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Childhood in the Black Country was "bittersweet": Dr Jenny Gilbert delves deeper into the archive photos

 

 

In this week’s History at Home, we’re exploring the real lives and real stories of Black Country children. Black Country childhood during the 19th and early-20th centuries would not have been easy. Attitudes towards childhood were vastly different to those we see in Britain today and many families in the region were very poor. In this blog, the Black Country Studies Centre considers how attitudes towards childhood changed and explores some images from the museum’s collections that give insights to childhood in the region.

In 1762, Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau urged his readers to ‘hold childhood in reverence’. Considered his masterpiece, the book Emile or On Education would be hailed as marking a huge progressive shift in attitudes towards children. Previously, childhood had been considered a problem that needed to be fixed, underpinned by the belief that a child was born tainted with sin. In Britain, this increasingly romanticised and cherished state of childhood was reflected in the poetry of William Blake and William Wordsworth. Blake’s Songs of Innocence (1789) celebrated the joyous, angelic and sinless child, a nature to be protected at all costs.

Yet this idealised and protected state was at odds with the gaining momentum of industrialisation; for many, childhood remained a mere inconvenience on the path to an economically productive adulthood and a dangerous stage for the morally corrupted soul. Growing numbers of factories and mines meant that more workers were needed and these workers were often children. In 1842 it was reported that there were 30 children for every 100 men working in Staffordshire’s coal mines. The report stated that some of these children were ‘not unfrequently between six and seven’. Legislation introduced in 1833 and 1842 sought to limit the hours children worked and impose a minimum age for working in factories and mines. Whilst it is clear how much progress has been made in terms of legal recognition and protection of childhood and compulsory education in Britain, it is worth noting that unicef forecast that around 100million children globally   are still trapped in child labour in 2020.

Images from the BCLM archives show childhood as a bittersweet period; happy moments of sweet sentimentality alongside stark views of children as ‘little adults. Small boys wearing caps or overalls that are a little too big as they stand alongside adults, smiling babies, protective arms placed on shoulders. The rigidity of much early-20th century photography often makes it tricky to gauge the emotions of the people in the pictures but there are flashes of defiance, mischief, awkwardness and joy. Reminders that Black Country children also played, laughed and had adventures.

The rigidity of much early-20th century photography often makes it tricky to gauge the emotions of the people in the pictures but there are flashes of defiance, mischief, awkwardness and joy. Reminders that Black Country children also played, laughed and had adventures.

The Black Country Studies Centre is a partnership between University of Wolverhampton and Black Country Living Museum. The BCSC promotes and celebrates learning, research and creativity in the region, past, present and future. They are supporting History at Home and also providing weekly mini lectures and blogposts through their Lockdown Learning programme.

 

     

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