Boys will be soldiers

Brian Harrison

  • Sure and Stedfast: A History of the Boys’ Brigade, 1883-1984 edited by John Springhall
    Collins, 304 pp, £10.00, June 1983, ISBN 0 00 434280 1

Not to expose your true feelings to an adult,’ wrote George Orwell, ‘seems to be instinctive from the age of seven or eight onwards.’ This is only one of several difficulties facing the historian of childhood: children are secretive, and parents seldom suspect the range of their fears and excitements. Describing his rather tortured teenage life, Bertrand Russell’s autobiography stresses that while outwardly well-behaved, he ‘found living at home only endurable at the cost of complete silence about everything that interested me’. Barbara Wootton and her childhood friends went further, and fended off the adults by evolving a private language. Only the exceptional child writes down his experience, and adults rarely think about their childhood: indeed, most adults are adept at forgetting what it is like to be a child, though the occasional exceptions – Dickens, Orwell and Flora Thompson – sketch in the outline of this vast unexplored continent. Perhaps this is one reason why historians have so rarely written about childhood. And even if they do write about it – when discussing the history of education, for example – they often show the historian’s tendency to write history from above: that is, to see the school from the viewpoint of teacher rather than taught. Others find an escape-route through writing, not about childhood as it is experienced, but about adult attitudes to it.

Recently there have been welcome signs of change. The ‘oral history’ of the 1960s enabled many old people to preserve the childhood memories which become particularly vivid at the other end of life. And in a decade when social history seemed to carry all before it, the history of childhood was an obvious appendage to family history, and needed to be included on the social historian’s agenda. A pioneering text came from Philippe Ariès: his Centuries of Childhood (1960) is bold in its range, rich in its insights, but frequently generalises well beyond the evidence available at the time of writing. J.R. Gillis’s Youth and History(1974) is another, though less successful attempt to theorise about material that had scarcely yet been explored. More empirical work is needed before theory can advance, and John Springhall’s Youth, Empire and Society: British Youth Movements, 1883-1940 (1977) offered one way forward: the systematic study of organisations designed for children. This approach has the additional advantage of illuminating many other dimensions of history – political, military and labour, to name only three. And now, as co-ordinating editor of the Boys’ Brigade’s centenary history, Springhall carries his organisational approach one stage further.

The Boys’ Brigade is particularly interesting among youth organisations because it emerged during a decade, the 1880s, which saw major changes in attitudes to the child. This was the decade which launched the organised movement against cruelty to children, no doubt partly because birth control was now making children more scarce. The 1880s also saw Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, not to mention the remarkable growth of the Boys’ Own Paper. And not only was literature being specially produced for children: children were at last being seen as possessing an imaginative life of their own. Ariès points out how Medieval artists portrayed the young Jesus as a small adult: they did not know how to illustrate childhood in any other way.

From the studies so far published, it seems that only in the late 18th century did childhood come to seem important in itself; for some, it became an ideal upon which to model the adult personality, a weapon against the established order. Towards the end of the 19th century childhood had become a refuge from an unpleasant world, and Kenneth Grahame’s The Golden Age (1895) is a landmark in recognising that childhood is something more than undeveloped adulthood. By this time, it was also becoming common to make distinctions within the ‘childhood’ category, and to speak of ‘adolescence’, though the term ‘boy’ was confusingly applied to all male children still at school, and the term ‘girl’ to all young women as yet unmarried; ‘teenagers’ do not appear at all till much later. Consciousness of adolescence as a phase of life owes much to changing social conditions: the continuous lowering of the age of menarche in modern Europe, averaging three to four months per decade, brought children to sexual maturity before society was, so to speak, prepared for the event, just at the time when there were formidable pressures for postponing marriage and prolonging school. This situation inevitably generated sex-segregated organisations which would divert youthful energies away from the opposite sex.

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