Spaces and Places of Childhood and Youth

By Dr Jeremy Burchardt

This was the final event of the Department’s 2014-15 Annual Research Theme, on the history of childhood and youth.  Children’s history is very much an academic growth area, and the aim of the symposium was to bring some of this new research together around the theme of spaces and places, a perspective that has proved particularly illuminating in exploring central aspects of children’s experiences such as play, education and socialization.  The excellent response to our initial call for papers bore out how many researchers, from disciplines ranging from architecture to needlework, are now working in this area and the result was a vibrant, packed programme.  Professor Melanie Tebbutt from Manchester Metropolitan got us off to a great start with her paper on ‘Listening Spaces’, a revisionist account of radio provision for young people in interwar Britain.  She emphasized how keen broadcasters such as the influential Mary Somerville, Director of School Broadcasting for the BBC in the 1930s, were to get young people’s voices onto the airwaves.  Partly under her aegis, the BBC set up listening groups that encouraged young people to discuss social and political issues in a critical, reflective way.  Melanie ended by playing us a video clip of young men from Manchester talking about their leisure interests, taken from her current project ‘Passions of Youth’, which similarly gives young people an opportunity to reflect on and articulate their own concerns and commitments in a broadcast setting.



Professor Melanie Tebbutt


The next paper was by Dr Edwina Attlee (Cass School of Art and Architecture) on ‘Planning for Play’.  The rise of planning during WW2 encouraged a zoned approach to children’s play.  Streets should be for traffic rather than play spaces for children, which should be sequestered in designated playgrounds.  However, progressive thinkers such as Lady Allen of Hurtwood regarded such attempts to confine and regulate children’s play spaces as misconceived.  Lady Allen was at the forefront of the adventure playground movement, which, in its early days, allowed children a surprising degree of freedom, as evident in the film clip Edwina showed in which children lit their own fires.  Some of the most interesting developments took place in Denmark, where theorist-practitioners such as Aldo Van Eyck designed playgrounds that were interstitial (they slotted into existing spaces), polycentric (part of a network spread through the city) and participatory.  The aim was, in a sense, to make the whole city a play space.  These ideas were echoed in a UK context by the influential anarchist thinker Colin Ward, although how far his belief that children need to be integrated into the economic life of the city has been adopted is perhaps open to question.

Providing for the needs of younger children was also a major theme of the next paper, by Angela Davis from the University of Warwick, which considered nursery and preschool provision in the UK after WW2.  Through an analysis of oral history interviews conducted with twenty people who had attended forms of childcare when they were infants and young children, Angela’s paper sought to recreate children’s experiences of preschool childcare, focusing on the spaces in which it occurred.  Existing accounts have often detailed what services the state has or has not provided for parents, and particularly mothers. But using a wider range of sources, particularly oral history interviews, enables us to consider what childcare was like for children in the different venues in which they were looked after; how the interviewees now look back upon their experiences; and what the effects of childcare over the life course were.

A different kind of looking back was at stake in the next paper, by Tiia Sahrakorpi from UCL.  Tiia’s research uses unpublished Hitler Youth memoirs as a source to create an image of childhood in Nazi Germany. Memoirs written by the Hitler Youth Generation (born c. 1929) begin with describing childhood and family life in the early 1930s to create a space to unravel the family past. Written typically in late adulthood, the writer transports the reader into their childhood and navigates the reader through their childhood spaces. The Hitler Youth generation was seen as tainted, but not guilty in the post-war period, and their memoirs show an attempt to create their own spaces and place for their childhood memories in a totalitarian society. Doing so, they try to find their place in the larger narrative of the Third Reich. Using these memoirs as source creates its own challenges, but Tiia argued that they provide a useful resource to study childhood and youth in Nazi Germany.

