 1921), whose father, a university professor, was a Christian Socialist and worker for women’s suffrage. She documented the character of working women’s lives in her 1915 collection of their letters, Maternity. Working-class women began to speak in public. Sarah Reddish, who had started work aged 11 in the mills and was elected to Bolton Town council in 1907, spoke of the false division between public and private, arguing that women and men had work to do in both. 14 Especially in the north-west, women factory workers were active early on in campaigning for the vote for all women over the age of 21. 15 These women are of par- ticular interest because they explicitly linked the fight for suffrage to the




fight for socialism. Gilman’s verses were known to some of them, such as Ada Nield Chew (1870–1945), a mill worker from age 11, who met Gilman when she toured the north of England in the Clarion van (this van was converted to provide sleeping accommodation and was used by women to carry socialist and feminist messages to outlying villages). 16 Ada was one of many women who, as workers in the cotton mills, experienced directly how women were conceptualised as dependants of men and rou- tinely paid less than men; and who also fought for collective opposition to capitalist oppression. She argued that wakening women to their degrading position of economic dependency was a precondition to mobilising them on the industrial front:

Unless you can get a woman to see the utter degradation of her industrial and political position as a dependent and belonging of man, there is little hope of industrial organisation for her as for political power. 17

These working women also knew first-hand the exploitation of chil- dren in their communities, the long hours and the very poor pay (perhaps a quarter of a man’s wage). Unlike the middle-class women activists, whose children were insulated from the working world, these working women experienced in their everyday lives inequalities relating to gender, social class and generation. All these had to be tackled, for working women had responsibilities both in the work place and at home; they had to fight employers’ exploitation of them and of their children. Thus, for example, Selina Cooper (1864–1946) entered mill work as a half-timer at age 10, and worked her way up through the Labour Party and trade unions as a socialist feminist. She was a member of a deputation to the House of Commons in 1901 and 1902, arguing for the vote for women. She said that as a mother she believed working women needed the vote because:

we have to educate our children; if we are not ourselves interested in national life, how can we impart to our children a knowledge of true citizenship? 18

Girls and women workers in Lancashire were able to benefit from a wide range of sources of knowledge. Literacy—perhaps the best gift of the elementary schools—allowed them to educate themselves. Thus Cissy Foley (born 1879), a millworker from when she left school, enthusiasti- cally borrowed books from the library, and joined discussion groups and



university extension courses laid on by Manchester University; the Labour church provided another forum for discussions and The Clarion—a social- ist journal—provided lively articles each week. 19 Some of these pioneer women were known to Sylvia Pankhurst, who grew up in Manchester, and their political activities informed her own socialist and feminist thinking. Whilst her mother and sister focused on mobilising well-to-do women, she argued in favour of a working-class movement. When she designed a membership card for the WSPU organisation in 1906–1907, it featured working-class women. 20 Notably she included children as participants in her London activism during the war years. (See Chapter Five.) Sylvia’s activity in London was preceded in the mill towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Here, where children went to work from the age of 10 and upwards, girls were active participants in the suffrage movement. In 1907, in the Colne Valley constituency (West Yorkshire), a traditional Liberal seat, when Grayson stood for election as a Labour and Socialist candidate, he was cheered on by the mill girls and women—and he won. 21 Detail is added by the story of Dora Thewlis (born 1890), a mill girl in Huddersfield, who travelled to join demonstrations in London in 1907, was arrested and came before the magistrate. He then displayed both his ignorance and his prejudices, when he told her that as a girl of 16 she should be at school, and that in public places she should be accompanied by her mother, since a girl or woman on her own would entice men to lewd acts. 22

Children in the Context of Economic and Political Policy

There is not much doubt that the legal decision in 1870 to school the poorest children constituted an important change: their daily lives changed; and the fact that they became visible to wealthier men and women had far-reaching implications for adult understandings of child- hoods. Study of individual children’s development (exemplified by Darwin’s study of his infant son) could now be widened to study of the population of children in school—their physical and intellectual develop- ment. For observers in the 1880s were now conceptualising even the poorest children as children of the state, the future of the nation. The poverty and ill-health revealed in perhaps one-third of the child popula- tion of the wealthiest country in the world were recognised early on and, over time, acted upon, first through voluntary work, and later, after pro- longed discussion about parental responsibility, through legislation. 23 In parallel to this set of changes, over the same period, was the rise of women,




who took up public duties in health, welfare and education, pressed for child welfare legislation and, on their own behalf, demanded the vote. 24 In economic terms, England was facing the fact that Germany was overtaking it in prosperity. It was very late in the day, comparatively, that England provided all children with state-funded schooling. From 1870 children were to attend school (from 9 to 4 with a two-hour break mid- day); and in the early years, parents had to pay 1d or 2d per week for this schooling. Children left school at 11, 12, 13 or 14 according to the gradu- ally changing demands of the state (see Appendix B) and of local industry. It was not until 1891 that schooling became free to parents. 25 These changes meant that parents could not so easily rely on their children’s earnings to eke out household finances. However, in practice, many chil- dren worked in the early morning before school and/or in the evening after school; and, especially in the industrial areas, a half-time system was in place: children worked half-time and attended school half-time. It was not until the 1918 Education Act that all children were required to attend school full-time until the age of 14 (and until the 1944 Education Act, local practices varied, with exemptions at 12 or 13). 26 There are at least two interlocked features of this new situation that require consideration here—the economic and the more thoroughly politi- cal. When the state required children to attend school, their presence in the public arena revealed the extent of shocking poverty in this wealthy country; children, poorly clothed and starving, suffering from many dis- eases, some fatal, were a disgrace to the middle-class eye and to the nation as a whole. At a purely practical level, children could not learn if they were ill or hungry; so state expenditure on schooling would be wasted. By the early 1900s, it was clear that there were also political implications: if the state insisted on school attendance, then if parents failed in their childcare responsibilities, the state would have to feed the children and provide medical inspection and treatment. So this new set of obligations was alter- ing the economic and political relation between the state and parents, as regards the health and welfare of children. It also meant that the state would have to accept that it had a direct relationship of responsibility for children’s welfare. (Acts of parliament from 1906 partially recognised this state responsibility, through permissive legislation allowing local authori- ties to act). But what was also changing was national politics. Workers were striking for better conditions of work and better pay; and the trade union move- ment was gaining in strength. The Fabian Society was started in 1884; and



the national Independent Labour Party (ILP) was started in 1893. Keir Hardie and two others—John Burns for Battersea and Havelock Wilson for Middlesbrough—were the first Labour MPs. Both groupings had women’s sections; the Fabian Women’s Group was active in researching the status of women. Socialism was seen by many as key to reform. Some of the earliest revolts against exploitation—shocking working conditions and poor pay—were led by women, notably, the East End ‘matchgirls’ strike of 1888; Clementina Black of the Fabian Women’s Group and Annie Besant lent support by publishing details of this exploitation and the ‘girls’ were successful in forcing improvements. In 1911, 15,000 Bermondsey women came out in protest about working conditions in factories, and again, forced the hand of their employers. However, men were wary of collaborating with women workers, mainly since women were paid less than men, and so women formed their own trade unions, and the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) co-ordinated this work. 27 The political and economic rivalry between Britain and other industri- alised countries, brought into the forefront the necessity to breed a nation of healthy men (and healthy women to bear more men). Famously, recruit- ment for the Boer War in 1899 found high proportions of candidates unfit to serve. People in England were pushed towards recognising that the industrial might of the country had been raised on the backs of the poor. Capitalism had allowed not only for massive economic inequalities but for their accompaniment: starvation wages and the proliferation of slum dwellings, rural and urban, and these were revealed to ladies who went to offer comfort, soup and instruction to the poor; for the Charity Organisation Society (COS) which flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, encouraged not only better household manage- ment, but also acted with benevolence and individual acts of kindness and help. Women, especially those from well-to-do families and including graduates of the women’s colleges, flocked to settlements, to work in the slums of London, Manchester and Bradford (including Sylvia Pankhurst, to whom I return in Chapter Five). 28 But socialist movements challenged the idea that charitable work was adequate; indeed they pointed to state responsibility for the health and welfare of its citizens. And some of the settlement workers sadly noted that the work they did was not enough to deal with the problems: state action was required to deal with poverty. 29 What must be highlighted here is that women’s work for children was rooted in concepts of a good society. Some branches of the women’s movement from the 1890s were closely allied to socialism. And socialism




insisted on consideration of how to make a better life for all social groups. Thus McMillan thought that the impacts on children of poverty were spe- cific to childhood; for if children did not have a health-promoting envi- ronment, then they would be blighted for the rest of their lives. 30 As early as 1908, it was alleged that, through her journalism and speeches, she had made fundamental changes in how educationalists should think about their work, for she drew on a large body of theoretical work to argue that the child was a neurological and physiological entity that developed by its own internal laws. 31 All the six women reformers chosen to head up the chapters in this book were socialist and carried their beliefs into practice, attempting to improve the conditions of children’s childhoods as well as fighting for women’s proper positioning in society. In their thinking, the two advances, for children and for women, were inter-connected, and had to be seen in the context of what a good society would be like. That means considering utopian ideas at the time. (I return to this theme later in the chapter.)

Womens Work for Children

But first, in this chapter, I focus on social issues as they affected (or did not) the lives of children; and the part played by women in working for better childhoods. For though older children could campaign themselves, women were essential to campaigns for younger children. We have to note initially that women’s socialism did not and could not have clear, direct impacts on men and on masculinity for, as was later emphasised, making such changes was going to be a long-running saga. 32 Women fought for themselves and for childhood through a range of means. They entered public life through work on school boards, local authorities, political parties (notably the Labour Party), as Guardians of the Poor Law. And they worked through voluntary organisations and through private donations to establish and run services. So they worked to change policies and practices through a range of means, whatever would bring results: research, journalism and public speaking, voluntary action, state action and private initiatives and contributions. Thus, for instance, if we take Margaret McMillan’s work, in collaboration with her sister Rachel:

she drummed up support through her membership of the Labour Party and through her journalism and public speaking. In Bradford, she used her position as a member of the School Board, working for the medical inspection of children. She attracted private funding—from an American industrialist, Joseph Fels—for her Bow Clinic, which carried out medical



inspections. But the clinic was based in a room in a state elementary school, Devons Road, and the room was leased from the LCC. 33 She lob- bied for a national scheme of medical inspection through her contacts in the Labour Party, such as her friend Keir Hardie. 34 When the Bow Clinic moved to Deptford it was funded by a private charity and also by fees paid

by parents. 35 She was offered the loan of a house in Evelyn Street, Deptford and in the garden there she established her camp school where girls slept in the open air. 36 Women were able to use male ideas about them in order to work for children, whether or not they endorsed these ideas. For women were regarded as upholders of moral standards in society, and most impor- tantly—via the so-called ‘maternalism’ thesis—as naturally alive to and concerned for the welfare of children, since their essential function in life was as wives and mothers. 37 So they could get elected to school boards on the basis that they could and perhaps should speak for improving chil- dren’s welfare in schools. However, after the 1902 Education Act they had to put themselves forward for election to local education authorities, not as experts but as women, under the 1907 Qualification of Women Act. 38 Once there, they could fight for the necessity of feeding hungry children and curing children’s ill-health, 39 on the basis of their unique sensibility to the needs of children. They could argue against the paid work of school-age children on the grounds that they understood, as women, that exhausted children could not benefit from their time at school. 40 More generally, women were able to play the Empire card. It was necessary, they could argue, to improve the health of the nation’s children so that Britain could compete with countries with more advanced healthcare services. The women’s movement, then, was a revolutionary movement in that

it saw children not as individual persons moving towards adulthood but as

a specific social constituency—as members of childhood—with its own

needs and with its unique value to society. Responding to those needs and recognising that value was not just a parental responsibility, it was a soci- etal responsibility. Indeed, the two—parents and society—would have to work together. One focus of some pioneering women’s work was child

labour, widely seen as antagonistic to childhoods, as newly discovered and understood. Surveys by the Women’s Labour League (WLL) in the years before 1914 revealed the continuing prevalence of children working, full- time, or part-time before and after school. Pioneering women argued that children had rights of their own: they were entitled to schooling, to rest and to childhood itself. 41




Here I take up four key examples of women’s work for and with chil- dren, in order to show how these propositions worked out in the context of policies for children. The examples also show how ideas about children and childhood were changing.


The interests of women and children are never so closely bound together as in the months leading up to childbirth and the months that follow. Their health, well-being and survival are interlocked. And in the 1900s, children were starting to be thought of as a valuable social resource. Yet families were expected to face the economic and social difficulties atten- dant on childbirth solely out of their own resources. The natural depen- dencies of woman on her husband provided an adequate justification for no state intervention. At the time, the services of a doctor would cost about £1 and of a midwife 10 shillings; 42 that is, the whole of a man’s week’s wages would pay for a doctor’s help. Many women faced childbirth with only the help of relatives or neighbours, and in the days following were under pressure to resume the heavy tasks of housewifery and child- care, unless, again, those kindly women could help out. One of the many measures introduced by the Liberal Government of 1906 to provide a basic underpinning of state assistance to the population, was the National Insurance Act of 1911. The bill proposed insurance for male workers, in cases of ill-health and unemployment. The 1911 Act incorporated a voluntary health scheme, including maternity benefit, for non-wage-earning women; this had been proposed by the Women’s Co-operative Guild, on the basis of their research on the topic, but this payment would be made to the husband. During the period when debates towards the Act took place, Mrs. Layton, a midwife and a Women’s Co-operative Guild member, was one of a deputation to Sir Rufus Isaacs (in place of Lloyd George). She explained to him the financial pressure on poor working families at the time of childbirth.

