The Erosion of Childhood: Child Oppression in Britain, 1860-1918

By Lionel Rose | Go to book overview

23

THE CHILD PROTECTION MOVEMENT

I observed in Chapter 21 how the common law traditionally upheld the near-absolute authority of a parent over a child. The right to chastise was held inviolable, subject to manslaughter and murder, though the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act did specify offences of common and ‘aggravated’ assault. 1 In a rare success against a parent in 1869 a man named Griffin was convicted for so severely thrashing his 2 1/2-year-old daughter with an 18-inch strap when her crying annoyed him, that she died of shock. His defence that he had every right to ‘correct’ his child was rejected by the judge on the grounds that the chastisement must be appropriate to the age of the child. 2 And by the later 1880s it was established in principle that chastisement by teachers and parents must be ‘reasonable’ but it was still difficult to secure convictions before conservative-minded judges where no death resulted. Thus, when at that time a father was tried for stripping and beating his frail son when drunk till the boy was found a mass of bruises, the magistrate held that this was insufficient to amount to an ‘aggravated assault’! 3

The common law recognized no liability for ‘neglect’ or ‘desertion’ by a parent, though by 1887 it seems the courts had come round to viewing cold-blooded, wilful neglect as chargeable. 4 However, Parliament had already imposed duties on parents to care for their children, not in a spirit of welfare but to prevent those chldren being foisted as a public burden on the poor rate. The Poor Law Act of 1834 required a parent to support a child to this end, and the 1868 Poor Law Act extended this by making wilful neglect by a parent of a child under 14 that threatened or resulted in serious injury to its health an offence liable to up to 6 months’ imprisonment. Poor Law guardians were to be the prosecuting

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