Book review: Songs Of Innocence: The Story of British Childhood by Fran Abrams

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WHY does each generation of adults want children? Is it a genetic compulsion to keep the race supplied or do we want to show we can be better parents than ours were?

Songs Of Innocence: The Story of British Childhood by Fran Abrams

Atlantic Books, 304pp, £20

Do we look forward to the vigour of young company around the house or have we a mind to our comfort in old age? Fran Abrams explores why people would want to bring children into a world full of poverty, danger and economic uncertainty.

Starting with Queen Victoria’s reign, Abrams examines the link between how children are viewed as individuals and the extent to which they are there simply to contribute to the family income. At one time, a large family was a necessity to work the land or keep businesses going. If children were withdrawn from the factories to go to school, for example, the nation’s economic prospects would be damaged and its status as a major power threatened.

Abrams sees the Children’s Charter of 1889 as a key moment establishing the right of the state to enter a family home and intervene on behalf of the child. In typical British fashion, this brought the legal rights of children into line with those already established for dogs. Lord Shaftesbury – who had fought for better working conditions for children in factories – opposed the bill.

Victorian attitudes to children were complex. Some adults believed that children were inherently evil and this had to be wrung out of them by hard work and stern discipline. Others saw children as a blank canvas. Both views saw them as adults in waiting. It was much later, when state education removed them from being simply contributors to the family income, that people started looking at children as individuals in their own right.

Lack of affection for children permeated all levels of society, not just the upper classes with their nannies, occasional viewings of their offspring and outsourcing of their parental responsibilities to boarding schools. Few children experienced the idyllic upbringing of the eternal boy in Peter Pan or the children created by Beatrix Potter.

Compulsory state education (1870 in England and Wales) transformed attitudes. Girls were educated for the first time, and at Croydon High School (England’s first all-girls’ school, founded in 1874) the headteacher was even a suffragette.

In Scotland, of course, they had changed already, although Abrams largely ignores this. The introduction of schools in every parish in the 16th century and the practice of educating boys and girls from all levels of society had a huge effect on Scottish society. In British terms, one result was that Scotland was able to provide more than its share of civil servants, colonial entrepreneurs and army officers.

The early 20th century saw increasing concern about child poverty and illness. Not all of this was motivated by concern for children’s welfare – there was real concern that Britain was not rearing a generation fit for armed service.

The First World War changed attitudes to children. Parents worried that it would all happen again, that the next generation would be damaged by another war, so felt a need to make childhood as happy as possible. Families were smaller as children no longer contributed to the family income and this led to more individual attention and family cohesion.

The Second World War interrupted the progress being made in protecting children. Families were separated and children evacuated, in some cases to the colonies. Evacuation for some introduced them to a world of care they had never experienced while others suffered abuse as cheap labour. Then too, however, children could provoke discussion. In 1944 Time and Tide magazine printed a letter from a girl called Phillis Cannell, about school meals. She objected to being given “grey badly-peeled potatoes” and “thick cold grisly slabs of meat” as well as wondering what had happened to the jam ration. Shades of Martha’s Meals!

The 1960s, meanwhile, saw the break-up of many families and a greater emphasis on the rights of children – which was later blamed for the rebellious behaviour of the next generation.

This is a thought-provoking book throughout, but its conclusion comes as a surprise, reflecting a personal view from Abrams at the end of an otherwise dispassionate account. “The one thing we really need to give the young,” she writes, “is a clear economic path through life; a path on which they’d be able to give something back to their parents’ generation, to make all the hard work and the expense worthwhile. And we’ve failed. Parents know today’s children – their children – are facing an uncertain future. And – whisper it – deep down, they know that they’d be better off without them.”