If a woman had a good husband, he gave her all he could from his wages, and the woman had to do the rest, going short herself, as the man had to be kept going for the work’s sake, and it would break her heart to starve her children. Sir Rufus asked me how much I though a fair sum would be on which the woman could get through her confinement. I told him that nothing less than



£5 would see her through comfortably. He said such an amount was impos- sible, and suggested the 30/- which was what the Hearts of Oak gave. 43

Margaret Llewelyn Davies, long-term Secretary to the Guild, empha- sised the theoretical point in a letter to The Times, in which she challenged male reliance on the natural dependency argument, arguing instead that women’s work in the home should indeed be regarded as work and not as the natural occupation of a dependent woman. She pointed to women’s rights, through their work, to financial reward, in this case to help with childbirth Housework and childcare was work.

By her work as mother and housewife, the woman contributes equally with the man to the upkeep of the home and the family income in reality is as much hers as the man’s. 44

After 1911, women continued to argue that mothers should have con- trol of the maternity benefit. A number of prominent women in the Guild, including Margaret Llewelyn Davies and Margaret Bondfield, presented their case to government members. 45 Guild members also got up a peti- tion to support their argument. In 1913 they succeeded: an amendment to the Act stated that the 30/- benefit could be paid to the husband only if the wife had authorised this arrangement. 46 The extent to which the work of the Guild was influential can of course be debated, but it certainly played a part in securing the 1913 amend- ment. Through its campaigns and its own research into the causes of pov- erty, it contributed to a climate of opinion in favour of recognising mothers and babies as appropriate receivers of state aid. The work of the Guild towards the 1911 Act and its amendment was recognised when the Guild was invited to provide representation on the committees established to advise on the scheme’s day-to-day administration. 47 The scheme was one small step along the route the government was slowly taking, towards assuming some state responsibility for ensuring the health of its people, in this case children and their mothers.

Health Services

Women, both as individuals and through women’s organisations, were among those arguing that children needed, first of all, before teaching, food. By the early 1900s, there were many charitable efforts to feed




children, both in school and outside. The campaigns to feed hungry chil- dren were supported by the women’s movement, by Sir John Gorst (President of the Board of Education), the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Labour movement. The permissive legislation was passed in 1906: the Education (Provision of Meals) Act. Notably, the clinching— economic—argument set out in the Act was that food should be provided for children who otherwise could not take advantage of the education offered to them. Feeding such children was made compulsory on local authorities in 1914. But before that, campaigners met local authority resistance. For instance, in Jarrow, the local branch of the Women’s Labour League, who were campaigning for local authority enactment of the 1906 permissive legislation, crowded the visitors’ gallery to hear their petition discussed. But it was sidelined, since council officials, having adjourned the meeting for a good lunch, returned and said there were no hungry children in Jarrow. 48 In London Miss Nettie Adler, whose mother had inaugurated meals for Jewish children in schools, urged the LCC in 1912 to feed the children during the holidays, but her suggestion was defeated. However, during debates towards legislation on feeding hungry children, whilst parental responsibility and lack of it was seen in government to be a critical issue, the notion of children as children of the state, the future of the nation, also figured. 49 Margaret McMillan, along with others, both men and women, argued that children could not benefit from the schooling now provided for them, and to which they were entitled, unless they were healthy. By 1893, she had already been instrumental in establishing a school medical inspection service in Bradford, as noted above. Documenting the level of ill-health was important politically. But once the scale of the problem was being documented, getting a school medical service onto the national agenda required more persuasion. In her 1907 book, Labour and Childhood she outlines the points she made over many years in fighting for state provision of food for hungry children and medical services. She insists on the argu- ment that children’s manual work outside school makes children ‘stupid and indifferent’. 50 Good healthy development, she argues, is a process and if that development is cut short by the demand that children do hard manual labour, then children will not be able to develop as human beings; they will not be able to benefit from school and will live their lives as stunted adults. She reports on her visits to Germany and Holland with Dr



Kerr, where they saw school medical services in action, and to Holland where school baths had been installed. Margaret McMillan supplemented this written work, with advocacy work with the Labour Party, for instance speaking at the 1911 party conference on the necessity for school clinics. 51 Another commentator, Mrs Townsend of the Fabian Women’s Group, noted that France was providing nursery care for children, where they were given training in good health-promoting habits. 52 These countries, women argued, were cultivating a healthier and therefore more productive generation than England. These arguments are based on a range of premises or assumptions. One is to do with efficiency: it is not cost-effective to provide a service (in this case education) from which people cannot benefit. Then if this country is to compete in industrial strength with others, it must implement measures to ensure it has a healthy population. And thirdly, since children are the next generation of adults, who must take the country’s fortunes forward, they must have priority, as a social group. The chance to rear them health- ily once lost cannot be regained. The 1907 Education (Administrative Provisions) Act required LEAs to carry out medical inspection of schoolchildren and also empowered them to provide treatment. It seems that its time was coming. For, though the usual arguments about parental responsibility and the cost to local author- ities were presented, alongside complaints that doctors would lose patients—and therefore income, and though change was gradual, by 1913 (according to George Newman, Chief Medical Officer of the Board of Education) all local authorities were providing inspection, between one- third and a half were providing school-based clinics and almost all were providing treatment. 53 It is notable that the first LEA to establish a school-based clinic was Bradford in June 1908, presumably building on its earlier experience of provision in 1893; and on the work of Dr James Kerr and Margaret McMillan, who had pioneered medical inspection there. 54 Dr Kerr had left Bradford to become the Medical Officer to the Education Committee of the LCC after the abolition of school boards led to the closure of his Bradford clinic under the 1902 Education Act. Kerr believed medical treatment of schoolchildren pauperised parents; he understood the work of the Medical Officer as a public health task—of documenting the health status of the children. 55 However, he oversaw the development of the LCC school medical service as a hands-on inspection and curative service.




And through his work in collecting data he was an important influence on McMillan’s ideas about the physiology of growth—that opportunities for growth in childhood, once missed, could not adequately be replaced. 56


Therefore the present time makes upon the educators an inescapable demand: they must grasp children’s earliest activities and understand their impulse to make things and to be freely and personally active; they must encourage their desire to instruct themselves as they create, observe and experiment. (Froebel) 57

In a paper published in 1905 Katherine Bathurst described the régime to which (as she had observed) two- and three-year-olds were subjected in elementary schools. They were asked to sit on benches with no backs, in rows, with their arms folded, for an hour at a time, listening to their teacher. 58 At the time, these schools had no lower age-limit and children aged two and upwards might be seen, accompanying their older siblings to school. However, by this time, the child study movement was well estab- lished in middle-class circles, and progressive ideas as to education had been circulating, based on the work, notably, of Friedrich Froebel, which had been promoted in the UK through the Froebel Society, established in 1884. By 1892 the Froebel Education Institute had established teacher training on Froebel’s lines. It was women who received the training, pio- neered services and campaigned for ‘progressive’ educational methods. Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852) aimed to enable children to explore their environment; play was a means to intellectual, social, emotional and physical development. He proposed sets of activities to help them do this; they included ‘gifts’ (solid shapes, such as cubes) and ‘occupations’ (tools such as clay, string, beads that children could manipulate). However, over time his ideas had been reinterpreted (or loosened) to provide a régime based on play, nature study and the organisation of the day around house- keeping. A number of women worked to implement this revised version in elementary schools. 59 One reason for the appeal of Froebel was probably that his emphasis on children learning from observation and interaction with the natural world allowed for the promotion of belief in a benevolent God. For instance, the daily activities of one ‘free’ kindergarten estab- lished in the slums of Edinburgh’s old town by Eileen Hardy, were organ- ised on this principle. Children started the day by cleaning and tending the



premises; then they sang the good morning song, welcoming everyone. Then followed prayers:

Our prayers are of necessity of the very simplest. Their aim is to develop reverence and to spiritualise everyday life. The little interests and experi- ences of each day are given their significance as expressions of divine immanence, and the children early see that religion is related to all life and all life to religion. 60

Developing and tending the kindergarten’s garden and its small ani- mals was a central daily activity. And singing and physical exercises were also important. Eileen Hardy’s is a very affecting account of how women sought to civilise children: to teach them good housewifery, duty, delight in natural growth in the garden—all tending to reverence for the God who made this world. Central to the work was enlisting the mothers, both to help and to learn; Miss Hardy ran groups for the mothers, and included them in trips to the seaside and countryside. She says she was rewarded by their willingness to co-operate and by their appreciation of their children’s development. This enterprise was, in line with McMillan’s vision, an attempt to create a new generation of adults, healthy and capable, who would encourage their own parents to demand a fairer society. It seems that the appeal of Froebel was felt even in government, for by 1892 the Board of Education had adopted the idea, in principle, that activities for the youngest children in elementary schools should be on Froebelian lines. 61 By 1912, there were perhaps 12 ‘free kindergartens’ in Britain (that is, privately funded). 62 At least two of these were in deprived areas of London: Notting Hill and St Pancras. In addition, most of the Girls’ Public Day School Trust schools (there were 37 by 1905) provided a kindergarten for their youngest children—of a higher social class than those attending the free kindergartens. 63 In line with current thinking, the education or schooling of the young- est children, as well as that of girls, fell to women—some of whom had received Froebel training. As Katherine Bathurst notes, she wanted to enlist the natural motherliness of women, in the interests of providing more appropriately for young children:

My object is a very simple one. I am anxious to interest women in these little children. Only women can deal satisfactorily with the present difficulties,




and most of the evils I describe are produced by the absence of the quality known as ‘motherliness’. 64

This argument, the maternalism thesis, could be interpreted as limiting women’s activities in the world of education to the youngest children, but on the other hand it enabled them to speak with authority; and possibly they might be listened to by men, who lacked their natural motherliness. Further, in the early days of the education service, the training some women had received at the Froebel Institute gave them a theoretical or academic edge over many male teachers, who might have had little train- ing beyond that provided through the pupil-teacher route, which lacked theoretical rigour. Katherine Bathurst was one of five women school inspectors who gave evidence to an Education Enquiry Committee in 1905 on the unsuitable conditions prevailing in elementary schools as regarded under-fives, and the need for nursery provision more suitable to their ways of learning. The response of the Board of Education to the ensuing report was to allow LEAs to refuse admission to under-fives or to provide for them—as they chose. Inevitably and through succeeding years, most chose the former. The proportion of under-fives attending state schools fell from 43 per cent in 1900 to 13 per cent in 1926. 65 A further development promoting children’s own activity in learning was advanced through the dissemination of Maria Montessori’s work. The method she advocated was characterised by free choice for the child as a self-activated learner in a prepared environment of programmed materials. 66 A first conference to promote her work in England was held in July 1914 and was attended by 270 people, of whom 228 were women. 67 As with the Froebel movement, most of those who advocated children’s own activity in learning were women, and the practitioners were (probably) all women. But since the education system aimed to turn out boys and girls respectively as workers and as mothers-in-waiting, fit for the society as it was necessarily organised, the progressive move- ment faced resistance. In a way, Margaret McMillan’s thesis that the nursery school promoted physical health was perhaps more of a (poten- tial) winner, since she suggested the state could save money by providing nursery care.

The nursery school if it is properly equipped and a real place of nurture is a preventive agency and should in time entirely empty the minor ailment



clinic. For once inside the child comes under the influence of the great heal- ers – earth, sun, air, sleep and joy – and it is admitted that these work con- tinual wonders. The day will come we hope when disease and the need for doctoring at clinic or hospital will be regarded as the shadow of failure by mother and teacher alike. 68

Her view was backed by the School Medical Officer for London, who reported year after year on the poor state of elementary school children’s health and, for 1927, described the school medical service as ‘a receiver of damaged goods and spends most of its time in patching them up.’ 69 Whilst he may have had a stake in emphasising the negative in order to drum up support, his reports are valuable pointers to the state of play. The problems hindering educational change on progressive lines were indeed huge. Not only was there a curriculum dominated by annual inspections, which emphasised children’s learning of ‘facts’. But state pol- icy allowed class sizes of 60, which made any progressive suggestions almost impracticable. The memoirs referred to in this study regularly quote such figures, and in some schools, more than one class group (stan- dard) took place in the same room. So opportunities for reforming chil- dren’s days were limited. 70 However, progressive ideas were promoted and in a few cases implemented; Attention to the nature and abilities of child- hood as a starting point for education policy and practice was established as a key principle; and the movement was to have further encouragement after the Great War, through the New Education Fellowship and through teacher training (as briefly discussed in Chapter Six).

Socialist Sunday Schools

Later in this book I discuss the importance of Christian Sunday schools in the lives of children (Chapter Four). The evidence is that most children attended them in the early 1900s. Here it is relevant to note yet another arena where women were important in pushing for change, in this case, for socialism in practice. The Socialist Sunday School (SSS) movement was an offshoot of the Labour Church movement, started in Manchester in 1891, which offered a discussion forum for young workers. 71 The SSS aimed to convert children to socialism, and to engage them as activists in the movement. The movement was active in Glasgow and Edinburgh, in Lancashire and Yorkshire; also in London, where Mrs Mary Gray founded the first group, in Battersea, with membership of 90 children by 1903. 72




By 1901 the movement had its own journal: The Young Socialist. Margaret McMillan contributed pieces to it (1903–1912) including both essays and fiction for children. She saw the SSS movement as in the vanguard of edu- cational practice, since the relation between teacher and taught was more equal than in elementary schools, and emphasised children’s own contri- butions, through discussion, songs and art work. 73 Some teachers in ele- mentary schools were also drawn to the SSS movement, since they were frustrated by the régime of top-down teaching required of them in the state schools. It has been argued that the movement, though small in comparison to Christian Sunday schools, is important in demonstrating that socialists thought children deserved better understanding of how society works than the state education system gave them. 74 The SSS pro- posed that children should be seen as in the vanguard of the socialist movement. 75

Children have hitherto little attention paid to them, they have been made little of … They now ask to be regarded as a definite part of the movement and to receive a definite standing in it… 76

As participants in the SSS movement, children took part in political ral- lies and marches. Thus at the 1905 May Day rally in Hyde Park, SSS chil- dren arrived in 12 brakes and there was a special platform for them. (A brake might hold 24 children.) In a 1912 demonstration there were 40 brakes bringing children and Margaret McMillan was among the speak- ers. 77 This work to involve children in the socialist movement was contin- ued by Sylvia Pankhurst. 78 She founded a young socialist and suffrage group in the East End and organised festivals and marches with children (see Chapter Five). A comment on this socialist education venture is provided in the mem- oir by Grace Foakes, whose childhood was lived in Wapping, East London. She writes that she was at home one day (her parents were out) when some well-to-do people knocked at the door and asked to take her younger sister for a short holiday. The younger sister refused, but Grace accepted. She was taken to a smart house in Willesden (north-west London); it had a bathroom (!) and she was given a bed with clean white sheets and pillow- cases, two warm blankets and an eiderdown—unheard of luxury. On Sunday she was taken to a hall for what she assumed was Sunday school. It was, but when she offered to sing, and sang ‘Gentle Jesus meek and mild’, she was pulled off the platform and told she must not sing such



songs. It was ‘a Communist Sunday School, where religion was not taught, and for the short while I stayed at the house I was not allowed to go again.’ 79 The story raises several issues—not least about whether these wealthy people really did behave in this high-handed way; but also about their motives; and about what the impacts were on Grace and her par- ents—she does not say.

