Songs of Innocence: The Story of British Childhood

Sian Pooley considers an examination of shifting attitudes to British childhood, from the Victorian period to the present day

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Reviewed by: Sian Pooley
Author: Fran Abrams
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Price (RRP): £20

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Over the past 30 years, politicians and sections of the media have specialised in turning shocking news stories of child murderers or youth gangs into narratives of national decline. Childhood innocence is presented in these interpretations as being a casualty of a breakdown in family life and a fall in moral standards.

Fran Abrams places these 21st-century moral panics into a longer historical time frame. Songs of Innocence questions some of the stories that are told about children’s experiences by focusing on changing state concerns since the 1880s. She uses insightful examples to allow the reader to see the similarities between, for instance, our anxieties that violent computer games make children aggressive and Victorian concerns that ‘penny dreadful’ literature drew boys into lives of crime.

This is an energetic and ambitious book, organised chronologically with three coherent emerging themes. The most explicit story is that of an “epic struggle” between pessimistic and optimistic beliefs about childhood. Abrams suggests that, in almost every decade that the book explores, there has been an ideological shift between, on the one hand, an understanding of children as innately sinful and in need of discipline and, on the other, a faith in children’s natural purity and vulnerability. The conclusion of this discussion is sober, predicting that a late 20th-century “loss of hope” in the young will continue as a result of ongoing economic uncertainty.

A second narrative featured in the study is the rise of state intervention in family life. Abrams interprets this as a sign of the gradual emergence of an understanding of the “child as an individual,” beginning with the first act against child abuse in 1889 and culminating a century later in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. She offers a series of clear accounts of changing governmental policies relating to education, health, welfare and justice.

Third, the book surveys the influence of landmark events on the lives of the young. We read about child labour during the First World War, the reaction to evacuation during the Second World War, and, more unexpectedly, MI5 surveillance of progressive boarding schools during the 1930s. The history of childhood and youth is a thriving area for academic research and it is a pity that Songs of Innocence is weakest in capturing the depth that this exciting scholarship offers, so that primary sources often lack analytical context. However, by drawing on the reporting of events in broadsheet newspapers, Abrams’ account grows more original and assured from the 1960s onwards, providing a lively account of the interaction between popular campaigns, the press and the state.

What makes this book most engaging is the use of autobiographical case studies. In one testimony, for instance, a working-class Sheffield boy recalled his horror in the late 1940s when his grammar school headmaster charitably presented him with a pair of women’s shoes to wear. Such accounts add wonderful humour and complexity to the simple narrative of the rise of state welfare and education.

We all have stories to tell about our childhoods; Songs of Innocence shows how we can begin to position these within the broader narrative of continuity and change throughout 20th-century Britain.

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Sian Pooley is a fellow in history at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge