The Children’s Charter: A Turning Point in the History of Childhood

The late nineteenth century saw the increasing involvement of the state in the lives of children. The Prevention of Cruelty to, and Protection of, Children Act 1889, commonly known as the Children’s Charter, was a major turning point in the history of childhood. This was the first piece of legislation on the protection of children. It allowed the state to intervene in cases of ill-treatment and neglect, outlawed begging and set restrictions on the employment of children. [1] Parents could now be more easily prosecuted for child abuse and the courts were empowered to remove children from the custody of their parents if necessary.

Why was legislation necessary?

The Children’s Charter was a product of the child saving movement of the 1880s. Central to the movement was the romantic view of children that was prevalent in the nineteenth century. Children were seen as innocent and in need of protection, and childhood a significantly separate stage of life to adulthood. [2] The creation of child welfare societies, such as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Child (SPCC, later NSPCC) clearly demonstrates this view. Historian of the NSPCC George Behlmer has suggested the society emerged due to the newly developed ‘moral vision’, that the safety of children took precedence over parental rights. [3]

2006ar9139_2500
A reproduction of ‘Bubbles; A Child’s World’ by John Everett Millais (1886). This painting captures the romanticised, innocent nineteenth century view of childhood. From © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The work of the SPCC has been praised by historians and the society has been largely credited with the passing of the Children’s Charter. The society, founded in 1883 in Liverpool, aimed to educate parents on the issue of child abuse and took issue with the Poor Law authorities, who were often reluctant to punish parents of willful neglect. [4] The society made child abuse a significant issue in the minds of contemporaries and recognised the need for parliamentary reform in assuring the effective prevention of child abuse. [5] Legislation in the late nineteenth century had been moving towards creating a safer and better world for children. The Education Act 1880 had introduced compulsory education for children under the age of ten, and the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, passed in response to the publication of an article on child prostitution, raised the age of consent for girls. [6] The next step was tackling the ‘social disease’ of child abuse.

Historians have highlighted the importance of looking at the social and political context.  During the latter half of the nineteenth century, contemporaries became increasingly concerned with the condition of the nation. Many middle and upper class groups feared the degeneration of the race, with a focus on the working class urban slums. They were concerned about the civilisation of the masses and wanted the British to be a strong, healthy race that could compete in the twentieth century. [7] Rachel Fuchs has stated that children were seen as potential soldiers and workers. The future of the nation rested with the children, therefore protecting them was crucial to ensure a prosperous Britain. This has led historians to suggest that the Children’s Charter was part of a state-building project. [8] Therefore, it is important to look at this legislation critically, as it highlights not only a growing concern for the safety of children, but also the safety of the nation. This point has been raised by Behlmer, who highlights those who followed the moral vision did so for the security of the nation. [9]

The Debate in Parliament

By 1888, the NSPCC had become a national organisation and was campaigning for legislation on child abuse. However, the bill received strong opposition in Parliament. The bill was controversial; contemporaries saw it as an interference with the parental responsibility for the basic care of children. [10] Additionally, the punishment of a fine of up to £100 or six months imprisonment was seen as extreme. The Off-License Holders’ National Federation took particular issue with the suggestion of punishment for a publican who sold alcohol to a child under the age of ten, and MPs highlighted how some working class families relied on their children to support them in their work. [11] Eventually, the NSPCC conceded on the issue of the sale of alcohol and the bill was passed in August 1889.

A Turning Point in History

On the Children’s Charter, Benjamin Waugh, the founder of the London SPCC, stated that as a result of the act:

The absolutism of the state prevailed over the absolutism of the parent.’ [12]

benjaminwaugh2
London SPCC Founder, Benjamin Waugh (1839-1908). From Wikimedia Commons.