Thinking About Children and Childhood

These four examples point to changes in ideas about and approaches to children and childhood, spearheaded in many cases by women. Firstly, the move towards insurance for mothers and babies showed that the family was not to be thought of as solely responsible for their health. Mothers and babies were to come under the protection of a national scheme. The health of young children was a matter for state consideration. Secondly, a profound change was taking place in conceptualisations of childhood itself. Children developed physically along clearly identifiable routes and young children learned in ways specific to them. These journeys tran- scended social class and allowed for consideration of children as a constitu- ency within society, different from adults; so health and education services were obliged to respond to the specific character of childhood. These ideas helped to reposition working class children in the mainstream, as members of society, alongside their wealthier neighbours. And thirdly, some of the moves being made to engage with children in social and polit- ical education indicate, again, a move towards recognising children as thinking, active participants in the task of improving society. We shall come to other examples of this trend, along the way.

Gender and Generation: utoPias

Clearly, women were important in promoting the progressive education movement, for it fell to them to care for the youngest children. The move- ment was revolutionary, in that it threw emphasis on the child’s activity as central to learning and so presented a direct challenge to the assumptions embedded in the elementary school régime. Theoretically, relations between teacher and child were up for radical change. No longer domi- nant, as purveyor of facts to passive children, the teacher now had to respect and respond to the child’s learning, his investigations and his ques- tions. An important example of how theory could be put into action is




provided by Mrs Beatrice Ensor, who became an inspector of schools in Glamorgan and gained wide-ranging knowledge of educational problems. She was a theosophist, and influenced by Edmond Holmes. The keynote of the Theosophical Fraternity in Education (TFE) was its faith in human nature and in the spiritual powers latent in every child. Her work was instrumental in establishing St Christopher’s School, Letchworth, which had a Montessori nursery and encouraged self-government among the children. Its work continues today. She promoted the annual meetings of the TFE society and these formed part of the movement leading on to the establishment of the New Education Fellowship (NEF), influential in dis- seminating progressive educational ideas in the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, she was the founding editor of The New Era (the NEF journal) and in its first edition in 1920 she wrote praising Montessori. However, her deputy editor, A. S. Neill, writing in The New Era in 1921, argued that Montessori was in the business of moulding the children, rather than freeing them to experience. He had visited the Homer Lane Commonwealth and was influenced by its democratic ethos. 80 Neill later started the ‘progressive’ school, Summerhill, in Suffolk. 81 The movement aimed at implementing new ideas about how education takes place was one important factor underpinning ideas within utopias of this period. More generally, it seemed to many that society had come to a turning point: there had to be better ways of living for the population. The idea of each household doing its own cleaning, cooking, laundry and childcare seemed to some thinkers not only to force each woman, as housewife, into ceaseless toil, but to be inefficient. One set of ideas con- cerned various kinds of collective living. Here, visionary thinkers were tak- ing up ideas that had been formulated in the early nineteenth century by Robert Owen and his followers. The basic tenets were equality of women and men, and collective, communal living as the means of ending wom- en’s drudgery. Communal child-rearing also served both to fend off the evil effects of the nuclear family on children’s development and to reduce women’s work. 82 However, in practice, gendered divisions of labour ensured that it was women who did both childcare and household tasks. In the later nineteenth century, several blocks of service flats were built in London, which provided homes for single working women, with com- munal dining rooms. 83 Another scheme tackled the problem faced by women’s responsibilities for housework, cooking and childcare; housing schemes could be built which centralised these, trained staff (women, of course) would do the work across households and thus free up ‘housewives’



to do other kinds of productive work. A number of these were built: there were blocks of serviced flats, for instance, in the new town of Letchworth, designed by Ebenezer Howard. 84 However, many of such ideas, plans and actualities, as far as children were concerned, were simply about shifting the burden of childcare from mothers onto nurseries. More fundamental work—a programme of research studies—was carried out by the Fabian Women’s Group in the years 1908–14 on the history and present of women’s social and economic position. 85 Some of the writings suggest that societal arrangements could make for better childhoods, as indeed the Owenites had argued. Thus, Clementina Black argued that for women with ‘character’ and ‘aspiration’ the home was ‘prison-like and intolerable and her children reflect her in their arrested development’. If she goes out to work she will be ‘more of an individual and therefore a better mother’. 86 Black goes on to argue that:

It is by no means always true that a mother is the person best qualified to take care of her infant. It may even conceivably be true that babies would be better off in the charge of an expert and that infant citizens may come to be tended, as boy and girl citizens are taught, in communities by trained persons. 87

This argument echoes similar claims made by Owen in 1836. 88 It also suggests a vision of children as having interests outside the family—as citi- zens; and as learning to be citizens alongside their peers. It is a point developed further by Gilman (see below, page 45). Such ideas showed a middle-class reliance on the continued labour of working-class women— who, however, would be trained for the work and properly paid. 89 It is notable that these educated women did not envisage a society that tran- scended the class structure, poorer women would still be servicing the wealthier. Even more fundamental were the utopias which emerged during this period. James Redmond argues that two huge movements provided ratio- nale for these utopias: the French Revolution had raised understandings of possibilities for workers’ control of production; but the industrial revolu- tion had put the power into the hands of capitalists. What had to be over- turned was free enterprise as the only mantra. 90 Redmond does not take account of the women’s movement, some versions of which also chal- lenged societal arrangements based on capitalism.




Utopias: William Morris and H. G. Wells

I note here two example of utopias by men and by contrast a more fully

worked through utopia by a woman—Gilman. Thus in 1890, William Morris (1834–1896) wrote his News from Nowhere, first published in instalments in The Commonweal and then as a book. Here the narrator finds himself in London, in the 22nd century, where social, economic and political arrangements have been radically altered since the 1950s. He journeys across London, accompanied by a guide who explains how this new society works. Communist societies have been established across Europe, international peace reigns, money is an outdated concept and men and women carry out the necessary work with light hearts and in a spirit of harmony and good will; each does what he or she most enjoys. (Women enjoy being mothers and housewives!) Instead of sweated labour in capitalist industries, we have factories which make beautiful objects and are centres for education—notably learning crafts. The slums have gone; each household has a house with a productive garden (roughly the same population—30 million—is spread out more evenly, in villages across the country). Morris has taken on board progressive ideas about how children learn and, as the narrator learns, the notion of ‘school’ has been abandoned and the concept is not recognised. Children live freely in the countryside, learning by doing, and learning alongside other chil- dren to be collaborative citizens. Book learning is not encouraged in

children. 91 Morris is not presenting a fully worked through argument about how and why such a society could come about. Rather he is concerned to point

to the evils produced by the English industrial revolution and to describe

a quality of living that could be worked towards: where people live in ‘a

warm fellowship of mind and habit’. 92 H. G. Wells (1866–1946) also included in his huge output A Modern Utopia (1907). In chapter 1 he lays out his main socialist point: that uto- pias are about emancipating men from traditions, legal bonds and posses- sions. His book is mainly a discussion of utopian proposals; for instance, how to deal with the problem that someone has to do the work that a society requires. He places emphasis on how science will organise the tasks of society and thus servant, labouring classes will be abolished. 93 On women, he argues that their ‘economic inferiority’ has to be dealt with and he suggests wages for motherhood; 94 these would lead women into ‘a career of wholesome motherhood’. 95 He takes up other ideas then



current: on common cooking arrangements, nursery schools and gardens for children. However, Wells (like Morris) does not address the funda- mental arguments of many in the women’s movement: their desire to overturn the structures that oppress women and to seek economic inde- pendence. And, unsurprisingly, he does not rethink childhood.

Utopias: Charlotte Perkins Gilman (and Holmes and Forster)

For more radical thinking we have to turn to Charlotte Perkins Gilman, an American sociologist (1860–1935). Her work was well known in England, as part of the cross-Atlantic networks developed among women in the movement for equality. She came to England at least twice, and carried out lecture tours. 96 Gilman made her name with the monumental tome Women and Economics, published in 1898. She argues that human societ- ies are unique (as compared to other animal societies), since:

the sex-relation is also an economic relation. With us an entire sex lives in a relation of economic dependence upon the other sex, and the economic relation is combined with the sex-relation. 97

Working within an evolutionary framework, she accepts the then com- mon idea that Western societies constituted an advanced type of civilisa- tion, and it was all the more necessary now to alter women’s relation to the economic structures of society, so that they might participate, using their womanly insights, in movements to ensure the continued develop- ment of civilised society. For at present:

The economic status of the human race in any nation, at any time, is gov- erned by the activities of the male: the female obtains her share in the racial advance only through him. 98

Gilman puts children at the centre of her thinking. She argues that chil- dren cared for solely at home with their mother get an inflated idea of their own importance and a distorted evaluation of child–adult relations. They should spend their days with other children, where they will learn fairness, comradeship and justice. 99 She goes on to say (as Clementina Black, too, argued) that a mother, or any woman, is not necessarily good at educating children; instead children from babyhood should be cared for and educated by women who show special talents for this and are trained to do it. 100




This carefully worked-through set of arguments later formed the basis for Gilman’s utopia. Her novel Herland (1915) is a confident and amus- ing account of a land where only women and girl children live. In this society a child is born when a woman feels an intense desire to bear a child; and the community of women decide how many people their land and its people can support. Three male visitors to the land are forced to reconsider their preconceptions about women. For these are wise, capable, active women who live and work in a planned co-operative economy, each con- tributing through their work to social health. Theirs is a vision where the quality of childhoods is central to the continued well-being of the society; and after the first months of breast-feeding, the children spend their days with each other in joyous communal activity and free exploration, under the guidance of women with special aptitudes for the work, supplemented by training. Gilman’s vision constitutes a rethinking of the maternalism thesis, which argued for women’s strength as mothers; but it is also revo- lutionary, because she rethinks the social status of childhood, as occupying theoretical (and physical) spaces of its own. As she says: ‘The earlier and more easily a child can learn that human life means many people and their behaviour to one another, the happier and stronger and more useful his life will be.’ 101 The central aim of the society is to produce successive gen- erations of people who will advance civilisation. Gilman’s thesis on children met with mixed responses among feminist activists. Among the northern women whom she would have met on her lecture tours, Selina Cooper supported the movement led by Eleanor Rathbone to give mothers ‘family allowances’ to help them rear healthy children. 102 But Ada Nield Chew supported Gilman, on the grounds that feminist socialism demanded communal childcare:

More than all should women discourage the fostering of the ideal of the domestic tabby-cat-woman as that to which all womanhood should aspire … The children must be cared for and women must care for them. But not by paying poor women to be mothers. Women must be financially indepen- dent of men. But not by paying poor women to be wives. Marriage and motherhood should not be for sale. They should be dissociated from what is for sale – domestic drudgery. 103

However, a distinctive feature of Gilman’s utopia is that education is central to the advancement of a good society. The new generation, com- munally reared, will be devoted as adults to the common good. 104 In this



theoretical approach her work differs from, for instance, that of Morris and Wells, whose analysis is less fundamental, for they do not indicate why and how human consciousness could alter so that people would support the socialist societies proposed. Hers is indeed maternalism with a (benev- olent) vengeance. Men have spectacularly shown unwillingness or inability to construct and conduct societies in which all social groups flourish. Now they will be shown (in the persons of the three male visitors, who exhibit and are forced to reconsider their varying attributes of misogyny) how it can be done. On this topic, an interesting (though more limited) proposal is made by Edmund Holmes, whose What Is and What Might Be came out in 1912, when he retired from his post as Chief Inspector of Schools. He provides a tirade, based on his experience of elementary schools, against the teach- ing of facts, the testing of facts and the activity of teachers contrasted with the passivity of the children. He writes that he has, by contrast, visited a school in a village called Utopia, where children follow the path of self-realisation.

The Utopian child is alive, alert, active, full of latent energy, ready to act, to do things, to turn his mind to things, to turn his hand to things, to turn his desire to things, to turn his whole being to things. There is no trace in this school of the mental lethargy which, in spite of the ceaseless activity of the teachers, pervades the atmosphere of so many elementary schools; no trace of the fatal inertness on the part of the child, which is the outcome of five or six years of systematic repression and compulsory inaction. 105

Thus Holmes places his faith in the progressive movement in educa- tion, which puts emphasis on the child’s activity in learning. He recounts his visit to the school on a day when the teacher was unable to be there. The children simply continued with their projects, working alone or in groups; they had taken education into their own hands—and minds. Utopias can be seen as sociological enterprises. They set what might be against what is. 106 It was through her careful deconstruction of what is, in her earlier work, that Gilman was able to present her vision of a good society in Herland. We need these visions to help us work, however par- tially, towards better societies, for, as Oscar Wilde said: ‘No map of the world is worthwhile which does not include utopias.’ 107 Perhaps there is also a useful place for dystopias, warning of us of dan- gers ahead. E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops (1909) gives us a society




where human physical and emotional contact has been almost eliminated. Each person lives alone, underground, in a room to which all services (food, light) are brought through the workings of a vast machine. Contact with other people is via what reads eerily like Skype. But the system grinds to a halt, the machine collapses, light and air deteriorate and the people emerge slowly but die in the ensuing chaos. 108 This is an early exposition

of Forster’s message: ‘only connect’.

