Childhood in England in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

Childhood in England in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries


The United Kingdom is one of the nations that has given special attention to the welfare, education, and health of children throughout history. The paper will pay particular attention to the social construction of modern childhood in England in the early 19th and 20th centuries. In regard, the research will look at historical recordings between 1880 and 1914 to define childhood concerning social construction.

According to Ilias and Akter (2017), childhood encompasses the period from infancy to adolescence and ends at the beginning of adulthood. It thus entails all the activities such as a child’s social, spiritual, psychological, and physical development. In retrospect, childhood contains a child’s innocence, events, and maturity. Social construction, on the other hand, refers to the understanding of childhood in the context of the adults and the society around them. For example, James and Prout (2015) in their research on Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood contend that “Adults composed childhood – both the institution and construction of -; usually those of the professional middle class” (p.35). In other words, social construction signifies the role of society in the development of childhood.

Nevertheless, other scholars tend to understand childhood in the biological context. In this respect, Cunningham (1998) claims that biology profoundly influences child development and the interaction between the child, parents, and the environment around them. This particular research will consider the social construction perspective in understanding childhood.





The current dominating view of childhood in different studies has been socialization and development James and Prout (2003). These pair only viewed children as passive, incomplete, natural and incompetent in which, these brought about closure in important questions concerning theory as well as empirical research. These two brought about ideas which in other fields of social sciences are considered obsolete and underproductive James and Prout (2003). In this study, we aim at coming up with an alternative view which has compiled more innovative and recent information. Drawing from social constructivism, we took on the cultural, political and historical perspective of childhood while from the interactionism view; we gathered that children are agents in, and products of, social processes Leena (1988). This study considers the irreducibility of childhood to a given biological reality.


  1. To investigate childhood sociology
  2. To research the historical development of childhood in England as contained in political documents and
  3. To rethink childhood sociology from the view of social construction, political context and interactionism view

Research Question

To meet the aim and the objectives of the research, the following question will guide the study:

  1. From the parliamentary debates, legislative newspaper reports, journals, and reports by the national and local government, what is the political view on childhood development concerning health, welfare, and education in England in the period 1884-1914? The research sources provide information that is informative about the situation of childhood welfare, education, and health in the 19th century.



Literature Review

In the historical period, childhood first gained research consideration and understanding when Aries published the book, Centuries of Childhood in 1973. In his view, society viewed children as young adults thus refuting the concept of childhood (Aries 1973). Aries claim has since stirred debates by historians from both the modern and classical times. In respect, the literature will consider the contentions of different researches on sociology and history to underpin the understanding of childhood and social construction Whitehead (2013).

In this consideration, the research will consider the views of Kehily (2004) in her book, An Introduction to Childhood Studies as the first literature to expound on childhood ideas. According to Kehily (2004), historians first understood the concept of childhood in Europe in the period beginning the First World War. Kehily further indicates that childhood was recognized in the context of child welfare and health. She thus asserts, “Child poverty and ill health produced a significant shift in the economic and sentimental value of children. Over a fairly short historical period, the position of working-class children changed from one of supplementing the family income to that of a relatively inactive member of the household in economic terms, to be protected from the adult world of work and hardship” (p.2). Her observations give a record of child labor that was imminent in the classical period in the development of children. Before the economic shift that abolished child labour, children worked to provide for their economic welfare as well as that of the siblings (Kehily 2004).

Looking at how the primary sources will answer the research questions, we will consider different researches both from the current and the historical perspective to bring about a clear view from all the areas. Like for example, James and Prout (2015), in his works ‘constructing and reconstructing childhood’, looks at the sociology of childhood. This, therefore, gives more insight into the continuities of childhood in the late 20th centuries.

In 1889, the parliament in England passed their first act that prevented the cruelty against children. According to information in (Batty 2019), the act was known as the children’s charter, and it enabled the intervention of the state in matters relationship between the child and the parents. The provisions in the act included the protection of children against employment and outlawed begging as a means of supplementing the household income. Nonetheless, the shift, especially in the 20th century, allowed children to rest from such labour and to be cared for by elderly adults (Pugliese 2009). As such, children would be understood as people to be protected and cared for by parents and adults in society (Pugliese 2009).

Elsewhere, Steedman (1995) would reveal in his research a similar idea as contended by Kehily. According to Steedman, childhood is a reflection of adulthood. For instance, during childhood, one takes time to understand self and make self-discoveries that would guide the adult life. How childhood is treated reflects on the perception and perspective of an adult in creating a critical life decision. The process of childhood development affects children and development of adults in the profound measure. Equally, they need protection and guidance, which bring up the role of parenthood during childhood as depicted by the social construction theory. Based on the construction, James and Prout (2015) give the details of the social context and development of childhood. They further underscore the paradigm emergent of childhood in the early 20th century.

