Local Population Studies ‘Perspectives on Childhood and Youth’ Conference, Rewley House, Oxford, 23rd April 2016

On Saturday, I spoke and listened at the above conference.  All the papers (hopefully including mine!) were really interesting.  I learned some new things, caught up with some people and made new connections, and experienced the usual research envy!

There were six half-hour papers, so I feel as though I can say a bit about each one.  We started off with Nicholas Orme, who spoke about medieval childhood.  I knew that all the stuff by Ariès about lack of feeling towards children, and children being seen as miniature adults, has been totally disproved, but Orme showed exactly how medieval children were treated, and acted, much like today’s children.  Parents prepared for having a child by buying specialist equipment, sung to and bathed their babies, and their concern that they would die unbaptised, thus going to hell or limbo, was very evident.  Parents did get attached despite high child mortality, burying their children carefully and mourning them.  Medieval children had their own culture, that included games, rhymes, sayings and slang, and they weren’t all well-behaved.  One big thing that showed that childhood was regarded as ‘separate’ from adulthood was that, like today, there was an age where children were deemed to be criminally responsible, around 10 or 12.  Also like today, adolescence was a transitional period, when children were seen as mature enough to attend communion and confession, but were still under the control of a parent or master.  They were regarded as responsible enough to receive an inheritance and 15 or 21, had to be 18 to become a monk, and 24 to become a priest, and mid-20s was regarded as a sensible age to marry.  As someone who’s really not into medieval, this paper actually really engaged me, because Orme emphasised the links between then and now, and there was a social history focus that my previous attempts to study that period have lacked.

I was second - I gave the paper I was complaining about writing last week.  I talked about the perceptions of only children, and my sources and methods, before moving onto the main part of the paper, about the influence of different localities on individual only-child experiences.  I pointed out that while geography is definitely an influence, it doesn’t work in isolation - only children’s use of their local areas also depended on their parents’ attitudes to letting them explore, and their own feelings about other children, with some preferring to be alone whether or not they had the option for company, others loving having access to lots of other children to play with, and others still wishing they had had such opportunities to socialise in their vicinity.  It seemed to go down well - there were lots of questions, and a few people told me they enjoyed my paper, so that was OK.

Next up was Helena Mills, who talked about place, experience, and memory of youth in the ‘swinging 60s’.  Mills’ work questions the image of 60s’ youth culture as a homogenous entity, instead arguing that the extent to which an individual experienced it depended on where they lived, what work they did/was available to them, and their gender.  For example, in places like Liverpool, there were coffee bars, cinemas, and places to go dancing, whereas in Barrow there was the church hall and that was about it.  Your ability to go out depended on public transport - whether it was decent and whether you could afford it, and if you were a girl, you might also be restricted by parents worried for your safety.  The commerical spaces young people utilised had different meanings; a particularly prestigious place was ‘the best place to be’, men and women experienced and used clubs differently, and youth spaces were seen as somewhere to relax and be noisy away from the adult gaze.  Over the course of the decade, young people’s opportunities to travel also expanded, so place and space were by no means static.   Mills’ research is really interesting and I did get some thesis envy!

After lunch, we heard Eric Schneider talk his ongoing longitudinal study of children’s growth on the training ship Indefatigable.  Basically, there was a sudden shift in children’s heights at certain ages in around 1910, though we don’t totally know why yet.  It was also around this time that pubertal growth spurts became a major thing.  Possible reasons that Schneider is going to investigate are infant mortality decline, improvements to home environments and sanitation, morbidity, and family size.  I’m really not a quantitative researcher, so it was really interesting to see what statistics are out there, and what can be done with them.

Next we had Heather Shore, talking about boys who were sent to reformatory and industrial schools because they had either been convicted of a crime, or seen as delinquent for some other reason, such as truancy.  She followed the life courses of 400 children from four schools.  Most of them had been sent to such schools for property offences, with public order offences coming second.  I was interested to hear that although 22% re-offended at some point in their lives (again, usually property or public order offences), only 4.1% became habitual offenders, and they generally had ‘steady, unremarkable’ lives.  I guess this means these harsh schools were, on the whole, pretty successful!

The last paper of the day was given by Maria Marven, on Metropolitan children’s reponses to children’s convalescent homes between 1935 and 1960.  Separation was often traumatic for convalescent children, their parents, and their siblings, especially if the convalescent sibling had ‘mothered’ younger siblings.  Returning to the home was often difficult too, as returnees found it hard to rediscover their place in the family, and that they had missed out on events and developments they would not be able to catch up on.  There was also some variation in experiences.  Marven found that after the Second World War, parents did far more to prepare their children for going into a convalescent home, with parents prior to the War not being as open about it.  This seems to fit the idea that parents became more tender during this period.  Another variation was that some people saw their stay in a convalescent home as a formative experience, whereas others forgot about it more easily.

It was a fascinating day that gave me a lot to think about.  It was good to hear about other research that shows how different variables resulted in different individual experiences, which was a major theme that came out of the conference.  It was also great to catch up with some history of childhood people I’ve met at other conferences and chat to on Twitter between them.  I always like going to Oxford, too - I’ve been there enough times that I’m confident staying on my own there and finding my way around.

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About Alice Violett

Reader of books, player of board games, lover of cats, editor of web content, haver of PhD.

Colchester, UK https://www.draliceviolett.com