Have we gone too far with ‘scholarising’ childhood in the modern world? My new book, Visionary Women and Visible Childhoods, England 1900-1920: Childhood and the Women’s Movement, explores children’s experiences of home and school during the early Twentieth Century. I used people’s memoirs about their childhoods, written many years later, in my research.
I chose people who had attended the elementary schools, which were set up to cater for the poorest children. The memoirs suggest strongly that children of the time felt very strong attachment to their homes, and especially to their mothers, who worked so hard to keep the family afloat. People describe the sheer effort of wash-day, the endless toil of keeping the tiny home clean and tidy, the battle to provide enough food for everyone, given that a man’s wages were not enough to keep everyone alive, and that mothers too worked, at home and in the neighbourhood, to make a few extra pennies each week.
Accordingly, writers of memoirs recall feeling very strong attachment to their home, and very strong feeling of responsibility for helping as they could. Children helped with the work of the household, and did odd jobs as and when they could to contribute to the family’s income. They worked carrying goods and messages, helping in local industries and farms, working for local tradespeople.
So how did they rate their school days? Some children saw school as something that took up their days when they could have been working. Others tolerated it, as seemingly unavoidable. Some combined school attendance with working before and after school hours. A few who were clever, saw possibilities for advancement: by going, via an exam, on to secondary school. From there they could hope for a steady job that would bring money to their family.
School days, for most children, were long and tedious; but they were taught the basics: reading and writing and arithmetic; and these were useful in later life. For once they had left school, to work in factories and fields, they could go on learning through libraries (free!) and newspapers; their political education continued. School –leavers joined unions and clubs that offered education and companionship.
Implicitly, this book has implications for thinking about children, schooldays and the home today. Children nowadays are seen as school children; they are to spend long hours and years at school and to bring school work home. By comparison, their lives at home are less important; their duties to their family and to their home less pressing. Adults are responsible for keeping the home going; children are lodgers. Children are regarded as non-workers, whose paid work is strictly limited in favour of their schooling. It is children as future workers that is emphasised.
This is a big change from 100 years ago. It can be liberating for some children – those who thrive at school. For others – those for whom school is difficult – it can lead to disenchantment with school and frustration with their lives now. In my book, many of those who did paid work alongside school record their pride at bringing home money to help their family. Around the world, the same story is told. In the UK, we have perhaps gone too far with ‘scholarising’ childhood. One size does not fit all.
Visionary Women and Visible Childhoods, England 1900-1920: Childhood and the Women’s Movement by Berry Mayall is published by Palgrave Macmillan. It will be launched at the on 22 March, 4-6pm in the 5th floor seminar room, UCL Malet Place Engineering Building, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT. This meeting will also help to launch Women, Peace and Welfare: A suppressed history of social reform 1880-1920 by Ann Oakley (Policy Press)