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.

Springhall’s book describes how an organisation which has spread to sixty countries and has a membership of 400,000 originated in the impact made by Evangelical revivalism on a young Glasgow textile merchant, William Smith. Deeply influenced by the military volunteer movement and active in Nonconformist mission work, he confronted the social worker’s familiar problem – that of seeking to retain influence over the teenager who has left school but has not yet embraced the disciplines of family life. His answer for the male sex in 1883 was to found the Boys’ Brigade, with the Biblical motto ‘Sure and stedfast’; its object was defined as ‘the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom among Boys and the promotion of habits of Reverence, Discipline, Self-Respect and all that tends towards a true Christian manliness’. By 1900 the Brigade had attracted 75,000 boys and 409 officers, and had inspired comparable organisations among Jews, Catholics and Anglicans. The boys were offered a reasonably cheap military-style uniform, musical instruments, self-education and recreation outside the family circle, together with annual camps in the country. The Brigade profoundly influenced the Boy Scout movement, which grew up in its midst during the Edwardian period. The Brigade’s volunteer officers in the early days often included professional and business men, but later came to be drawn primarily from the white-collar and lower middle class. The Brigade gave them an unrivalled opportunity for inculcating their highly-prized virtues of personal discipline and self-improvement, and for offering the urban teenage boy something better than a life of street-corner lounging.

In addition to the difficulties of childhood history, these three authors have had to confront the difficulty involved in writing collaborative ‘official’ history for a diverse readership. With a foreword by the president of the Brigade, the book is dedicated to the Brigade’s officers, past, present and future; two of its authors are Brigade officers. John Springhall and Brian Fraser have collaborated on the British chapters; Michael Hoare has written the chapters on the movement overseas. The Brigade has shown an admirable willingness – by no means common among voluntary bodies – to give its historians free access to its archives, and to leave them to draw their own conclusions. Potential readers are identified as youth workers and Brigade members, but professional historians should also read the book for it is one of the few properly-documented and reasonably objective histories of a British youth organisation. Based on the movement’s periodicals, minute-books, manuscripts and interview material, the book nonetheless manages, especially in its earlier chapters, to relate this wealth of detailed information to the relevant secondary academic literature. So new material is quarried at the same time as the professional historian’s questions are asked. The narrative is organised chronologically, with separate chapters for the movement’s home and overseas aspects. Statistical information is presented, and there is a useful bibliography and index. But the text is also enlivened by photographs, and efforts are made to show what the daily timetable of the B.B. ‘company’ was like.

At first sight, it is a very unfamiliar world that is revealed. The sheer popularity of the Boys’ Brigade now seems surprising. Its United Kingdom strength reached a peak of 97,000 in 1934, but has since declined (rapidly since the 1950s) to 53,000 in 1982. A photograph of the 1933 Jubilee Review in Queen’s Park, Glasgow, shows uniformed boys marshalled almost as far as the eye can see, with enthusiastic spectators gathered around them; the Jubilee Conventicle seems to have packed Hampden Park football ground. This mass movement rested on a social situation which is itself unfamiliar now: on the central role played in social and recreational life by religious organisations, to which the companies were always attached, and whose objectives Smith was always keen to promote. Preceded by the late 18th century’s Sunday schools, the YMCA (founded 1849), the YWCA (founded 1851) and the Girls’ Friendly Society (founded 1875), the Boys’ Brigade’s success testifies to the major contribution which religious organisations have made to the life of the British child. One of the factors in the Brigade’s decline since the 1950s has undoubtedly been the accelerating secularisation of British life: the authors do not explore how far religious organisations’ earlier adoption of youth work may have helped forward the secularising process. One further unfamiliar feature is the adult’s unashamed leadership role within the Brigade. Twentieth-century technological, psychological and educational trends have ensured increasing deference to youth and diminishing respect for the old. Already by the 1920s newly-literate children were interpreting for illiterate parents the letters now appearing on the silent cinema screen: in Robert Roberts’s words, ‘a muddled Greek chorus of children’s voices rose from the benches, piping above the piano music.’ Computer technology now carries the child’s education of the adult much further.