Children of the state?

A theme in much writing during and since the early years of the twentieth

century is that children were being reconceptualised as children of the

state. The future of society lay in the hands of the next generation. It was the duty of the state to ensure a healthy population. Girls had a particular responsibility as future mothers of yet another generation. Some of these points relate to a general view that Western societies were at a high point of civilisation, as propounded by the sociologist Herbert Spencer. The further advancement of civilisation depended on the character and health

of the next generation. Some of it related more specifically to the existence

of the British Empire, seen as a virtuous enterprise, bringing enlighten- ment to dark places. There is no difficulty in locating contemporary statements linking chil- dren and the state. John Gorst’s book Children of the Nation (1906) argued that serious deterioration in the social conditions of children should make us realise that children’s health and training were central to the national interest. 109 Margaret McMillan in her book The Child and the State (1907) drew on examples from Europe to argue for a free education service for all, from nursery through university. She detailed the Danish policy (spearheaded by Grundtvik) of encouraging young workers to return to education in community colleges. The Fabian Women’s Group (Pember Reeves 1988) argued on the basis of their study of infant mortal- ity, that it was a state duty to ensure the healthy lives of the children (see the opening section of Chapter Three). However, all these commentators thought the state had some way to go.

Modern historians have argued that there was a change in the status and characterisation of childhood. Anna Davin (1996), for instance, in her analysis of children growing up in poverty (focusing mainly on the late nineteenth century), argues that a central effect of the education acts was to define children as dependants, since they lost (much of) their ability to



contribute to their family’s economic welfare. In her chapter 11 she makes

a strong case for the argument that children were being redefined as chil-

dren of the state, notably in relation to the British Empire. Hugh Cunningham (1991) devotes a chapter of his history of ideas about English children to a discussion of the child and the state. In particular he focuses on the debates between those standing for parental responsibility and those who found it inevitable that the state would have to intervene. Similarly, Harry Hendrick, in Section 2 of his book, Child Welfare (2003), argues that the early twentieth century saw these debates as the arena in which new understandings of childhood emerged. The study of childhood interrelated with preoccupations with national prosperity. In his discussion of the 1908 Children Act, he quotes perhaps the most succinct statement of all on this, which is worth quoting again.

all children are the natural care of the State, and … where parental respon- sibility is not understood and not acted upon, we must for the very sake of the preservation of the State, step in … we are bound at all costs to see that the children grow up in such a fashion that they may become useful, service- able and profitable citizens of this great Empire. 110

Points such as these were made by commentators at the time, although their political allegiances may have varied. It is one of the purposes of this book to reconsider these propositions, in the light of women’s work for children and on the basis of how these

propositions relate to children’s experienced lives, as told in the memoirs. Though for many reasons, it is hard to recover those experiences (see dis- cussion in the Introduction), yet the effort to do so, in my view, uncovers

a rather different set of points. The experiences of family life and labour,

the experiences of elementary school described in the next two chapters, suggest to me that children saw the centre of their lives within family rela- tions and within socio-economic relations in the neighbourhood. In other words, they were children of families (rather than of the state). Their hard lives continued much as they would have done in 1869, with their duties to do hard domestic labour and paid jobs where possible. The difference

was that now they fitted these in alongside the new component demanded by the state: attendance at the elementary school. And for the vast major- ity of children, schooling ended at 13 or 14, for they left as soon as they could, to embark, as children, on full-time paid work. If, then, we take a materialist stance on this, it is clear not only that children learned a




consciousness of these boundaries, these conditions of their lives, but that, looking back, we can suggest that their social status was tied into the local, rather than into the larger concerns of the state. What these sources of information tell us is that we have to be very careful about how we consider the rhetoric about children and childhood used at the time and about what the pioneers did with the aim of improv- ing people’s lives. As various authors point out, most people’s lives were not affected by the hard work of women working to help people in the slums. 111 Many of my informants would have been surprised to learn that they were thought of by wealthy people as children of the state. However, at the level of rhetoric, it may be that ideas about children’s relation to the education system changed over time, and the war years provided scope for onlookers to reconsider whether children should be thought of as school- children or as workers and citizens in the making. I return to this topic in Chapter Six. The next two chapters provide my attempt to recover the material experiences of childhood, as recounted in the memoirs. The work of women towards better childhoods is a running theme. I argue that chil- dren’s preoccupations with the demands of home and with its family rela- tionships, its crises, joys and disasters form a framework for considering what school meant to them. The fact that people recalling the past tell so much more about home and neighbourhood than about school is striking. So too is the emphasis on the learning and education that takes place out- side school.


1. McMillan, The Child and the State, 1911.

2. Steedman 1990, p. 93.

3. Rowbotham 2011, chapter 10, describes an early New Statesman special issue in 1913, which they entitled ‘The Awakening of Women’. It included

a paper by Beatrice Webb who argued that the women’s movement was

much wider than just the struggle for the vote; it encompassed battles to end other relations of subordination.

4. See Taylor 1983 for discussion of early nineteenth century feminist move- ments. See also Ray Strachey’s history of the women’s movement.

5. Maggie Tulliver’s childhood battles against conformity to feminine models

is explored in The Mill on the Floss (1860). Dorothea, Mary and Rosamond

present three contrasting ways of coping with being female in Middlemarch.



(1871–1872). See also Anne Brontë ’s Agnes Grey (1847) on the hard life of the governess.


For discussion of these two pioneers see Koven’s paper (1993b) on women working in the ‘borderlines’ between the private and the public.


Jane Martin explores the work of four late Victorian/early Edwardian women in voluntary work, settlements and other women’s organisations. In Koven’s terms they were working in the ‘borderlines’; and redefining what we mean by political action.


For a detailed account of the work towards founding Newnham College, Cambridge, see Sutherland 2006.


Adie, p. 114.


Crawford 2002.


Rowbotham 2011, pp. 188–192; Alexander 1995.


Rowbotham 2011, pp. 173–176. Clementina Black was a member of the Fabian Women’s Group and carried out research studies on women’s working conditions.


See Clementina Black’s Introduction to Married Women’s Work (1983, first published 1915). The empirical studies across England were carried out between 1908 and 1912 (Mappen 1983).


Ibid., p. 214. This challenge is also discussed by Hannam and Hunt.


Liddington and Norris, chapter 2.


For photographs of a caravan used to take the feminist message to Yorkshire towns and villages, see Liddington 2006, pp. 206–210. Hannah Mitchell describes some of these journeys, notably in her chapter 10.


Alexander 1995, p. 72.


Liddington and Norris, pp. 21 and 289.


Liddington and Norris, chapter 7. For a full exploratory study of the intel- lectual life of British working class people, see Rose 2002.


Connelly, pp. 22–23. See also Winslow, chapter 1.


The girls are pictured awaiting the result. See Liddington 2006, p. 156.


Liddington 2006, chapter 5, which includes a transcript from the court hearing in respect of Dora Thewlis. For the prevalent middle-class insis- tence that girls be chaperoned, see exhaustive and furious discussions in Vera Brittain’s autobiography, notably chapter 2.


For discussion, see, for example, Lewis 1986a, 1986b; Hendrick 2003, pp. 19–23.


Hollis 1994.


Hurt 1979, chapter 5.


Morrow 1992.


Jackson and Taylor, chapter 2; de la Mare 2008; Dyhouse 1989, p. 82.


Vicinus 1994.




30. Steedman 1990, notably chapter 10.

31. Steedman 1990, p. 189.

32. For instance among the many feminist books of the 1970s and onwards, Segal’s book (1990) exemplifies what it was taking to change men and masculinities.

33. Steedman 1990, p. 52.

34. Steedman 1990, p. 53.

35. Steedman 1990, p. 84.

36. Steedman 1990, p. 84.

37. Koven 1993, Introduction.

38. Jackson and Taylor, p. 29.

39. Kean 1990a, p. 5, explains that under the 1902 Education Act, women could no longer be elected to education authorities on the basis of their expertise in education, but only as women.

40. For detailed discussion of issues raised children’s work and the part played by women, see Cunningham 1991, pp. 176–184.

41. Hollis, p. 443.

42. Dallas, Introduction to Maternity, edited by Margaret Llewelyn Davies.

43. Davies ed. 1984, p. 49. The Hearts of Oak was a friendly society, founded in 1842, providing insurance cover against distress caused by sickness.

44. Margaret Llewelyn Davies, letter to The Times, 24 June 1911, quoted in Gaffin and Thoms 1983, p. 69.

45. Margaret Bondfield later became the first woman cabinet minister (Minister of Labour) in the Labour government of 1929, under Ramsay MacDonald (Thorne 2008, p. 71).

46. Gaffin and Thoms 1983, pp. 68–73.

47. Gaffin and Thoms 1983, pp. 69–70.

48. Hollis, p. 441.

49. Hollis, p. 441. Hollis notes that her source for this information is not dated.

50. McMillan Labour and Childhood 1907, p. 81.

51. Steedman 1990, p. 193.

52. Hollis, p. 440.

53. Harris B 1995, p. 70.

54. Harris B 1995, p. 63.

55. Hurt 1979, p. 129.

56. Steedman 1990, p. 110.

57. Liebschner 1991, p. 21.

58. Bathurst, in Van der Eyken 1973, pp. 119–126.

59. Brehony 2000; see also Steedman 1988 for discussion of Froebel and women’s work in kindergartens.



61. Koven 1990, p. 83.

62. Hardy 1917, p. 173.

63. Woodham-Smith, p. 51.

64. Bathurst in Van der Eyken 1973, p. 119.

65. Education Enquiry Committee 1929, pp. 9–11.

66. Cunningham, P. 2002 . The Montessori Society was founded in 1912.

67. First Montessori conference in England (Sussex) 25–28 July 1914.

68. Quoted in Lowndes 1960, p. 43.

69. Education Enquiry Committee 1929, p. 11.

70. It remains the case that UK governments are unwilling to fund nurseries for preschool children.

71. Liddington and Norris, p. 117. See also Reynolds, K., pp. 49–55.

72. For a history of the SSS movement see Reid 1966, who states that yet another woman had started the SSS movement in Glasgow in 1896:

Caroline Martyn.

73. Steedman 1990, pp. 174–176.

74. Kean 1990a, chapter 3.

75. Kean 1990a, p. 62.

76. Kean 1990a, p. 62. She quotes from a paper in the Yong Socialist, April


77. The Young Socialist, June 1912, quoted by Kean 1990a, note 67 on page 73. A brake is an open wagon with bench seats down the two sides, facing each other, possibly seating up to 24 people and pulled by two or three horses (according to Jasper, p. 67; he spent a day working on one).

78. See Chapter Five, p. 129.

79. Foakes, p. 81.

80. See Bazeley.

81. The information given in this paragraph is taken from W. A. C. Stewart 1968, pp. 55–59.

82. Taylor 1983, pp. 48–56.

83. Crawford 2002, chapter 4.

84. For discussion, see Dyhouse 1989, chapter 3; and Rowbotham 2011, chapter 6.

85. Dyhouse 1989, chapter 3.

86. Black, C., pp. 4–6.

87. Black, C., p. 6.

88. Taylor, B., p. 51.

89. Dyhouse 1989, p. 131.

90. Redmond 1970, Introduction to News from Nowhere, Sect. 4. See also Rowbotham 2011, p. 233.




he envisages children at school in the factory premises (doing ‘book learn- ing’) and gradually being introduced to craft work in the factory.

92. Cole, Introduction, pp. xvii–xviii.

93. Wells 1917, chapter 3.

94. Wells 1917, pp. 182–187.

95. Wells 1917, p. 187.

96. Rowbotham 2011 considers throughout her book the contacts between US and UK feminists in their battles for equality. See also Degler 1966 for an account of Gilman’s life and work.

97. Gilman 1966, p. 5. First published 1898.

98. Gilman 1966, p. 9.

99. Gilman 1966, p. 277.

100. Gilman 1966, p. 283. These arguments are also set out in her book Concerning Children, 1901.

101. Gilman Women and Economics, 1966, p. 281.

102. Liddington and Norris, p. 260.

103. Quoted in Liddington and Norris, p. 261. First published in the journal Common Cause, February 1914.

104. For discussion of this point see Ann Lane 1989.

105. Holmes 1912, p. 155.

106. Levitas.

107. Jebb 1929, p. 27. This note on Oscar Wilde was added by her sister Dorothy Buxton, who edited Jebb’s book after her death in 1928.

108. Forster’s story is undated in the 1928 collection of his stories, but he says in his Preface that they were written before 1914.

109. John Gorst was President of the Board of Education from 1895–1902.

110. Hendrick 2003, p. 86.

111. Vicinus 1994, pp. 231–232.


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the seventeenth century. Oxford: Blackwell.



Cunningham, P. (2002). Primary education. In R. Aldrich (Ed.), A century of education. London: Routledge. Davies, M. L. (1984). Life as we have known it: By co-operative working women. London: Virago. First published 1931.

Davin, A. (1996). Growing up poor: Home, school and street in London 1870–1914. London: Rivers Oram Press. Degler, C. N. (1966). Introduction. In C. P. Gilman (Ed.), Women and economics:

A study of the economic relation between men and women as a factor in social

evolution. New York: Harper Row. Dyhouse, C. (1989). Feminism and the family in England 1880–1939. Oxford:

Blackwell. Education Enquiry Committee. (1929). The case for nursery schools. London:

George Philip and Sons, Ltd. Forster, E. M. (1928). The machine stops. In E. M. Forster (Ed.), The eternal moment and other stories. London: Sidgwick and Jackson. (In his Preface to this edition, Forster says the stories were written before 1914.) Gaffin, J., & Thoms, D. (1983). Caring and sharing: The centenary history of the Women’s Co-operative Guild. Manchester: Co-operative Union Ltd. Gilman, C. P. (1901). Concerning children . London: G. P. Putnams. Gilman, C. P. (1966). Women and economics: A study of the economic relation between men and women as a factor in social evolution. New York: Harper Row. First published 1898. Gorst, J. (1906). The children of the nation. London: Methuen. Hardy, L. (1917). Diary of a free kindergarten. London: Gay and Hancock Ltd.