The last paper before lunch also considered childhoods that were potentially problematic, although in this case because of the difficulty of achieving a settled home rather than guilt by association.  Sara Hiorns, working on a FCO/QMUL Collaborative Doctoral Award, spoke on ‘Creating and Defining the Diplomatic Family Home’.  When civil servants working for the diplomatic service are posted overseas it is widely felt (and often expected by superiors) that work life and home life become indistinguishable.  In her paper, Sara asked what effect this has on the diplomatic family and the sense of creating a family home, both in the material sense and as a concept.  Diplomatic service parents employed a variety of strategies to prepare a succession of homes for their children in often starkly contrasting environments.  Children who travelled with their parents were expected to contribute to diplomatic life. Others stayed in the UK, usually attending boarding schools.  To such children, the idea of ‘home’ remained very important, and they constructed their own preferences and fantasies around it. The choices these children made in adulthood regarding their own homes are also instructive. Set in the context of Elizabeth Buettner’s work on empire families, colonial careers and parental sacrifice it is useful to examine whether the pressures on families involved in global careers to  conceive a viable ‘home’ life have been alleviated since 1945 or whether challenges in this area, and their nature,  will always remain.

After lunch, Jacqui Turner (Reading) spoke about the political and educational experiences of working class children in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain.  Socialist organisations and the early labour movement tried to develop a means of building and securing a political future based on the education and politicisation of children. In particular, socialists sought to win the hearts and minds of children in order to enable an escape from poverty and, ultimately, to secure a socialist future.  The political importance of children was evident in much of the work done by the Clarion organization and in the children’s columns of the socialist journals of their parents. This was underlined by the establishment of Socialist Sunday Schools in 1892 and the charitable functions initiated by the Cinderella Clubs founded in 1890. Indeed, such attempts to reach children proved a formative influence on many of the leading lights of C20th British socialism, including Nye Bevan, Jack Jones and Ralph Miliband.  Bevan was a Clarion boy and Jones and Miliband were products of Socialist Sunday Schools. While attempts to inculcate children into a socialist culture always took place within the larger context of a non-socialist mainstream, the fact that so many of the leading figures of the twentieth-century Labour movement belonged to socialist children’s and youth organisations suggests that they may deserve more attention from historians than they have hitherto received.



Dr Jacqui Turner

Jacqui’s paper was followed by another from a Reading-based researcher, when Ruth Salter spoke about ‘Minors in Miracula: Children and Youths in Twelfth-Century English Hagiography’.  Ruth’s paper considered the presence of children and youths in the context of miracle cures and the hagiographies which record them, assessing both the reality of ‘minors’ within the religious space of these cult-centres, and the place of children and youths within the miracula themselves.  Through statistical, literary and textual analysis, alongside chosen case-studies, from eight twelfth-century hagiographies produced in England, Ruth was able to shed light on some key questions. How were children identified both in miracula and at the shrine? How did these younger cure-seekers interact with both the space and others within the space of the cult-centres? Why was the ability to cure the young so important to these cults? A particularly interesting aspect of Ruth’s paper was her use of statistical evidence to demonstrate that curing children was a very major element of some of the major cult centres of twelfth-century England, such as the shrine of William of Norwich, for example.

Both the preceding papers looked at ways in which children were subject to ideological influences and framing, in the first case through politics and in the second through religion.  The next paper, by Dr Jenny Bavidge (ICE, Cambridge) took up this theme by considering how the ‘touristic gaze’ of children was trained through guidebooks to London.  While geographers and sociologists such as David Gilbert and Roland Barthes have drawn our attention to the way in which guidebooks frame our perceptions, little consideration has hitherto been given to guidebooks for children.  Jenny argued that during the eighteenth century, illustrated versions of ‘The Cries of London’ dominated the market.  This offered children a rich view of London as a social space, defined by its people.  In the nineteenth century, more respectable and sometimes didactic guides supplanted the ‘Cries’.  Shops began to feature largely.  Jane Taylor’s A Peep into London for Good Children (1806) imagined the reader as a rural child who had never been to the city before.  Even in the nineteenth century, however, guides tended to describe a wide range of London life, not just a few carefully selected tourist sites.  Twentieth century guides, however, departed from this tradition.  Picture books became increasingly dominant, with the emphasis shifting from story to spectacle.  Often the narrative is written in the second person, directing the reader’s attention to notable monuments and buildings.  These books are more interested in place than space.  The great city is defined by its tourist sites rather than its people.