On closer inspection, however, the picture becomes more familiar. Is not the Manpower Services Commission preoccupied above all things with easing the transition from school to adult employment? As those responsible for the Liberal Party’s imaginative programme for dealing with unemployment wrote in 1928, ‘no form of waste is more harmful than the deterioration which too often takes place in young workers between the ages of 14 and 18.’ Since 1982, the sight of youthful enthusiasm for military adventure will be painfully familiar to those middle-class parents who were children in the 1960s, and who uncomprehendingly discovered during the Falk-lands episode that their children shared something of Mrs Thatcher’s enthusiasm for the just war.

Yet no British historian should have been taken unawares by the massed patriotic enthusiasm marshalled on quaysides long neglected by the intelligentsia. The popularity of military values has puzzled British radicals for two centuries – from Paine to Cobden, from Bertrand Russell to Tony Benn. Hugh Cunningham’s The Volunteer Force (1975) clearly revealed the Mid-Victorian popularity of mobilising in national self-defence, and if modern British social historians had been less sympathetic to the Left, or if Conservative historians had been less exclusively preoccupied with political history, the message would have been heard more clearly.

Can all this usefully be seen as illustrating the power of ‘social control’? In an article of 1971, Springhall saw in the idea of social control ‘a more useful way of looking at’ the origins of early 20th-century British youth movements. He saw the chance for ‘a collection of ex-soldiers and imperialists’ to ‘mobilise them in a military direction’; John Foster conducted a similar analysis of Sunday schools in 1974. But Springhall is now rightly more cautious: though the desire to maintain social order and stability was important among the motives of some leaders, he says, ‘there is a danger in confusing this with a genuinely felt awareness of social need.’ In reality, the social control approach both mistakes effect for cause and fails to capture the subtlety of the motives operating among both adults and children. It exaggerates the ingenuity and co-ordination of authority and underestimates the inherent attractions (for youth) of the entertainments provided: the boys in the Brigade were never mindlessly responding to middle-class stimuli. Nor can an organisation so deeply influenced by military values be convincingly seen as predominantly middle-class in inspiration: its values reflect the attitudes of an older political élite.

The social control approach also ascribes to adults a strangely political motive for their disciplinary zeal. The 19th-century revolutionary crowd did of course contain a high proportion of young people, and this was seen as dangerous. But the more urgent disciplinary need for most adults had less to do with class than with generation. In Britain in 1891, 48 per cent of the males in the population and 46 per cent of the females were legally under age; since then birth control and improved health care have dramatically increased the proportion of the old in the population. These hordes of children needed to be controlled, not simply for the adults’ peace of mind, but (as Thomas Arnold recognised at Rugby) for the sake of the children. It is not always realised how cruel children can be to one another when beyond adult reach – on the road from Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to school in Fordlow, for example. The young Sir Robert Peel took a mile’s detour rather than encounter insults from Bury’s working-class children, and the young Lord Salisbury – later to be three times Prime Minister – became expert in the lesser-known streets of London because they offered him an escape from possible holiday encounters with the boys who made his life such a misery at Eton.

Insofar as class considerations were present in the ‘social control’ exercised by the Boys’ Brigade, they involved self-control rather than class domination, social gradation rather than class polarity. The Boys’ Brigade, like the Boy Scouts, undoubtedly attracted groups who were socially just above the slum population, especially the expanding group of white-collar workers. For them the relevant fear was less one of social revolution than of social pollution. The Boys’ Brigade, like the Band of Hope or other Nonconformist week-night activities, was the lower middle-class and respectable working-class parent’s means of defending his family against the perils of social descent.

Furthermore, if ‘social control’ is defined so widely as to include the voluntary – indeed enthusiastic – participation of the controlled in the controlling organisation, one is bound to ask whether the social control theorists are not misusing the language. Even in this review, too much has perhaps been said about discipline, too little about the self-realisation offered within the Boys’ Brigade. Nationalist movements – Young Ireland, Young Italy, Young Egypt – have long attracted the young, as their very names testify, and the attractions of the Boys’ Brigade uniforms and music must have been formidable for a teenage boy shut up in a Late Victorian industrial town. And not only in Victorian towns: there is an extraordinary photograph in this book of a tiny Australian aborigine boy carrying a dummy rifle bigger than himself.