Harris, B. (1995). The health of the schoolchild: A history of the school medical service

in England and Wales. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Hendrick, H. (2003). Child welfare: Historical dimensions, contemporary debate. Bristol: Policy Press. Hollis, P. (1994). Ladies elect: Women in English local government 1965–1914 . Oxford: Clarendon. Holmes, E. (1912). What is and what might be. London: Constable and Co. Ltd. Hurt, J. S. (1979). Elementary schooling and the working classes 1860–1918. London: Routledge. Jebb, E. (1929). Save the child. London: Weardale Press. Kean, H. (1990a). Challenging the state? The socialist and feminist educational experience 1900–1930. Brighton: The Falmer Press. Koven, S. (1993). Introduction. In S. Koven & S. Michel (Eds.), Mothers of a new world: Maternalist politics and the origins of welfare states. London: Routledge. Lewis, J. (1986a). Labour and love: Women’s experiences of home and family 1860–1940. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Lewis, J. (1986b). Anxieties about the family. In M. Richards & P. Light (Eds.), Children of social worlds. Cambridge: Polity Press. Liddington, J. (2006). Rebel girls: Their fight for the vote. London: Virago.




Liebschner, J. (1991). Foundations of progressive education: The history of the National Froebel Society. Cambridge: Lutterworth Press. Lowndes, G. A. N. (1960). Margaret McMillan: The children’s champion. London:

Museum Press. Mappen, E. F. (1983). New introduction. In C. Black (Ed.), Married women’s work. London: Virago. de la Mare, U. (2008, Autumn). Necessity and rage: The factory women’s strikes in Bermondsey 1911. History Workshop Journal, 66, 62–80. McMillan, M. (1907). Labour and childhood. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Co. Ltd. McMillan, M. (1911). The child and the state. Manchester: The National Labour Press Ltd. Morrow, V. (1992). A sociological study of the economic roles of children, with par- ticular reference to Birmingham and Cambridgeshire. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Cambridge. Redmond, J. (1970). Introduction. In W. Morris (Ed.), News from nowhere. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Reid, F. (1966). Socialist Sunday schools in Britain 1892–1939. International Review of Social History, 11(1), 18–47. Rose, J. (2002). The intellectual life of the British working class. New Haven: Yale University Press. Rowbotham, S. (2011). Dreamers of a new day: Women who invented the twentieth century. London: Verso. Segal, L. (1990). Slow motion: Changing masculinities, changing men. London:

Virago. Steedman, C. (1988). ‘The mother made conscious’: The historical development of a primary school pedagogy. In M. Woodhead & A. McGrath (Eds.), Family, school and society: A reader. London: Hodder and Stoughton. Steedman, C. (1990). Childhood, culture and class in Britain: Margaret McMillan 1860–1931. London: Virago. Stewart, W. A. C. (1968). The education innovators, volume two: Progressive schools 1881–1967. London: Macmillan. Sutherland, G. (2006). Faith, duty and the power of mind: The Clough and their circle 1820–1960. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Taylor, B. (1983). Eve and the New Jerusalem. London: Virago. Thorne, A. (2008). A history of the British Labour Party (3rd ed.). London:

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The Economics of Childhood: Home and Neighbourhood

Socialist Feminist Research: Maud Pember Reeves

In the early twentieth century, as concern grew about the high rates of infant mortality and the poor health and physique of perhaps 30–40 per cent of the population, it was commonplace for male observers to assign blame to the fecklessness and ignorance of moth- ers. 1 Increasing efforts were made, through charitable services and through the development of infant welfare services, such as clinics and health visiting, to educate mothers. In response, members of the Fabian Women’s Group, founded 1908, mounted a research project to investigate the causes of infant mortality. 2 Members of the group studied, over ‘many months’ 3 the daily lives and weekly spending of women in an area of Lambeth where husbands earned ‘round about a pound a week’. They reported on their findings in Round About a Pound a Week, first published in 1913. They found that, without a doubt, it was not possible to feed a family well on this amount. Indeed, in a telling comparison, they noted that the diet considered appropriate for the poorest children of all, those in workhouses, was far beyond these families; it included milk, meat, vegetables and fruit every day. 4 They also noted that the domestic science training of girls in LCC schools assumed that a family had either £3, 35s. or 28s. a week to spend; for it would be false teaching to assume that women could house, clean,




warm, light, insure and feed a family of four or five persons on 20s. a week in London. 5 (And, as we shall see, many households were of six or more persons). Perhaps even more telling is that after paying the rent, the next item in many budgets was funeral insurance. And this is because women had to factor in the possible death of a child. 6 In particular, when a new baby was born, the next one up (‘the ex-baby’) became at risk. No longer breast-fed, active and in danger of accident, they led restricted lives, sometimes tied to chairs to keep them safe, indoors in cramped, poorly ventilated housing, fed inadequate diets and liable to infections. It was those children who partly accounted for the high infant mortality rates. In the study as a whole, one-fifth of the children studied, though healthy at birth, died in early childhood. 7

The economics of home Life in ciTies

The Fabian Women’s Group research led by Maud Pember Reeves pro- vides a key text for understanding the family lives of poor children in the early twentieth century; many families could not survive without the contributions of children’s work, paid or unpaid. In this chapter I aim to delve into some English children’s understandings of their social lives. That means considering what the memoirs say about family lives and lives in the neighbourhood. One aim is to provide context for the fol- lowing chapter, which will investigate what school meant to children. There have of course been many studies, mainly from feminist stand- points, on the domestic lives of women, with some attention to chil- dren’s experiences and here I build on this work and try to add further depth to it. 8 One way of into tapping into children’s understandings of their lives is to consider events, social relationships and pressures described in the accounts we have and what they may have meant to the children involved. I think it is useful to take account of Marx’s frequently stated theory: How did their experienced lives determine their consciousness?

It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being determines their consciousness. (Karl Marx) 9



All the memoirs chosen for this book are written by people who attended elementary school. The material we have is about people’s lives and times—as children, some accounts being plain, unvarnished chronological stories and others more deliberately and skilfully exploring topics and themes. These memoirs include book-length accounts, spread out over 100 pages or more; and then there are the interviews, covering 20 or 30 pages, where people in old age describe and reflect on their childhood. Children who attended elementary school varied in social class and eco- nomic circumstances. The poorest were the workhouse children, who are described with pity and horror in many of the memoirs. Thomas Morgan, whose parents were violent drunkards, was taken in early childhood to the workhouse by his mother. Later, he became, he says, a ‘street arab’, scav- enging, stealing, earning and playing on the streets. Whilst some families were very poor indeed others were less so, and the children therein had boots on their feet, enough—though plain—food, toys and even pocket money. Thus when C. H. Rolph (known as Cecil at home) was born in 1901, his father had 28 shillings a week as a sergeant in the police force. If the parents did not smoke or drink alcohol, he writes, it was possible to manage. 10 However, here I shall start with some of the poorest, for whom the exigencies of managing echo Pember Reeves’ accounts. I am aiming to give some indications and examples of how people wrote or talked about their childhood. By describing and quoting their words, I try to assemble what were the components of their past lives and what understandings they ascribed to the children they once were. This means being alert to the purposes and methods used in the accounts. From these, a number of top- ics emerge: making money and children’s part in this; children’s unpaid work; child–parent relations, including children’s status and duties in the family; amusements and pleasures. More broadly, we learn about the com- plexities of social class perceptions and ways of life, gendered learning, welfare interventions in people’s lives and how these were perceived, and similarities and differences between urban and rural lives. Thus Jan Jasper (born about 1905) writes a straightforward, chrono- logical account of his Hoxton childhood in a home where the mother kept the family financially afloat, since her husband, a drunken, casual labourer, gave her only six or seven shillings a week (sometimes), drank the rest and upset the children by his drunken behaviour. 11 Two older boys were away in work and the army. Two older girls were in paid work, which helped family finances, and Jan attended school; he was assigned childcare duties




for his youngest sister. Central to his account is how he helped out too, with casual work, sometimes taking a day off school to do this. He gives most detail about how he helped his mother with the making and selling of clothes, for her life was very hard.

Sometimes she would be on the machine until midnight. It wasn’t much of a life for us. The old man could see Mum had a few bob coming in and he stopped giving her the six or seven shillings that he had done in the past. There were rows every weekend. He still came home drunk on Saturday and Sunday and life was really unbearable.’ 12

One job Jan did, on a Saturday, was to walk with a barrow he had made to Islington, collect offcuts of dress material from an uncle and walk back with them, a three-hour trip. ‘Many’s the time I got soaked to the skin. But Mum did appreciate the help I was giving her.’ 13 As part of the same enterprise, he found a spare patch of ground in Hoxton market and they pitched a stall there. He hired a barrow and they laid boards across it to make a surface:

Mum unpacked the clothes and we were away. By nine-thirty people were beginning to flock into the market and we soon had some customers. The frocks and pinafores went like wildfire. ‘Fifteen pence the frocks,’ Mum would say, ‘and ninepence the pinafores.’ About midday we were half sold out. I asked Mum if she would like some tea. “Ere y’are, son,’ she said and took the money out of the takings. I got a jug of tea and some sandwiches and we ate them ravenously. We’d had no breakfast owing to our having had to start out early. Three o’clock came and we had sold out. Mum told me to stay with the barrow while she went shopping and came back loaded. She treated me to the pictures and gave me money to buy sweets. I had never known such times. 14

This excerpt points to the joyous feelings of achievement, through col- laborative enterprise, experienced by Jan and his Mum. All those steps taken (literally and figuratively), all that hard work, long nights on the sewing machine, all those difficulties overcome led to pennies and shillings flowing in, in such abundance that mother and son spent recklessly— bought tea and sandwiches, sweets, a trip to the pictures—these were uncommon treats in this family. Presenting one’s childhood in relation to adulthood is a running theme in many of the memoirs. Through Jan’s description of events, with some



brief snatches of conversation, we gain insight into the author’s intentions. Jasper gives a plain account of relationships through describing action, sited in the complex material realities of family life. We learn that he thought he had a duty to help his mother, and that he felt rewarded when his mother, with his help, had made some money and cheerfully handed out some of the takings to be spent on treats. The detail given in Jasper’s book makes it clear that this home did indeed, as he says, rely on the mother to keep it going, a point made by almost all the memoirs. The detail presented—giving the family’s story as it unfolded over the years—also indicates that this was a roller-coaster home, with frequent downs when money was extra tight; riotous ups when older boys came home with money to spend (drunken parties, danc- ing and singing); furious rows between mother and father—mostly about money; and anxiety and sleepless nights about ill babies. Above all, per- haps, this book tells us of a boy for whom the ever-dominating money problems shaped people’s actions, including his. The material conditions of his life demanded his participation in earning money whenever and however possible. It is telling, in that context, that he barely mentions school, certainly nothing about school as experience, beyond the fact that he found it useful to go to the school’s boot-repair class after school hours; and beyond his description of the kindly intention of a teacher who, hear- ing that Jan had no solid boots, gave him a spare pair recruited from another boy (thus shaming Jan, as he felt it). It is also telling that his friendship, via school, with a boy whose family were relatively well-to-do and welcomed him to their home, gave him a vision of a more orderly and much better resourced household, ‘firm supporters of Lloyd George’ and strictly religious. But though he ‘had seen too much poverty and suffering to have many religious thoughts’, this friendship offered him a model or maybe an indication that life could be better; and, he says ‘had a lot to do with his future’. 15 Catherine Cookson, born in 1906 in Jarrow, became an experienced and accomplished novelist. She describes her childhood life with grand- parents and Kate, lived out in extreme poverty; and her navigation early on of the realisation that ‘our Kate’ was not her elder sister but her mother and that she herself was illegitimate. Central to the book is the relation of Catherine to Kate, a difficult one, since Kate had a very hard life, working all hours and ostracised by neighbours; and Kate drowned her sorrows in beer—and whisky if she could afford it.




