Redefining Childhood

Thomas Horsfall’s ideas about childhood were influenced by thinkers and movements from before his time. Childhood during the time of industrialization in England was a vastly different concept than childhood during past decades. Beginning with the middle of the eighteenth century, people began to think of Childhood in new ways. A long-held belief about childhood was that of the Puritans, who felt humans were born sinful, and that childhood was a perilous period. Much of the early literature includes ideas about “saving children’s souls through instruction and by providing role models for their behavior.” (Perceptions of Childhood). Then, the idea of childhood shifted to represent more positive connotations, such as energy, innocence, and malleability, to name a few. This seemingly new idea that children were flexible from a young age actually came from Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his On Education from 1762, he “maintains that children are innately innocent, only becoming corrupted through experience of the world.” (Perceptions of Childhood) A later school of thought emerged through the Cult of Childhood in the late nineteenth century. This group held on to the nostalgia of childhood and produced literature with the protagonist remaining childlike, such as Peter Pan from the early twentieth century.

With the creation of a large working and labor class, children were incorporated into jobs in mills and factories, among other places. This meant that their lifestyles changed dramatically, as they became concerned with the production of goods and making the most money for their time, rather than on being in school or learning about the world or having a more relaxed childhood. In the Sadler Commission Report from 1832, many people who had worked in factories as a child shared their experiences and working conditions. Children often worked from 5 am to 9 pm, and were dragged out of bed every morning by their parents—sometimes still asleep. Lateness meant punishment in the form of beating, and it was reported that one could hardly be in the mill without hearing children crying. There was little to no time to be at home with one’s parents or to receive instruction from them, and children often tried to run away from the mills. Also, for the most part, girls endured the same treatment as boys.


James KendrewVictoria Primer, 1840.

The “The Victoria Primer of First Book for Children,” was created in 1840. This book is a type of schoolbook, focusing on Language Arts. Primers were derived from early prayer books and often taught things like the alphabet and lessons on morality and social conduct. Working class children may or may not have had some connection to a primer like this, depending on where they lived and who was educating them. In the Quarry Bank Mill, for instance, religion was taught multiple times a week in a classroom style setting. Children there also learned the alphabet and penmanship. In relation to my work, the evidence of such a primer and other support from secondary sources shows that there were efforts to educate working-class children, however futile those efforts may have been is another question.


MacLagen, Ragged School Rhymes, 1851

When school was a factor in one’s childhood, it was inconsistent and lacking quality. There was no such thing as free education for everyone. One of the types of school systems, called Ragged Schools, sometimes provided basic lessons and food and taught children moral guidance, but not all did this much. This was done in the time before education was provided by the British government. These Ragged Schools grew in number over the course of the nineteenth century, beginning with 16 around 1844 and increasing to 176 schools by 1861. (Hidden Lives) Industrial Schools, on the other hand, were for those children whose needs were more desperate, they aimed “to instill in the children the habit of working and to develop the latent potential of the destitute child.” (Hidden Lives) The image on the left, published in 1851, shows a book of songs and poems that may have been put together for Ragged School pupils. However, it could have also been made for philanthropists and patrons as a sort of promotional material for the work that the Ragged Schools were doing.


Antonio Piccinni, Five Poor Children in School, 1872.

The next source is a sketch titled “Five Poor Children in School,” created by Antonio Piccinni in 1872. This source is interesting because it comes just after the Education Act of 1870, which made the Crown responsible in part for education in elementary schools, “The Act established a minimal system of national primary education in the control of county school boards which were permitted to levy taxes to establish schools for children ages five through thirteen.” For poor families, more often than not they went to school for a few months but then left or were forced to leave out of necessity to help their family with labor. For middle and upper-class families, however, it is likely that they used their wealth to separate themselves from the lower, working class children, “British middle- and upper-class education took place in private schools which—whatever their social atmosphere—provided much better instruction than that available to working-class children. Care was taken to set tuition for these private schools sufficiently high to avoid unwanted ‘mixing of the classes.” It was unfortunate that some working class children were not able to get a consistent education of quality. When children did go to school though, if they could not afford it sometimes they or their family would substitute labor for instruction. In this image particularly, the children have no writing materials or books, and do not look engaged.

Horsfall’s ideas of education and childhood were influenced by things like the Education Act of 1870, the Sadler Commission’s Report, and ideas from Rousseau, among others. He wanted to make art accessible to them as much as he could, as a means of personal improvement for the children, “A very large proportion of the children in all our large towns are almost entirely ignorant of the appearance of flowers, trees, birds, and other beautiful objects of nature, of some of which the names are known to them, and are equally ignorant of all beautiful and interesting things made by men.” (Horsfall, 13) Horsfall believed that an ignorance of beautiful things, whether knowingly or unknowingly, affected one’s character until one could be shown beautiful things. As far as Horsfall’s work with children was concerned, he lent some of the collections in the Manchester Art Museum to schools for children of all ages, which affected a large number of the children in Manchester and Ancoats, “The departments to which pictures are lent form considerably more than half of the whole number of school departments in Manchester, so that more than half the boys and girls of the town now feel the influence of the Art Museum.”. (Horsfall, 14, 17) By having access to beauty through art, and knowledge and education through school, Horsfall’s aims to improve Manchester started to become a reality, beginning with the most malleable and impressionable of citizens—the children.


Written by Jenny Volanti

Redefining Childhood