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Life at Home: Discover the Past

Margaret Westwood is a long-standing member of the Guildford Institute and has edited The Keep since 2005. Take some time to discover the past as Margaret tells us about Jenny Frendo’s course, The Experience of Childhood, that she participated in over Zoom!

Jenny’s canter through the later 18th C, the 19th C and into the first half of the 20th C was lively, informative and chastening in its revelations. Attitudes towards children and their upbringing were (and are) largely determined by class. Well-to-do children had to be moulded into respectable adults (abhor the “original sin”). Strict discipline persisted throughout the centuries despite the popular views of Rousseau who believed in letting children grow up “in accordance with the dictates of nature” But  the majority were expected to “earn their keep” from an early age and childhood was a very brief period in their lives. For the poor, a large family was often an unsupportable burden and unwanted offspring were abandoned – to become the responsibility of the Parish. Despite changes in the moral climate the Puritan 1624 Infanticide Act, which targeted single women accused of killing their babies, was still on the statute book until 1803. The plight of an unmarried mother was dire: she not only lost her character but could lose her life. Girls (mostly servants) so convicted were hanged. Thomas Coram who pitied their “poor miserable infants” raised funds to establish the Foundling Hospital which he opened in 1741. Mothers left their babies anonymously – with the promise they would be cared for and apprenticed to a trade or in service.

The Poor Law was intended to give support to people temporarily out of work but the 1750s saw the establishment of workhouses outside the parish to cater for unwanted children, the “master” being given a per capita sum to care for them (viz Oliver Twist) as so-called apprentices. Tales of boys apprenticed as chimney sweeps are well documented

The working conditions for children were unregulated and in agriculture they were often employed in a mixed gang system working long hours alongside adults. Even children employed within the family were expected to be working several hours a day from the age or 6 or 7. The 1819 Cotton Mills act said that no child should be employed under the age of nine and the working day was set at 16 hours for all workers under 16. However enforcement of this Act was problematical.: what proof, if any, was required of the child’s age? The records of a little girl aged 8, a trapper the Gawber pit, reveal that she worked in the dark from 4 a.m. to 5 p.m. – her wages being essential for the family.

The first Health and Safety Act in Britain (1844) required all dangerous machinery to be fenced off and no child or young person was to clean mill machinery whilst it was in motion. This was often infringed as small children were frequently sent to scurry under the working looms to untangle threads. They were also supposed to have three hours schooling a day.

Education was somewhat hit and miss. There were voluntary schools, “ragged” schools, Charity schools, some Grammar Schools but no overall provision until the 1870 Education Act. But attendance was voluntary – seven years would pass before a Royal Commission recommended compulsory attendance to halt child labour. The 1880 Act required all children aged 5-10 years to attend school. But it was still not free, and in the early 1890s attendance was falling short at 82%.

As we moved into the 20th C it became only too obvious to us that despite great strides in terms of statutory care and concern for children’s welfare, the patchwork provision of education was not meeting the needs of a prosperous industrial country. The well-to-do had their classical traditions deeply embedded in the private (Public) schools – to be aped by others – especially girls’ day schools who adopted a uniform with collar and tie and urged netball players to “mark your man!”. There was a demand for evening classes offering self-improvement , but a co-ordinated approach by the Government providing educations for all classes and aptitudes had to wait until the middle of the century.

Jenny provided useful extracts and pointers for background reading – and ensured there was time for us to engage in discussion. A very satisfying Zoom experience!

If you feel inspired, browse our online programme where you’ll find a wide variety of courses to take part in. Whether you’re looking to try something new or are returning to a favourite past time, our courses will keep you busy this autumn – all from the comfort of your own home!

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