She worked for everybody and anybody. Besides nursing me grandma and attending to fleeting lodgers she went out and did days washing or cleaning, paper-hanging and painting, ceilings and staircases, she even replaced win- dow sashes and whole window frames and for never more than three shil- lings a day. 16

Her daughter too had many tasks, alongside school. Cleaning the rooms they lived in was a weekly chore. From the age of about 8, it was her job to take clothes ‘to the pawn’, a job she hated, since it exposed their poverty. She took a morning off school for that. She had to take a jug each evening and ‘go for the beer’. She collected the baskets of wash- ing from neighbours and returned them, cleaned. She did the evening shopping for food, and most days she gathered wood to heat the oven for cooking. Catherine recounts how she learned to mould her own actions and feel- ings in response to her mother’s moods. She describes unexpectedly being awarded a prize at school: ‘a little negro’s head made of china and full of chocolates. It’s the only prize I ever received.’ She walked home to show Kate:

It was one of those dull, cold days that you get in the North when the sky seems to be lying on top of the ships’ masts and the whole world is grey. The long wall from the blacksmith’s shop up to the Saw Mill Bridge was grey. The water lapping against the slack bank just a few feet from the foot path was grey. The houses of the New Buildings in the distance were grey. The people walking between East Jarrow and the Docks, they were very grey. But I was carrying a negro’s head full of chocolates. I was in a palpitating daze; my world had suddenly become an amazing place where you got surprises, nice surprises. Everything was bright, dazzling, until I reached the kitchen, for there the greyness from outside had seeped in and engulfed our Kate. She was busying between the stove and the table but her movements were slow; she looked depressed and sounded in a bad temper. I can’t remember what she said when I showed her the won- derful prize, but her reaction brought a funny heavy feeling into my chest. 17

Catherine discusses her childhood relations with her mother, whose moods fluctuated from cheerful gaiety to abject misery, in their interrela- tions with the harsh character of the urban slum environment. Perhaps of all the autobiographies I have read for this project, hers is the one that best



conveys these complex interrelations; how the built environment, echoing the harsh grey lives imposed on the inhabitants, itself also reinforced peo- ple’s feeling of subjection to economic forces beyond any hope of amelio- ration. Catherine Cookson, like D. H. Lawrence, saw the ugly buildings and the sky polluted by industrial smoke as a degrading insult to the peo- ple forced to live there. Lawrence argued that ‘The real tragedy of England … is the tragedy of ugliness. The countryside is so lovely, the man-made England is so vile … The human soul needs actual beauty even more than bread.’ 18 Cookson puts into the mind and feelings of her child protagonist a response to the urban landscape which feeds into her understanding of her mother’s mood. In both these memoirs, the women are working freelance; all the profit comes to them. This is by contrast with many working women at the time, who worked for small firms and bigger employers, many of whom kept wages very low, as described in Clementina Black’s edited collection of surveys, carried out in 1909–1910. 19 These two memoirs, though unique, are also representative of others, in their emphasis on generational relations. As I and others have extensively argued, children are a subordi- nate social group, subordinated to adults and this relation is clearly at work in family relations. 20 Children are expected to do what adults ask of them, though they may negotiate their duties and even evade them some- times. A second point here relates to the moral character of children. As many children have explained to me, children have to learn how to be a good enough person in the small society they live in. 21 They actively engage with these processes of learning through which they negotiate their moral status and their rightful habitation in their family, and in turn, in the wider society they live in. I think these accounts, and others used in this book also help to fill out the story told by Pember Reeves. Her account focuses on women, their unending work and their problems, how they managed their tiny weekly sums of money. Her study focuses mainly on the very early years of childhood, so she characterises the children as objects of care. But clearly, children as they grew older, were part of the economic order— running errands, doing jobs, paid and unpaid. They were essential to the survival of the household. They are exemplified by Benny, a twelve-year- old, and ‘very serious’; when his father became unemployed, the boy found a job, delivering milk to doorsteps at 2/6 a week and was proud to do so. 22




The economics of home Life in RuRaL aReas

These two descriptions of child–adult relations within urban childhoods may be balanced by consideration of rural childhoods and how the chil- dren there learned about how they fitted into socio-economic life. Two examples from the east of England show how children learned. Len Thompson was born in 1898 in ‘Akenfield’, East Suffolk. 23 His father was an agricultural labourer earning 13s. a week. Len starts his spo- ken autobiography with an episode that remained with him—his eldest brother’s visit, on leave from the army and on his way to the Boer War. Len says he was three years old at the time and remembers this visit clearly.

This young man came in, and it was the first time I had seen him. He wore a red coat and looked very lively. Mother got up and kissed him but Father just sat and said, ‘How are you?’ Then we had tea, all of us staring at my brother. It was dark, it was the winter-time. A few days later he walked away and my mother stood right out in the middle of the road, watching. He was going to fight in South Africa. He walked smartly down the lane until his red coat was no bigger than a poppy. Then the tree hid him. We never saw him again. He went all through the war but caught enteric fever afterwards and died. He was twenty-one. 24

That first paragraph is immediately followed by a description of the physical conditions the family lived in.

Very soon after this it was very hard living indeed for the family. There were seven children at home and father’s wages had been reduced to 10s. a week (from 13s.). Our cottage was nearly empty—except for people. There was a scrubbed brick floor and just one rag rug made of scraps of old clothes pegged into a sack. The cottage had a living-room, a larder and two bed- rooms. Six of us boys and girls slept in one bedroom and our parents and the baby slept in the other. There was no newspaper and nothing to read except the Bible. All the village houses were like this.

He goes on to detail the very poor diet and the perpetual hunger. And

he notes that all the cottage people were very religious and very patriotic. ‘People believed in religion then, which I think was a good thing, because

if they hadn’t got religion there would have been a revolution.’ 25 Len’s account is informed by his socialist views, but it also indicates

how a small child learned. Seeing his mother standing out in the road was

a memory that remained with him, and while he may not have known at



the time why she did so, that she did so was memorable; and as he grew older the episode would tell him about her sorrow and her worry for her eldest son. And Len’s account quickly moves on to detail the understand- ing that came early to these rural children: that the countryside meant, not a rural idyll, but the necessity for children and women to earn a few shil- lings on the farms, gleaning, weeding, harvesting. His mother eked out the family income by stone-picking. 26

We helped her when we got back from school at five o’clock (having walked two miles home). She had to pick up twenty-four bushels of stones a day to get two shillings. Each parish had to mend its own lanes then and the stones were used for this. A tumbril was put in the field and a line was chalked round it. When you had filled it up to the line you got the two shillings. It would take a whole day. We did it every minute we weren’t at school and all through the holidays. It was all I can remember. 27

For Len, aged 71 when he talked about his life to the interviewer, rural life in East Suffolk before the Great War was characterised by oppression:

of exploitation by the farmers, and there was little other choice of job for men; women also worked for the farmers, or went ‘into service’ until mar- riage. 28 Later he explains that when he returned from fighting in the war, he had learned that unionisation was the way forward, and he became a union organiser in the 1920s and 30s, but, as he says, the economic slump and the government’s refusal to act forced men to walk from village to village in search of work. Thus he developed a more theoretical socialist understanding from conversations in the trenches and tried to apply it in practice. However, Len Thompson’s understanding of how farmers controlled the standard of living, by bargaining down rates of pay came early to him, in his childhood, for he describes occasions when he, or his father or mother and he were engaged in these bargaining sessions. Farmers could and did make their own rules and people had little power to influence their decisions. Compared to the harsh working world, for him—as for some other rural children, as we shall see—school was an irrelevance.

The school was useless. The farmers came and took boys away from it when they felt like it, the parson raided it for servants. The teacher was a respect- able woman who did her best. Sometimes she would bring the Daily Graphic down and show us the news. I looked forward to leaving school so that I could get educated. I knew that education was in books, not in school: there




were no books there. I was a child when I left but I already knew that our ‘learning’ was rubbish, that our food was rubbish and that I should end up as rubbish if I didn’t look out. 29

Here Len is introducing a further theme which runs through many of the accounts: the idea some children developed that it was up to them to make something of their lives, that they should try to escape from poverty, discrimination and ignorance. Len’s insistence that education was the way out and up echoes the perennial debates about the schooling system: just what it is for; whether it seeks to educate, or only to school. Len, as he goes on to explain, got his education in the trenches, not through books, but through discussions. Clifford Hills also had a rural childhood and indeed lived all his life in the same village, Great Bentley, Essex. 30 He was born in 1904, the fourth son of an agricultural labourer. A younger sister was born in 1909. This family was poor, partly because the father was willing to do only those jobs he thought worth doing, so family income was variable. But they had an allotment and kept rabbits and pigs, and there was enough food for every- one. Like Len Thompson, Cliff and his elder brothers started in paid work early on, with Cliff working before and after school, from the age of nine. His mother insisted on Sunday school twice and church twice on Sundays, and this experience alerted Cliff to social class distinctions, as practised in church.

One thing I didn’t like and it sticks in my mind today. I came to the conclu- sion that church-goers were something like railway carriages were at one time—first, second and third. You see my mother was a person of the lower class, she was a poor woman, and she and her friends were all poor, but they were great church-goers, kindly, gentle people … They had to sit in the back pews. In the middle were the local shop-keepers and people who were con- sidered to be a little bit superior to the others, better educated perhaps. And right at the top of the church, behind where the choir used to sit, were the local farmers, the local bigwigs, you see, posh people. And when people left the church, although as I said he was a nice, kindly vicar, he didn’t seem to have any time for the lower classes. Mother and her friends would pass out of the church door, the vicar would stand near the church door, and he would just nod and smile, perhaps not that even. But when the higher class people came out, he would shake hands and beam to everyone of them as if they were somebody far superior to my mother and her friends, the poor, the very poor. And I didn’t like that. 31



These distinctions also held good in the world of work, where farmers and tradespeople asserted their superiority over labourers. Before school each day, he worked as a kitchen boy at a big farmhouse, and there too he was made to accept his inferiority; for he recalls that a servant there was told she must not give him a cup of tea. The class-based relations between people were highly visible, clearly practised, and forcibly experienced, in this village. Thus Cliff explains that he learned through experience how the worlds of work and the worlds of religion intersected, to reinforce inequalities of income by defining people’s social status. However, in the midst of this busy life, earning money, and analysing the social scene, Cliff tells us about a more traditional and enjoyable part of his childhood: he and his friends made use of the countryside, not only by catapulting small birds and rabbits, but by the time-honoured damming of streams to make a pool for swimming. Both Len and Cliff discuss social control within the family, but they both also have clear memories of a wider world dominated by hierarchies, of both religion and class. These accounts of hierarchies are echoed in memoirs from, for instance Cornwall and Dorset, where two who later became writers record the minutiae of social differentiation: A. L Rowse and Ralph Wightman. 32 These memories differ from those presented in the interviews from the Ambleside archive, where there is much less politi- cal commentary on the tyrannies of religion and class and no reports of the abject poverty endured by some Suffolk and urban families. Some of the Ambleside interviewees grew up on farms, and had their own produce and good diets; these farms were remote from other dwellings and children made their own amusements with siblings. Others lived in village cottages like the Suffolk ones, and fathers’ work was as farm labourers, in the quar- ries or in an engineering works locally. Outside toilets and wash-houses were shared among the rows of cottages. Interviewees talk about their participation as children in baking days, in working on the farms, but also on playtimes out in the fields and roads. Here is Gwen Hall, born 1905, talking about Troutbeck Bridge, where she lived:

There was just that little group of cottages, and the school, the chapel and the Sun Hotel. And then fields all round. I: Was there a shop at all in Troutbeck Bridge? Just the Post Office, where you could buy sweets and there was a tiny little shop. A Mrs. Denny. She lived in the row of houses up above, and then there were four others, tiny little cottages.




I: Where did you get your food? Well, it was delivered. … And we thought nothing of walking to Windermere. We did that all our lives, didn’t we? Of course we could play on the roads. Marvellous. Sledge on the road, play football on the roads, very little traffic. 33

John Ellis, born 1910, the youngest of six children, lived in an Ambleside cottage with cramped, crowded sleeping conditions, but gas lighting and flushing (outside) toilets. His father was a gardener, and two of his elder brothers went out to work. The family grew their own vegeta- bles and kept hens and his mother did a weekly baking of bread, cakes and pastries for the week, in the bakehouse attached to the cottage. Milk was delivered to the door. So this family was poor but not starving. Somewhat different was the life lived on an isolated Ambleside farm by Margaret Buntin, born 1901. She explains that they often saw no-one for days at a time, and she and her siblings ‘played in the fields and the streams, and climbed trees and did all things like that’. And, she goes on, it was at school that they met a wider group of children. The interviewer asked about their work on the farm:

Well, we were busy with the sheep, turning the sheep and all little jobs. Perhaps picking up wool and things like that. But we didn’t do a lot outside when we were small. I: When you were older you helped with that did you? Well, we did more when we got bigger. We used to help with the sheep and things like that and help to work hay. Quite hard work that. 34

Ralph Wightman, son of a farmer who was also a butcher, lived in Piddletrenthide, a village in Dorset. As a boy, he writes, he had multiple jobs on the farm, before and after school and at mid-day: milking cows, taking them to drink at the stream, hay-making, caring for the hens, col- lecting their eggs. He was also employed in the shop, cutting up meat. 35 He, like Rowse, says he escaped this hard life through a scholarship to grammar school, and thence to university. The workings of the social class system were clearly visible to children in some rural areas, through the behaviour of their ‘betters’. In urban areas, children’s direct experience of social class oppression came through their observation of their parents’ hard lives; and through the tiny sums they themselves were paid for hours of work. But perhaps urban children were less exposed to those who controlled their parents’ lives: the employers.



A full discussion of how people in an urban slum experienced social class

distinctions is given by Robert Roberts, 36 who sees the struggles people engaged in as a-political; not a war against employers but ‘a perpetual series of engagements in the battle of life itself’. Neighbours might see a family gradually establishing itself with enough to live on, or slipping into poverty. And he argues that before 1914 there was little socialist con- sciousness among people of the ‘lower working class’: agitators on street corners found few listeners However, his account can be compared with the history of the suffrage movement in the north-west of England, with workers’ revolts, with the trade union movement, and with the political activity of, for instance, dockers in London’s East End—alongside whom Sylvia Pankhurst fought; and the sweated labour of women in factories and at home. I take up this topic in Chapter Five.

chiLdRens Take on moTheRs’ WoRk

In order to consider more closely children’s experiential learning, we may focus on what the memoirs tell us of how children learned of their moth- ers’ work and how this knowledge fed into their understanding of their own status in the family and of the wider social and economic worlds they lived in. The focus here is on mothers, rather than on fathers, because children could see their mother’s work in the home, the time it took, the many tasks undertaken often simultaneously, the exhaustion and anger. For them it was clear that their mother’s work was central to family wel- fare. More generally, we may note that whilst many women were working towards better lives for children, children themselves received most help from their mothers. Children’s lives tend to be lived within a small radius, and most infor- mants for this project explained that most people they knew locally lived as they did. The living and working conditions they experienced were normal for the children. But our informants are looking back across the huge changes that have taken place in the living conditions of almost

everyone in England and one of the stated aims of their accounts is to give

a precise picture of how their parents lived; and of the implications of

those lives for their own, as children. So an important topic is the varying social and economic status locally of families. There were clear gradations

in the poverty levels of family levels, and these were linked to judgments

about social status and to what was and was not respectable. As Robert Roberts details, 37 the term ‘working class’ people in his Salford slum




