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

By Lionel Rose | Go to book overview

21

EXPLOITATION, DISCIPLINE AND DUTY IN THE WORKING-CLASS HOME

The status of children as cynosures of family life is historically recent; one result of the fall in the birth rate and the relative scarcity of children. Today childhood is treated as a ‘kind of holiday from life’, 1 but in Victorian times, and even into Edwardian times, children were regarded as ‘little adults’, whose childish vices and mischiefs had to be repressed as early as possible. 2 Admittedly Victorian factory laws and correctional legislation, with the advent of industrial schools and reformatories, were a recognition that children needed special treatment, but in social matters they were regarded as objects rather than subjects. In large poor families their value was primarily economic, and in domestic workshops parents could be harder and more ruthless than a large factory employer. The Children’s Employment Commission of 1843 commented: The evidence…also abun-dantly shows that in too many cases the children are overworked by parents who have no need of such accession to their own earnings, but who only thereby acquire greater means of self-indulgence.’ 3 A Midlands factory inspector pointed to the same thing in 1873, and gave a glaring example I have cited in Chapter 2. 4

Mercenary parents were apt to take more advantage of their daughters. The Employment of Schoolchildren Inquiry of 1902 found that ‘moonlighting’ girls could expect a third less than the going rate for boys, irrespective of whether they were employed by strangers or their own parents. 5

We must beware of making sweeping, generalized statements about working-class family relationships. Families varied according to their personalities and the pressures they were under. In many homes there was much love and warmth in a rough and ready way, in others drunkenness and brutality. But where there was a firm

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