Dr Jenny Bavidge


Conversely, Rosanne Waine (Bath Spa University) demonstrated that needlework samplers, often regarded as a paradigmatic example of a standardized, adult-controlled genre, in fact offered much more scope for children’s agency than has been recognized.  While the acquisition of needlework skill was fundamental to the craft’s history, there was also an underlying, informal purpose. The visual and material language inherent within the craft of sampler-making enabled schoolgirls to manipulate aspects of sampler design, so turning the sampler into a tangible, discursive space. Samplers have long been neglected by historians in the study of childhood, too often taken at face value as simple, instructive exercises. By analyzing several samplers that demonstrate schoolgirls’ discursive agency, ranging from expressions of political and religious worldviews, to moments of personal and emotional introspection, Rosanne’s paper successfully highlighted the need for samplers to be reassessed as valuable primary source material in the study of childhood.

Convention, socialization and the independent agency of girls were also at stake in the next paper, by Daisy Johnson (University of York), intriguingly titled ‘”A real Chalet School girl”: The space of childhood as represented within the Chalet School series by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer’.   Daisy demonstrated that the Chalet School series constructs childhood as distinctly subject to the regulatory influences of internal and external power structures, an experience that can be best expressed through the process of becoming a ‘real Chalet School girl’.  Through examining the experience of Eustacia Benson, Daisy assessed what this phrase embodies in regards towards the series’ attitude towards childhood, concluding that childhood within the Chalet School is a space embodied by the need to conform and obey.

After a brief tea break we pressed straight on with the penultimate paper of the day, Linda Maynard’s (Birkbeck) ‘‘Dream lives’: fraternal uses of spaces of childhood to express separation and loss during wartime’.  Linda began with the poet Ted Hughes, who described how he sustained his relationship with his brother through the ‘dream’ of their shared childhood landscape. Her paper went on to explore how men, separated from their brothers during wartime, turned to nostalgic memories of shared childhood spaces as a means of expressing their emotions. Men often recalled vivid, sensory landscapes of play and leisure, outside of the family home. These private landscapes present a different perspective on domestic life and routines, and expand our understanding of the meaning of ‘home’ for these brothers. Their narratives support Roberta Rubenstein’s observation that nostalgia can represent not only the yearning for an emotionally significant place but also the longing for an emotionally important person strongly associated with that place. Haunted by sensory memories, these childhood landscapes became ‘palpable emotional spaces’ where men not only recorded and marked their brotherly separations and losses but also reflected on the dislocations of war.



Dr Lynda Maynard

The final paper of the day took up these themes of loss and death but concluded, albeit tentatively, on a surprisingly upbeat note.  Hannah Newton (Reading) spoke on ‘Eternal Places: Children’s Emotional Response to Death and the Afterlife in Early Modern England’.  Valuable scholarship has been produced on parents’ emotional responses to the deaths of children in early modern times, but the emotional reactions of the young themselves have rarely been explored. Hannah’s paper sought to rectify this deficiency by investigating the emotions expressed by sick and dying children in England between approximately 1580 and 1720, a time when almost a third of the young died before the age of fifteen. The young expressed diverse and conflicting emotions, from fear and anxiety, to excitement and ecstasy. The cause of these ambivalent responses was the Christian doctrine of salvation, and its hauntingly divergent fates of eternal bliss and eternal torment. Heaven and hell were two places that children seem to have imagined more vividly than any other age group. Through these explorations, Hannah challenged the entrenched notion that it is not possible to uncover the experiences of children from the past. She also argued that we should revise the way we classify the emotions, resisting the intuitive urge to categorise them as either ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. The fear of hell, for example, though profoundly unpleasant, was regarded as a rational, commendable response, which demonstrated the work of the Holy Spirit in the soul, and was a prerequisite to a joyful assurance of heaven. Far worse, as the historian Alec Ryrie has argued, was numb indifference.

This brought the symposium, and the Department’s 2014-15 Annual Research Theme, to a close.  It had been a rewarding day, with a remarkable range of stimulating, surprising and often very original papers, demonstrating both how dynamic and exciting children’s history is as a research area at present and also the very positive and active research culture within the Department itself.  My thanks to the speakers and delegates and to Nick Haigh, Jacqui Turner and Laura Robb (Venue Reading) for their invaluable help with organizing the event.

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