‘village’ covers a wide range: in financial prosperity and hence in housing, clothing and food; in housekeeping standards; in moral standards and behaviour. From the accounts we learn, unsurprisingly, that mothers’ work was never done, that it was physically exhausting and that it involved what we now call multi-tasking. We are told how most of the families lived in very cramped and overcrowded conditions, many of them bug-infested. Many had no inside water supply, so water had to be carried from an outside tap; lavatories were outside, and some were earth closets, often shared with other families; some homes had no cooking source except an open fire. Cleaning the home was a major and recurring task; and children were early on assigned jobs to help with the work. Providing meals was a cen- tral, major task, and for Hannah Mitchell, ‘the worst snag in the house- wife’s lot was providing meals.’ ‘Her life is bounded on the north by breakfast, south by dinner, east by tea and on the west by supper and the most sympathetic man can never be made to understand that meals do not come through the tablecloth, but have to be planned, bought and cooked.’ 38 As Pember Reeves documents, where a family lived on about 20 shil- lings a week, breakfast was bread with a scrape of butter or margarine, and sweetened tea; and the meal at the end of the day was the same. The mid- day dinner was the main meal, for the children home from school; it might include some meat, left over from the Sunday dinner, now made into a stew, possibly dumplings, usually potatoes and perhaps some vegetables. If the father could not get back for this meal, then his wages had to stretch to a bought dinner and when he returned in the evening, some protein, called a ‘relish’ (a herring, a rasher of bacon, an egg), might be served to him. 39 Apart from meat (mainly for the father) the principal food expendi- ture was on bread, then potatoes, sugar, and sometimes, mid-week, fish, to eke out the diet to the end of the week. 40 The children concerned learned the hard way how much their lives depended on money coming in. In many families, the amount of money per head available for food was 1d. or 2d. a day. So any contribution they could make was important. Minding a neighbour’s baby could bring in 2d. 41 The memoirs show how children saw clear connections every day between what the family ate and their economic circumstances. But through their social relationships, children were also alert to a range of pointers towards social class differences and to interrelations of class and



economic prosperity. Jasper, who was invited to tea with his schoolfriend David, writes that he was initially unwilling to accept, since he knew the family ‘was a bit out of my class’; he knew this because David’s family lived in a better type of housing and his father ‘worked in the City’. However, David persuaded him. At the tea-table, he was offered ‘the choice of white or brown bread, real butter, cakes and everything’ and the social differ- ence was hammered home when David’s father took the boys out into the garden and played games with them. ‘I didn’t know fathers played with their children.’ 42 At almost the poorest end of the class system were the families sup- ported by outdoor relief. Each had to fill in a form for the annual distribu- tion of boots and clothes. 43 Local authorities supplemented charitable organisations by offering free meals after the passage of the Education (Provision of Meals) Act 1906. Thus the children in Kathleen Dayus’ family were recipients of Birmingham’s breakfast at school: a mug of cocoa and two thick slices of bread and jam (known as the ‘parish break- fast’); some years the family was eligible for the annual distribution of clothes. 44 This family also sometimes received ‘parish relief’ under the Poor Law: families would line up to be issued with cards entitling them to coal, bread, margarine, a tin of condensed milk, tea and sugar, the amount allowed dependent on the size of the family. 45 For some families, though it might be commonplace locally to take clothes to the pawn shop on a Tuesday (to be redeemed at the weekend after payday), it was neverthe- less shaming. However, in Kathleen’s account, these aids to survival were acceptable, not stigmatising, because most of the families in the surround- ing courtyards and most of the children at her school also received these aids. But the weekly task that gets most attention in these accounts is wash- day, for the narrators have clear memories of the processes involved and the huge physical effort entailed. Girls would be enlisted to help. Thus Marjorie Cook’s family, living on the top floor of a terraced house in Kentish Town, had access to the copper in the ground floor scullery one day a week, on a rota with the other two families in the house. Her mother lit the copper fire and did the washing and Marjorie’s job, during her din- ner hour from school, was to work the mangle, which lived in the garden. Grace Foakes, living in Wapping, East London, devotes two and a half pages to a detailed account, indicating the time it all took and how heavy the task was. First the copper had to be lit to heat the water. The water was




transferred to a zinc bowl, and the clothes sorted into kinds according to how dirty they were:

My mother, a coarse apron made from a sack around her and a square of mackintosh pinned over her chest rubbed each piece with ‘Sunlight’ soap, giving an extra rub to the very dirty parts. Not being very tall, she had to stand on a wooden box so that she could reach the rubbing board. After the whites were washed they were put into the copper to boil together with more soda. They were continually stirred with the copper-stick and kept boiling for half an hour. The whole place smelt of boiling washing and steam. After this, they were lifted out on to the wrong side of the copper’s wooden lid and left to drain, for the water had to be saved ready for the next boil. The washing was then put through the wringer to extract the rest of the water … Mother struggled to the sink with the bath of dirty washing water and emptied it. Then it was filled with cold water and placed under the wringer. The washing was rinsed once and put through the wooden rollers. If the weather was fine, it would be hung out to dry … On each packet of ‘Sunlight’ soap there were the words ‘Why does a woman look older sooner than a man?’ It went on to explain the merits of the soap, but it was small wonder that women did look old at forty. This one day alone was truly an exhausting one, for not only was the washing done but the children had to be cared for, the meals prepared and a thousand and one other things done before the day was over. 46

Grace Foakes reflects on the absence of political feeling among the peo- ple she lived among, but she notes that the hymn she and they carelessly sang was misguided in ascribing social class status and distinction to God’s will (All Things Bright and Beautiful). Women, she says, were worn out by age 40, men lived only to ‘eat, drink, sleep and work’, as her father said. ‘Poor education, bad conditions, want and poverty’ were the ills these people bore. 47 In some city areas there were public wash-houses (and baths). Dorothy Scannell, who lived in Poplar, describes how the women looked, doing this work:

Inside the wash-house they looked like Amazons with their sleeves rolled up above their soapy elbows, but when they came out and packed their prams with sacking-covered washing they looked old. With rusty black hats, or a man’s cap fixed flat with a large bead-ended hat-pin on top of their scragged hair, they seemed very small and bent. They would have to hold the large bundle of washing with one hand and push the go-cart with the other. Their



ankles seemed to be bent over and their shoes never looked as though they belonged to them. 48

Her account vividly shows how she reacted to these sights; the detailed description shows first her admiration for these apparently strong women and then pity for the burdens and the deformities inflicted on them. We may add that it is small wonder that washing clothes was a chore that some women could avoid, by paying a shilling or two to another woman to do it. And this meant that for some women (such as Our Kate) wash-day was every day or most days. The impact on women’s health of hard physical work, long hours standing, together with frequent pregnancies, led to varicose veins, as is detailed in the letters from working women sent in to Margaret Llewellyn Davies in 1915. 49 So, the third major task for the mothers was bearing and trying to rear many babies and young children. The ways in which people write about this are revealing. Thus in Silvertown we read this description of a family:

‘the Smiley’s – Jack, Violet and their nine or so children, the number vary- ing according to whether there is a new arrival that year to balance the one or two carried off by the whooping cough or TB.’ 50 This description, with its careful ironic distancing, its pretence of simply describing, points instead to anger at the conditions in which people lived and died. Kathleen Dayus writes that she found out by chance that her mother had had seven babies who had died before she was born; these babies were not men- tioned in her family. She says that she then reflected on whether these children were happier in the other world and on how her parents could have fed so many children had they lived 51 As an adult writer she is saying, perhaps, that children had no recourse other than to accept the incompre- hensibility of many events, including the deaths of children and the silence surrounding their short lives. In passing we may note that while many families were large by today’s standards, it seems that contraceptive methods (including ones that could be made cheaply at home) were widely known about by the beginning of the twentieth century. 52 Some mothers pleaded with men to stop having sex with them, or resorted to drugs in attempts to abort unwanted chil- dren. 53 No doubt some mothers—and fathers—thought it unrespectable or even immoral to limit the numbers of children; and since some children would die, it was important to replace them with other children who would contribute financially from the age of eight or so. However, it is hard to know how to think about the ways in which these writers deal with




the frequent child births and with infant mortality. Several writers point to the ignorance of girls and boys about sex, even though everyone lived and slept in close proximity. But they also write of how girls particularly were closely monitored; allowed out with friends for only limited and infre- quent expeditions. It seems unlikely that they did not know why they were so closely monitored. An interesting example here is given in Grace Foakes’ 107-page account of her childhood in Wapping. She notes at the start that she had three brothers and a sister, all past babyhood. Yet early on she mentions that her mother rarely went out without a baby attached to her. 54 But then chap- ters go by with no mention of these children until page 92, when she reveals that her mother gave birth to a baby annually, and that she, Grace ‘cannot remember ever going out to play, without having a baby or younger brother or sister to mind.’ But these babies died; they were ‘poor delicate creatures who should never have been born’. One way of looking at this is to do with how she organises the material in her book. She has 42 chapters in her 107-page book, each one centring on a topic and most only one or two pages long. Babies are the topic of chapter 34. So the book is not a straightforward chronological account of her childhood but includes a series of snapshots. Her aim may be to pro- vide a panorama, wide-ranging rather than detailed, and less of a study of her emotional life, more an account of childhoods and family life more generally in the physical, social and economic context of that area, at that time. The death of children imposed grief and also cost on the family. Pember Reeves details the cost of a child’s funeral: £2. 1s. 9d. The family in ques- tion had insured the child’s life for 2d. a week and they received £2 towards the cost of the funeral. 55 Elizabeth Roberts gives another kind of com- mentary on the death of children, when she quotes the memories of a woman who, when aged twelve, was told by her mother to take charge of a still-born baby lying in a cardboard box next to her mother. She was to take it to the graveyard and hand it over to the sexton, who would ensure, when he next buried someone, that the baby was put in with the deceased adult. This saved the cost of a child funeral. 56 In her thirty-page interview, Annie Wilson, on the other hand, recounts the birth of babies to her mother when she was small herself; and the sub- sequent funerals. We may wonder why she chose to recount this episode; perhaps partly to excuse a young child’s comment, but perhaps partly to acknowledge how commonplace the deaths of babies were.



I remember the funerals of the last two babies. One was eighteen months—

that was Ruth—she was next to John. And the other little one (that is, John)

died when he was very small. But I was pleased about it because the lady next door gave me a piece of cake. I said to mother once—I was only very young myself, ‘Do you think we could have another funeral and the lady would give me some cake?’ She was furious. 57

These distanced, unemotional examples given here are in accounts by women. Perhaps for most women looking back to those times, childhood memories of death in the family are too painful to be faced, for these nar- rators are facing the fact that much was hidden from them by their hard- pressed mothers and perhaps they are reflecting that the life and death of siblings may have led them, as children, to develop hard hearts. As young adults they themselves may have been pressurised by husbands and social norms to endure frequent pregnancies. But it may also be that the narra- tors want to point out that in grim times, when struggling to survive was a daily battle, child death just had to be accepted; you had to move on. It may or may not be relevant that one of the authors who does give a mov- ing account of how the family experienced child death is a man: Jasper, who recounts how both his elder sisters’ babies died in infancy. This is the first of the deaths:

About this time we had a visit from Gerry who came in one night frantic with worry. He told Mum little Jo’ had got pneumonia and was in a bad way. Could she go back with him at once … When we got to Mary’s, Gerry had to go back to work. The fish shop was open to midnight and he had to

be there to clean up. Poor little Jo’ was in a bad way and the doctors didn’t hold out much hope. Mary, Mum and Jo’ were crying and Mary begged us not to leave her. Arrangements were made to stop the night. My sister and

I were put to bed while all the others slept in chairs. But there was no sleep

for anyone. Little Jo’ died during the night. Their eyes were red with crying

and loss of sleep. Mum pulled everyone together and we all went back to our place. Gerry was left to make arrangements with the local undertaker … After the funeral Mary and Gerry moved to a flat in Hackney Road. The place they had gave too many memories of the baby. 58

The varying accounts are unanimous in making the mother the centre of the home, keeping the family afloat through the never-ending daily tasks. Undoubtedly, girls and boys learned that that was the way things were. It is also clear that fathers were to be accorded respect, as the




breadwinners; they got the best food and if the family had a garden it was father’s job to grow vegetables. If, like Jasper’s father, they failed in their breadwinning role, they were still to be respected as head of the house- hold. Thus Annie Wilson’s father had only intermittent paid work, but his wife made sure of this. The children must not commandeer his newspaper:

‘Put that down, your father’s not seen it!’ and he got the best cuts of meat. 59 We read of father having his special chair, which no-one else should sit in. Daughters take their father’s boots off when he comes home weary after the day’s work. Fathers have no jobs to do at home, and may even have the time and energy to talk with the children, play with them, and bring them home a little treat, some toffee, some fruit. Thus, undoubtedly, children learned how life was gendered and this gendering began early on. It was girls who were expected to mind the babies and help with the wash-day. Girls had to have long hair, even though this increased the risk of nits. Boys learned that they would be responsible for the economic welfare of their future family; and many learned what kinds of jobs they might later do through the casual work they carried out. As already indicated, many mothers earned money to help with family finances, in some cases when work for fathers was in short supply. 60 Jan Jasper’s mother made clothes for sale. Annie Wilson’s mother was the steady earner in her Nottingham family, working at home for the hosiery trade, whereas her husband found it hard to find permanent work. And Florence Atherton’s mother was also the main earner, again in an area— Lancashire—where traditionally women returned to work after marriage; she worked at dressmaking. Taking in other families’ laundry was another, arduous, kind of work and cleaning other people’s houses also featured. Catherine Cookson’s mother Kate worked for many hours at a huge range of jobs and always had swollen ankles, and later on burst varicose veins. Mothers in rural families often worked in agriculture, as indicated in the account given by Len Thompson. Picking stones was common; also weed- ing, pulling thistles and docks, harvesting potatoes and the main wheat harvest, gleaning after the harvest.

chiLdRens Jobs

As already indicated above, children were expected to help out at home, and this included both unpaid and paid work. Children in cities and coun- tryside would collect wood, in London from wood yards and from the



shores of the Thames. Scavenging for coal near coal yards was another job. Girls were expected to take a major part in cleaning the home; and, as exemplified by Grace Foakes, were assigned considerable responsibility for childcare. Where mothers ‘took in’ other families’ laundry, it was often children who fetched and returned it. We have seen how Jan Jasper helped bring in money to the household. Work in the countryside and on farms included harvesting, pulling weeds, animal care; also picking stones, and acting as scarecrow. Edna Bold, born in Beswick, Manchester, in 1904, gives an account 61 of the shopping street and children’s work running errands. Children knew the shops and shopkeepers because they went shopping every day and, in some cases, twice.

