ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, February 1975


Sheila Rowbotham

Children in English Society


From International Socialism, No.75, February 1975, pp.30-31.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Children in English Society, Vol II: from the Eighteenth Century to the Children Act 1948
Ivy Pinchbeck and Margaret Hewitt
Routledge and Kegan Paul, £4.00

THIS BOOK is the second volume in an earlier study of children in the Tudor and Stuart period. It includes descriptions of degradation and cruelty which are shocking to a modern reader. Crowds of begging children roaming the streets of 18th century London, or a beggars’ depot in Whitechapel in the early 1800s, or parents taking their children’s eyes out to raise their begging stakes – he world in fact that Brecht describes in The Threepenny Opera.

Such cruelty is not just a feature of the 18th and early 19th centuries. In the late 19th century, for instance, the Journal of the NSPCC recorded as everyday cases

‘... biting a child’s wrist till a wound was made, and then burning the wound with lighted matches ... leaving a baby unlifted out of its cradle for weeks till toadstools grew around the child out of its own rottenness ... keeping the stumps of little amputated legs sore to have the child with its little face puckered up with pain to excite pity.’

The cases of battered babies now are horrifying, but this carefully premeditated cruelty is rather different.

Violence towards children was not limited to the sanctity of the home. The treatment the State gave children who somehow came into its direct power was equally severe. Delinquent boys in the 18th century were crammed into the hulks of ships before they could be deported and kept there for years. Food was scarce, conditions terrible, bullying rife, and many died. The only escape was self-inflicted wounds and the hospital.

But the listing and recitation of so much physical cruelty and the various measures of protection and reform gives the book a kind of complacency. Margaret Hewitt and Ivy Pinchbeck have written a book which is apparently without theory and which just gives the ‘facts’. However, the result is a picture of history in which Progress and the beneficence of voluntary organisations, followed by the State, gradually administrate for the best of possible childhoods.

This is a dangerous bias because the book seems to be telling us just how it was. In fact, so many dimensions of childhood are excluded, and so many questions remain unasked that the very general title Children in English Society is misleading.

It seems curious that two pioneering writers of women’s history should write about that other silent group, children, and yet give so little space to the feelings and actions of children themselves. The intervention of the State is always taken at its liberal face value. It appears as a somewhat harassed school-master trying to do its best by a troublesome public of unmarried mothers and delinquent children. The state seems neutral. Children are its greatest ‘asset’.

This view reduces children to their future role as economic producers and loyalists of the status quo. Also, the authors never consider the problems raised by historians of the mentally ill, another helpless and unproductive group, for whom, as for children, direct physical coercion has increasingly given way to other forms of persuasion. For both groups, however, coercion remains where there is an inequality of power, whether physical violence is employed or not.

Finally, the absence of any historical discussion of the family, of sex-role conditioning, of class differences in the experience of childhood, means that this book fails to answer many of the questions socialists are asking about the history of children.

In short, if you want facts and information about legislation and administration you might well find them in this book. If you want social and economic detail on how capitalism affected children at work turn instead to Vol.I of Marx’s Capital. If you want to read of children taking action themselves, try the History Workshop pamphlet on the 1911 children’s strikes. And if you want to think about childhood and society, read Philippe Aries’ Centuries of Childhood.

Top of page

ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 30.12.2007