The Guardian newspaper detailed the timeline for childhood policies have protected children over the ages. Batty indicated in his article that in 1894, the children’s charter act was amended to provide them with the opportunity to present evidence of abuse in a court of law. Mental cruelty and the denial of a child’s healthcare marked critical dimensions of the act (Batty 2019). In 1908, the Children Act established the system of foster parenting and warned against any form of sexual violence against children (Batty 2019). The incest act was a crucial act that gave the state the mandate to intervene in such instance taking their jurisdiction from the clergy.

Moreover, Melville in his 1992 book, Name of the Child discusses the social construction of children from the health perspective. Melville (1993) addresses the significance of medical health in the development of children. In her view, medical care forms an integral part of childhood welfare. From another perspective, Cunningham (2005) gives an intense analysis of continuity of childhood from the middle age to the post-war period. He outlines the idea of childhood in the sense of continuity and fundamental changes that occur with the development of the ideology.
















The Significance of the Problem

The inclusion of gender, race, and age in the study of childhood from the perspective of the social constructionist theory is critical in understanding the perception of childhood from a multi-spectrum angle (Shuttleworth, 2004). Besides, researches have not given an in-depth study of childhood based on national, medical, and scientific discourses. More intriguing is the legislative study concerning childhood. Shuttleworth (109) contends that while there have been studies on the various forms of legislation, “There remains space, however, for a legal historian to explore the ways in which this mass of legislation, with its diverse range of constantly shifting demarcations of childhood, worked to alter conceptions of the child in the nineteenth century.”

The primary sources seek to add on the information concerning children and the perception of childhood throughout history in England, United Kingdom. Studies indicate the rights of children in contemporary society but do not detail the conceptual development of such ideologies throughout the 19th century (Prout & James 2015). Children and childhood is a critical aspect of the human society, and therefore the research seeks to elaborate on the elements that have influenced the concept over time (Melville 1993). It is critical to understand the history of children, the political, social and economic aspect that influenced their growth in 19th century England to comprehend their present situation and plan for a better future. In the view, therefore, this research will explore political documents with the necessary legislation from the period of 1880-1914 to define childhood to fill the gap.





This research majorly considers the historical development of childhood from the legal perspective using the political approach. As such, the study will employ content analysis on relevant legislative materials such as parliamentary papers, political papers, publications by the UK government, and internet materials. According to Elo et al. (2014), content analysis can provide critical historical insights over a long period through a careful analysis of texts. In that manner, therefore, content analysis will be most suitable for this project.

Moreover, the method considers communication through texts and transcripts, which is the principal aim of the research (Elo et al. 2014). The research will sample the materials to identify the most relevant literature for analysis. In turn, the research will use the materials to answer the study question.

Political history and constructivism will give an understanding of childhood and its construction from the political perspective and surface the major ideas surrounding childhood in the period as mentioned earlier. Nevertheless, the inability to access necessary text materials for the study may limit the findings of the research. For example, the research would want to use some confidential literature materials such as the parliamentary legislation, which may seem hard to access.









Ariès, P., 1973. Centuries of Childhood Harmondsworth.

Batty, D. 2019. Timeline: a history of child protection. [Online] Available at [Accessed 2 Apr. 2019].

Cunningham, H., 1998. Histories of childhood. The American Historical Review, 103(4), pp.1195-1208.

Cunningham, H., 2005. Children and childhood in western society since 1500. 2nd ed. Harlow, England: Pearson Longman (Studies in modern history)

Elo, S., Kääriäinen, M., Kanste, O., Pölkki, T., Utriainen, K. and Kyngäs, H., 2014. Qualitative content analysis: A focus on trustworthiness. SAGE Open, 4(1), p.2158244014522633.

Ilias, M. and Akter, R., Social history of childhood and children: a note on the cultural and historical differences in childcare. IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 22(7), 54-59.

James, A. and Prout, A., 2003. Constructing and reconstructing childhood: Contemporary issues in the sociological study of childhood. Routledge.

Kehily, M.J., 2004. Understanding childhood: an introduction to some key themes and issues. An Introduction to Childhood Studies, pp.1-22

Leena, A., 1988. Rethinking Childhood. Acta Sociologica,31(1), 53-67. Retrieved from

Melville, M.B., 1993. In the name of the child: Health and welfare 1880–1940: edited by Roger Cooter. Routledge, London, 1992. 292 pp.(hardback).

Prout, A. and James, A., 2015. Constructing and reconstructing childhood: Contemporary issues in the sociological study of childhood. Classic ed. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group (Routledge education classic edition series). pp.7-227

Pugliese, G., 2009. Reading children: constructions of childhood in England’s nineteenth-century children’s periodicals, 1855–1875. The State University of New York at Binghamton.

Shuttleworth, S., 2004. Victorian childhood. Journal of Victorian Culture, 9(1), pp.107-113.

Steedman, C., 1995. Strange dislocations: childhood and the idea of human interiority, 1780-1930. Harvard University Press.pp.1-218

Whitehead, C., 2013. Museums and the construction of disciplines: art and archaeology in nineteenth-century Britain. A&C Black.