This statement highlights the importance of the legislation and why it has been of interest to historians. Hendrick has argued that the Children’s Charter ‘marked a turning point in legal and social attitudes towards children’ because it ‘introduced the new interventionist relationship between parents and the state’. [13] Parental powers had been limited; the home environment was now under closer investigation. [14] The wider significance of the legislation has not been understated by historians. Harry Ferguson has argued that the NSPCC and the creation of the Children’s Charter helped to create modern child protection practices. He adds that parents were now beginning to feel ‘the weight of new social practices and powers’. [15] This highlights the consequences of the new relationship between parents and the state. The 1889 act was amended in 1904, making the prosecution of those charged with committing carnal assault much easier, and the injured child no longer was required to appear in court. In 1908 the Children’s Act was passed, which introduced juvenile courts and further consolidated the law on child welfare. [16] Jose Harris has stated that the period 1880-1908 saw a major restructuring of the legal relations between the family and the state. [17] This highlights the central role the Children’s Charter played. The legislation, along with the NSPCC, helped to change ideas about childhood and paved the way for further protective legislation.

Further questions?

The Charter raises other issues within the history of childhood. For example, it states that childhood legally ended for boys at the age of 14, and for girls age 16. This could be an area for further enquiry, primarily, why did gender determine when childhood ended?

For an in depth history of the NSPCC and the Children’s Charter see: Behlmer, George K. Child Abuse and Moral Reform in England, 1870-1908. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1982.

Endnotes

[1] See http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1889/44/enacted.

[2] Hugh Cunningham, Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500, Second Edition (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2005), 161.

[3] George K. Behlmer, Child Abuse and Moral Reform in England, 1870-1908 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1982), 2.

[4] Ibid., 79-80.

[5] Harry Hendrick, Child Welfare: Historical Dimensions, Contemporary Debate (Bristol: Polity Press, 2003), 26.

[6] Behlmer, Child Abuse, 46, 78.

[7] Harry Hendrick, Children, Childhood and English Society 1880-1990 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 39.

[8] Rachel G. Fuchs, ‘The State’ in A Cultural History of Childhood and Family in the Age of Empire, ed. Colin Heywood (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010), 140.

[9] Behlmer, Child Abuse, 3.

[10] Hendrick, English Society, 47.

[11] Behlmer, Child Abuse, 103.

[12] R. Waugh, The Life of Benjamin Waugh, (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1913), 306, as cited in Cunningham, Childhood in Western Society, 153.

[13] Hendrick, Child Welfare, 28.

[14] Lydia Murdoch, Imagined Orphans: Poor Families, Child Welfare, and Contested Citizenship in London (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2006), 83.

[15] Harry Ferguson, ‘Rethinking Child Protection Practices: A Case for History’ in Taking Child Abuse Seriously: Contemporary Issues in Child Protection Theory and Practice, ed. The Violence Against Children Study Group (London: Unwin Hyman: 1990), 132.

[16] Fuchs, ‘The State’, 143.

[17] Jose Harris, Private Lives, Public Spirit: A Social History of Britain, 1870-1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 75.

Bibliography

Behlmer, George K. Child Abuse and Moral Reform in England, 1870-1908. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1982.

Cunningham, Hugh. Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500. Second Edition. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2005.

Ferguson, Harry. ‘Rethinking Child Protection Practices: A Case for History.’ In Taking Child Abuse Seriously: Contemporary Issues in Child Protection Theory and Practice, ed. The Violence Against Children Study Group, 121-142. London: Unwin Hyman: 1990.

Fuchs, Rachel G. ‘The State.’ In A Cultural History of Childhood and Family in the Age of Empire, ed. Colin Heywood, 129-147. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010.

Harris, Jose. Private Lives, Public Spirit: A Social History of Britain, 1870-1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Hendrick, Harry. Child Welfare: Historical Dimensions, Contemporary Debate. Bristol: Polity Press, 2003.

Hendrick, Harry. Children, Childhood and English Society 1880-1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Murdoch, Lydia. Imagined Orphans: Poor Families, Child Welfare, and Contested Citizenship in London. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2006.

Electronic resources

Benjamin Waugh Biography. Accessed 13/11/16. – http://www.oxforddnb.com.oxfordbrookes.idm.oclc.org/view/article/36787

John Everett Millais, ‘Bubbles; A Child’s World.’ (1886) V&A Museum. Accessed 13/11/16. –
http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O75697/bubbles-a-childs-world-print-millais-john-everett/

Photograph of Benjamin Waugh, Wikimedia. Accessed 13/11/15. – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BenjaminWaugh2.jpg

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