The road was a social centre where everyone met, shopped, talked, walked. The butcher, the baker, the grocer, the milliner, the draper, the barber, the greengrocer, the pawnbroker, the undertaker were friends, confidants and mines of information. All needs from birth to death could be supplied from these little shops. As soon as arms and legs were strong enough, every child joined the ‘club’ that supported these small businesses, for every child was obliged to run errands for mothers, relations, neighbours. Of all the many resentments that every child harboured in its exuberant heart, this running of errands was the chief. It interfered with and sub- tracted from the play-way of the beautiful, long intoxicating excitement of the day.

Robert Roberts points to how women managed their small budgets. His mother ran a corner shop in Salford, and wore an apron with two pockets for the takings: one for copper and one for silver. His job was to count the money at the end of the day. The vast majority of the coins were copper: pennies, ha’pennies (half-pennies) and farthings. 62 As Pember Reeves points out, women had to buy by the day, because they had no safe, clean, mice-free place to keep food; also because, in some cases, the father was paid by the day, and there was no certainty that he would be paid the next day, or what he would be paid. 63 Black’s survey of married women’s work, also points to the prevalence of uncertain jobs and uncer- tain pay, for employers attempted to bargain down the rates. 64 Perhaps the hardest childhood was lived by children working half-time. But that modern view has to be set against the pride some children felt when they could contribute financially to family income. The tradition of half-time work, half-time school persisted in some industrial areas in the first twenty years of the century; and James Brady (born 1898) describes




what this meant—emotionally and physically—for him in Rochdale. When he was almost 12, his mother arranged for him to start work as a half-timer at the mill.

I was glad and proud that I was to be given the opportunity of starting my work-a-day life in one of their mills. And, with father bringing home less than 30-bob a week, it gave me satisfaction to know that I would soon become a breadwinner to help the family budget. Mother arranged every- thing. I was to be paid 3s.6d. per week for a morning shift of twenty-six hours, and 2s.6d. a week for the afternoon shift of twenty hours. The early morning period meant getting up at 5 a.m. to be at the mill, three miles away, before the buzzer finished wailing at six. We half-timers knocked off at half-past twelve; then it was a race home for a quick meal, change from corduroys and scarf into knicker-bockers and collar and button-on bow, then a final dash to Spotland School at two o-clock. The afternoon shift worked in reverse; school in the morning and work in the afternoon until 5.30 p.m. Life was worth living! 65

In addition he had a ‘moonlighting’ job for a wealthy family, hauling coal in buckets from cellar to upstairs rooms and keeping garden paths clean and tidy (for one shilling a week, plus a cup of tea and a rock bun on Fridays). ‘My Mum was glad of the extra bob.’ He left school at 13 for a full-time job at the mill, working a 55 and a half hour week for ten shillings and sixpence: ‘a fortune for mother and there was always a chance to do a bit of newspaper-work selling sports edi- tions on Saturday nights as well.’ 66 Just to round off this account of children’s experiences and learning, I note that most of our informants said they found much to enjoy in their childhoods. Many memoirs point to close, loving and supportive family relations. Local events were tied into religious and agricultural traditions and children were participants in these. We read of widening horizons in both town and country. Newspapers and children’s comics were becoming available, if not at home, then in reading rooms and libraries. Children were amazed to discover that they could borrow books, for free, from the library. Children went to ‘the pictures’ and enjoyed silent films and news- reels. Some homes had a range of books, not just the Bible. There was, we may note, more of a point in gaining literacy than fifty years before, for newsprint allowed people to explore wider worlds; and of course ‘doing’ history and geography at school could complement the new media. Most accounts also say something about play and friends, in town and country.



Some town children delighted in the variety of the urban setting, as exem- plified by Edna Bold above and by Dorothy Scannell in Poplar, East London. She gives a detailed description of the shops on Chrisp Street near her home—the shopkeepers, the huge range of goods on sale, the colours, smells and sounds of the street. She loved ‘the people, its places, its atmosphere’ and sums it up thus:

…Poplar, to my mind, was a lovely district, for it contained all that anyone could need. Beautiful churches, schools, parks, a library, hospital, docks, a pier, public baths and even a swimming bath. We had a nautical college and a bookshop famous all over London. 67

She notes, as do other memoirs, the sheer presence of children, their social and economic importance made visible in the streets, for example on Saturdays when it fell to them to carry home the disinfectant provided by the council for people to clean their homes:

High Street Poplar on a Saturday morning was a human ant colony, a never- ending stream of children hurrying along, or having a rest, with clinking bottles. Well, we hurried one way when the bottles were empty, on the way back we carried the bags in different positions to relieve the strain on our arms. 68

Two other features of children’s social life must be mentioned, in order to be true to people’s accounts. They are the salience of Sunday rituals, including Sunday school; and; perhaps above all, music in the lives of poor people. These will be considered in Chapter Four.


Interlinked Fortunes of Women and Children

The memoirs make clear how closely linked were the fortunes of children and their mothers in the daily struggles to survive. And these memoirs can be seen as providing everyday, local examples of the exploitation of women and children; these women were not unionised, but they were victims of a capitalist system that disregarded their interests, for poor pay, poor hous- ing and utterly inadequate healthcare systems defined their daily lives. Their children had to help as best they could. The struggles outlined in Chapter Two—where working women fought capitalist exploitation,




gendered inequalities and generational unfairness—provide a context to the stories told here. Both the working women’s unions and organisations such as the Women’s Co-operative Guild campaigned for socialist answers to the prevailing poverty and hard lives of men, women and children; their work towards insurance cover for women in childbirth is a case in point. As to the children, immersed in the daily struggles of families to survive, it will be of interest to see whether they thought schooling could provide some value, some answers, some ways forward. Crucial to making public how some of the poorest families lived, was the work of middle-class women such as Clementina Black and her col- leagues in the Women’s Industrial Council and Maud Pember Reeves and others in the Fabian Women’s Group (FWG). Black is clear that the cen- tral problem was that both men and women were paid scandalously low wages. 69 In 1888 Black presented a paper to the Fabian Society on the working conditions of the Bryant and May factory girls. Annie Besant added to thinking on this topic, by investigating further. Their research formed a factual basis for the strike of 1888. 70 Black also argues, as did other women at the time, that the endless toil of housework should be addressed through modernising tools for the work; she touches on co-operative housing schemes, with centralised washing and cooking facilities. And she argues for communal childcare by trained persons—in line with Gilman. 71 In the last chapter of their report, the Fabian women discuss what can and should be done; notably with respect to infant mortality. A central discussion topic is wages, for one of the fndamental arguments socialist women put forward was that women had to work towards economic inde- pendence. 72 This argument also echoes the work of Gilman (discussed in Chapter Two), who insisted that women’s economic dependence on men was fundamental to their subjection. Thus, the first aim of the FWG, declared in 1913, was as follows:

To study the economic position of women and press their claim to equality with men in the personal economic independence to be secured by socialism.

This economic independence was to be achieved through the full and equal participation of women in paid work; by the training of skilled domestic workers and/or the provision of co-operative households; and by state support for maternity and the costs of child-rearing, that is, the



State Endowment of Motherhood. Fabian women identified the problems currently facing middle class women and working class women as distinc- tive; for the former had been reduced to idleness and exclusion from valu- able work and the latter had been subjected to endless toil and starvation wages. Yet the two classes had in common the necessity for economic independence. 73 Pember Reeves and her colleagues argued that the concept of the fam- ily wage, which had to stretch to cover no matter how many children, was faulty in conception. What was required was for the state to accept its responsibility towards the nation’s children. Children must be regarded as children of the nation; and so the state owed them care. This could be provided by the appointment of guardians who would assess each family’s situation and provide maintenance grants. ‘The final responsibility for the child’s welfare, the paramount authority in securing it, belong to the State.’ 74 We see in the work of these campaigning women a recognition that the fortunes of women and children were linked. Women could not achieve their goals for themselves as members of society unless the responsibility for childhood was recognised as, in part, state responsibility. In making these points, women were arguing that the status of childhood itself was up for rethinking: children were too valuable to the state to be left to the destruction caused by unchecked capitalism.

The Economics of Childhoods—What Children Learned

The accounts of childhoods lived in poverty clearly point to children’s close engagement with the economic fortunes of their families. The authors show that as children they learned their proper place in the family in relation to its economic welfare, their duty to contribute as and when they could to family welfare. The huge burden of household work fell on women, and it was also children’s duty to carry out some of the tasks. The retrospective accounts given here show how children learned through their observation of and participation in the material realities of their lives. They learned, among other things, about the hard work their parents, and especially their mothers did. They knew, from experience, that they too should engage with the work that had to be done as mem- bers of a family. Children also learned—both at home and in the neigh- bourhood—how unequal were people’s life-chances, though, as I shall argue in the next chapter, school was also a good teacher on this topic.




Above all, we learn about the material circumstances of these childhoods, dictated by poverty and poor housing, sustained by the responsibilities of both adults and children for maintaining the family’s survival. Central to children’s learning, as the memoirs explain, was that child- hoods were gendered, as indeed were adulthoods. Though both boys and girls were sent out on errands on a daily basis, for food, wood, coal and, in some country areas, for water, yet girls were more tied to the home than boys. Girls had more responsibility for keeping the home clean, were usu- ally responsible for minding the baby, and were closely monitored as to their behaviour out of the home. Boys were more likely to roam more widely: they engaged in casual paid jobs; they began to make connections in the working world early on, starting with taking messages, fetching and carrying, and moving on to small jobs in local trades and in agriculture. So what also emerges from the accounts given is how busy the lives of children were. Domestic work, responsibility for younger siblings, scav- enging for goods, doing casual work, were the daily lot of many children. They also found time for play. You wonder how they had time to go to school. More generally, we may point to what the memoirs tell us of what chil- dren learned in their social lives in and around the home about childhood itself, the status of childhood, the responsibilities of childhood. Thus, firstly, generational relations were central to children’s experience; for it was made clear to children that they were subordinate to adults, under their command, but also under their protection. Children had to do what they were told to do, and parents had the right to inflict physical punish- ment—though some informants stress that they had never been hit at home, or only very mildly and rarely (in contrast to some schools, as we shall see). Child–adult relations included a range of feelings on both sides:

love, duty, solidarity, resentment, conflict. The second theme that our informants stress is about children’s task in childhood to become a good enough person in the social worlds of family and social life around. As a child, you learned the practical routines and the morality of the family and were expected to conform. This conformity extended to dress codes, to behaviour, to responsibilities; it also included the expectation that you did not challenge the family’s moral code and that you obeyed parental edicts. Most of the informants for this project recall that they also attended some form of religious service, mostly Church of England and this could include attendance at Sunday school and at church.



A third theme, beginning to emerge in the accounts quoted in this chapter, is how children engaged with their own futures. There will be more to say on this in the context of the schooling children got, but already it is clear that engaging with the project of one’s own life is a topic explored as part of remembering childhoods. Again, this is gendered. Girls may have seen their futures as housewives and mothers as inevitable, both because there were few other models in evidence and because they may have seen marriage as the natural order of things. On the other hand, some of the accounts show that girls saw some promise in the opportuni- ties offered by the education system and in the opening up of new kinds of employment for young women (notably office work). Some teachers encouraged girls to widen their views of their futures. In the memoirs by men, we see that they assumed that they would bear financial responsibil- ity for a family, and their lives would be dominated by work. But ‘getting on’ and ‘getting out’ are themes in both city and rural areas, and for boys, learning a craft through an apprenticeship-style course of learning was one way to do this. Clearly, as stressed by our informants, elementary school children in the early years of the twentieth century had busy lives. Not only that, but these lives consisted very largely of learning and practising what you learned. This point raises the question whether school complemented these busy lives and added to them. Did school in any way take account of the home life of the children and seek to provide an education that related to and/or built on it? In turn such questioning leads to other topics: how did children experience, understand, and respond to what was offered in school? Did school make sense for children? Was it just an interlude in their busy day?


1. See for discussion, Hendrick 2003, chapter 2.

2. Pember Reeves 1913, republished 1988 by Virago.

3. Pember Reeves 1913, p. 176.

4. Pember Reeves 1913, p. 221.

5. Pember Reeves 1913, p. 222.

6. According to Rolph 1980, p. 67, the cost of the simplest funeral for a child was from £6 to £10, but Pember Reeves, on the basis of her research, gives a lower figure: about £2.





Carol Dyhouse’s 1981 book Girls Growing Up in Late Victorian and Edwardian England is important here. Jane Lewis’ 1986 book Labour and Love provides valuable discussions, including her own chapter and chapters by Lynn Jamieson, Ellen Ross and Elizabeth Roberts. Anna Davin’s 1996 book Growing Up Poor is a key text, but focuses mainly on the nineteenth- century period from 1870 when state education was introduced.


See Karl Marx: Selected Writings, edited by Bottomore and Rubel 1978, p. 67.


Rolph 1980, p. 13.


Jasper 1974, A Hoxton Childhood.


Jasper 1974, p. 59.


Jasper 1974, p. 59.


Jasper 1974, p. 65.


Jasper 1974, p. 77.


Cookson 1977, p. 27.


Cookson 1977, p. 37.


D. H. Lawrence, ‘Nottingham and the mining country’. In Selected Essays, 1954, p. 119.


Black 1983, first published 1915.


For my earlier explorations of sociological approaches to childhood see, for instance, my Towards a Sociology for Childhood (2002).


For instance, Mayall 2002, chapter 6.


Pember Reeves 1913, p. 189.


Blythe, 1972. Akenfield is the fictitious name of the village Blythe researched, in fact Chelsfield, north of Ipswich.


Blythe Akenfield, p. 32.


Blythe Akenfield, p. 33.


Len Thompson’s 13-page account is an interview transcript in Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield.


Blythe Akenfield, p. 34.


Rural employment, which for women and for men was largely agricultural, is documented in the chapter entitled Rural Districts in Black’s Married Women’s Work.


Blythe Akenfield, p. 34.