Learning, Transmission and Generational Change: Exploring Childhood in Twentieth Century Britain

Session Abstract : This panel showcases new research in the fields of social and cultural British history which place children’s voices and subjectivities at the fore. Our research uncovers hidden processes of inter-generational transmission, by exploring how children’s subjectivities were shaped by their family or kin relationships, domestic routines, play, and schooling. Children’s own perceptions are frequently lost in historiographies of modern Britain, which often privilege adult narratives in assessing how cultural values were imparted to younger generations, or ways children were expected to conform to adult norms and expectations. These papers will interrogate less direct forms of learning, by exploring how, through everyday encounters and experiences, children grew to understand the world around them.

The panel explores methodologies which locate children’s subjectivity in retrospective testimony and in accounts written by children themselves, shedding further light on where their voices can be heard in historical study. Laura Sefton explores the way individuals learnt about money through their everyday experiences of money as children. Michael Roper draws upon oral testimonies to assess how memories and legacies of the First World War were embedded within aspects of daily routines, familial relationships and play for the generation growing up in the wake of the First World War. Finally, Eleanor Murray examines the inter-war writings of working-class schoolgirls, to examine how children understood the passing-on of domestic skills and practices traditionally associated with motherhood. Together, these papers place children’s experiences and subjectivities at the forefront of historical inquiry, to reveal forms of learning and transmission in the banal rhythms of everyday life. In doing so, these perspectives begin rethinking broader narratives that frame our understanding of modern Britain, and call into question the traditional periodisation of the twentieth century.

Session Chair: Christina de Bellaigue, Uni of Oxford

Paper 1 Abstract : ‘Money is your life’: Children and their money, from depression to affluence

Laura Sefton, Uni of Birmingham

This paper concerns children’s attitudes towards money across two periods conventionally characterised and contrasted as depression and affluence. Based primarily on essays written by children in 1930s Bolton and children in 1950s Camberwell, it explores how children understood money in their own terms. In moving beyond a framework of teaching and learning, the focus is on banal forms of transmission located in the everyday, such as watching parents, receiving pocket money, and moving around shops and their local area. I consider the children as storytellers, analysing ways money is woven into stories they tell about themselves and their futures, taking their words and dreams as evidence of where they positioned themselves in society compared to where they wanted to be. Here, money is understood as both a freeing and limiting influence on their present and future selves, located at the point at which their emerging selfhood meets their material historical circumstances. In both periods, money was a way in which children practised belonging, expressed affect, and performed their emotions. Their relationship with money was more complex than learning to become little consumers in an era of expanding mass market and rising affluence. By revealing forms of learning and practice that are hidden or taken for granted by adulthood, these children challenge narratives of consumption, mass markets, and economics that frame broader understandings of modern Britain. By rewriting children back into these histories, this paper begins to imagine what alternative histories of consumption and money may look like.

Paper 2 Abstract : Children and the domestic legacies of the Great War

Michael Roper, Uni of Essex

This paper is concerned with the impact of the First World War on children born in the 1920s and 30s, who had no personal experience of the conflict, but grew up ‘in the aftermath’. My interest is in families as a conduit for the memory of war, in what parents of the ‘war generation’ communicated consciously and unconsciously to their children, and in the war’s presence in everyday domestic life in mid-twentieth century Britain. Based on oral history interviews, the paper locates the war in children’s play, domestic routines, holidays, and household objects ranging from letters and photographs to canes and greatcoats. In focusing on the everyday, I hope to problematize the concept of legacy, which – as the term ‘aftermath’ suggests – often leans on a trauma framework, and tends to emphasise the shattering psychological effects of the war. For many, this was the case: the novelist Doris Lessing, for example, born just after the war’s end, her father an amputee, her mother a nurse, wrote of ‘something like a dark grey cloud, like poison gas, over my early childhood.’ While recognising the destructive aspects of the war’s legacies, I hope to adopt a broader approach to the understanding of transmission across generations, asking what of the war past was transmitted to children in homes between the wars, rather than working with a presumption of psychological harm.

Paper 3 Abstract : “When I grow up I hope to become an excellent woman and a good housewife”: Exploring perceptions of domesticity, mothering and female identity in girls’ inter-war writings

Eleanor Murray, Uni of Leeds

This paper will examine the inter-generational transmission of values and skills related to motherhood, such as cookery, homecraft and childcare, from the perspective of working-class schoolgirls in inter-war Britain. This research will draw upon schoolchildren’s essays, entitled, ‘Things I learn at home that I do not learn at school’, collected by Mass Observation in the late 1930s. Analysing their language and structure, and considering the classroom context in which they were written, this paper will assess the way children interpreted the passing-on of homemaking practices, and the relative value girls attributed to the domestically-orientated education they received from their families and teachers.

Examining women’s oral testimonies, Angela Davis argues that girls learnt about mid-twentieth-century maternal practices through observing their own mothers, while Ann Oakley shows that women’s attitudes towards housewifery formed in childhood. This paper will further elucidate the transmission of parental identity, by examining accounts of domestic life produced by girls themselves. These sources illuminate children’s understanding of their social world, and in the context of these essays, their perceptions of mothering practices and family values. One schoolgirl wrote, “My mother is a very good cook, and she is teaching me how to be the same … when I grow up I hope to become an excellent woman and a good housewife”. Rather than focusing upon the parenting experiences of adults, this perspective can reveal the way girls developed attributes related to working-class motherhood, before having children of their own.

The act of writing itself in shaping girls’ attitudes towards their developing feminine identity will also be considered, through assessing the assumptions girls made about their futures as women and mothers. Bringing together research on children’s subjectivities and parenting, this paper will shed light on the way children understood and engaged with parenting practices through their everyday childhood cultures.