Childhood and the State in Victorian Britain

Alison Lotto, Class of 2008

During Winter Break 2007–08, I was able to travel to London on an Evalyn Clark Memorial Travel Fellowship. I was given an amazing opportunity to do archival research for my thesis “The Cry of the Children: Childhood, Family and the State in Victorian Britain.” My thesis focused on the Children’s Charter (1889), one of the first British laws that directly addressed child abuse. The research that I needed to do centered around case reports of children who were abused, personal papers of important reformers, and the papers of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), the most important organization involved in the passage of the charter. Specifically, I was looking for examples of the way reformers discussed child abuse, and the use of particular terminology in child abuse cases to develop a concept of children’s rights against their parents and allow for state protection of those rights. I was also interested in seeing the negotiation between the NSPCC and branches of the British government around the passage of the Children’s Charter and the role of the NSPCC in the reporting and prosecution of child abuse cases.

First, I visited the British Library to look at a number of hard-to-find published documents written by the NSPCC and other reformers. I was able to look at the NSPCC’s journal specifically aimed at children, along with a number of texts written during the period discussing the Children’s Charter and its effect. I also looked at the personal papers of Angela Burdett-Coutts, an important reformer who wrote to Parliamentarians and other politicians about the formation of the NSPCC. The papers of Lord Shaftesbury, the first President and Patron of the NSPCC, also provided an interesting context for reform. Most importantly, I was able to look at correspondence between Rev. Benjamin Waugh, the head of the NSPCC and the most active voice in the reform movement, and different significant figures. It was incredibly useful to see the things that he was arguing for and also to see the influence that Waugh had over changes in the law.

I spent the majority of my time in London at the NSPCC archive. It was fascinating to be in the building of an organization that I studied closely in the first years of its existence, which is still a massive and important children’s organization in the UK. I was able not only to see their documents but also to appreciate firsthand the passion and purpose that the people who work there have for the prevention of child abuse and the improvement of children’s lives. With the help of their amazing archivist, I was able to look at their journal, The Child’s Guardian, which turned out to be one of the most important sources for my thesis. I also looked at The Cruelty Man, a text written by an NPSCC inspector that provided important context and specific cases as well as their descriptions. Unfortunately, most of their actual case files have been destroyed, so I was not able to look at them, but I did get a sense of the types of cases they prosecuted and the role these cases played in the promotion of their organization and changing understandings of child abuse.

In my last few days in London, I went to the National Archives, where I was able to look at case files. They were quite hard to find since the titles are difficult to identify, but I was able to see a lot of interesting cases. It was really amazing to read the actual words of inspectors who visited abused children and to see the signatures of children underneath their statements. While these cases were quite difficult to use, they gave me an incredible perspective on the issue and were amazing sources. While there, I was also able to look at more correspondence between Benjamin Waugh and different government offices, which showed me the political maneuvering that allowed the bill to pass.

My trip to London materially changed and improved my thesis. It was invaluable to see the personal correspondence, cases, and even the marginal notes of Parliamentarians as they negotiated the bill. I gained a new respect for the members of the reform movements and a better understanding of how pressing and significant the issue was to people at the time. There is nothing more moving than reading the case of a young girl who was sexually abused by her father for years, and seeing in the file that she was now living happily with her aunt and going to school—and that her father was in jail. The direct experience with the documents allowed me to connect with my topic on a much more important level and provided me with new and more interesting arguments. Because of this trip, I was able to see the important role that rights played in this issue, and my thesis is significantly more nuanced, deeply researched, and exciting.