One might want to ask whether a ‘control’ which is purchased so cheaply was not, and is not, well worth having. The choice for Late Victorian parents – and perhaps all parents – was not between gentleness and violence in their children, but between violence of the more and the less harmful varieties. The Boys’ Brigade formalised, and thereby helped to civilise, boys’ zest for gang warfare, vendettas and fights. Robert Roberts describes the self-organised groups of Edwardian slum children who passed ‘like caravans along the desert routes, each intent upon its own mission’: the Boys’ Brigade merely helped to minimise the mutual injury that resulted. It ensured that the pitched battles on St Martin’s Hill which enlivened H.G. Wells’s youth produced benefits more lasting than satisfied pride. As for the Labour movement’s objection that the Brigade fostered military values, this book makes clear how firmly William Smith insisted on putting his religious objectives first: one of his disappointments in later life was to see his Brigade idea captured in many countries overseas by militarist connections. In 1910 the Brigade held a referendum which overwhelmingly rejected formal military involvement. The temptation towards militarism was always present, of course, in the British movement, but between the wars the Brigade, like the Boy Scouts, assumed an internationalist guise, and never remotely approached the militarism of the Hitler Youth.

Springhall and his colleagues have not entirely escaped the dangers of official and institutional history. Organisations like the Brigade perform many unacknowledged and unofficial functions in the teenager’s life which contrast with the movement’s highminded ideals and are neglected by official historians; more interviews with former members of the Brigade might have illuminated these aspects. Stephen Humphries’s Hooligans or Rebels? has drawn attention to the working-class child’s parody singing – especially to his comic travesties of Sunday school, Band of Hope or Church Lads’ Brigade hymns and carols.

’Ere comes the Boys’ Brigade,
All smovered in marmalade,
A tuppenny ’a’ penny pill box,
An’ ’alf a yard of braid.

Historians heavily dependent on institutional records are inclined to neglect the history of the surrounding society: here social context is adequately supplied only in the earlier chapters. More extended discussion of religious trends would have clarified much, and would have been analytically reinforced by a sustained comparison of the Brigade’s pattern of growth with that of the more secular Boy Scouts. More could also usefully have been said about the impact on the Brigade of its 20th-century members’ extended schooling and the proliferation of recreational opportunities available to them – not the least among these, in an affluent society of small families, was the new-found recreational attraction of the home. Like all voluntary organisations – pubs, churches, cinemas – the Boys’ Brigade has paradoxically suffered from the advent of a domesticity which William Smith would have welcomed. Nor is enough said about the Brigade’s attitude to the training of girls: how far does it perpetuate that separation of the sexual spheres which the feminists of the 1880s were beginning to attack? Perhaps all these points could have been effectively developed if the study of national records had been complemented by detailed local studies of the Brigade company in action. This would hardly have been possible in the chapters on the overseas movement – the factual information presented there is so congested that it is sometimes difficult to see the wood for the trees – but it should have been possible to draw general conclusions about the problems facing voluntary youth movements in monist tribal societies and one-party states.

These are minor criticisms of a book which avoids one of official history’s major perils – self-congratulation. Although the Brigade established a secure financial base during the 1920s by encouraging donations from members and parents, and subsequently adopted imaginative publicity devices, the book’s later chapters tell a story of defensive attitudes and institutional decline. After the Second World War, rapid growth occurred only in the overseas branch. The Brigade’s World Conference in 1963, attended by representatives from 23 countries, initiated Britain’s retreat from world leadership of the movement. As for the domestic scene, the book displays a receptiveness to criticism and doubts about long-term objectives that are refreshing in an official history. Those critics of the Brigade who dislike its militarism – now in any case much less pronounced than it once was – will presumably dislike still more the alternative ways in which violence impinges on young people today. The Annan Committee was told in 1977 that in an average day’s viewing an American child sees 25 to 27 violent incidents, about four million times more than he is likely to come across, even there, during a normal day. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme (fully backed by the Brigade in the 1950s) seems infinitely preferable to this. Anyone who has benefited from the selflessness of those wonderful people who devote their spare time to organising crowds of inconsiderate, potentially unruly and often ungrateful teenagers will hope that the late 20th-century Boys’ Brigade, having lost its empire, will soon discover a new domestic role.