In 1900 children were legally viewed as little adults; they could smoke and drink alcohol but could also be sent to adult prisons. In poorer families, they were often obliged to work. A 1900 survey into child labour in London showed 25% of all children aged 5-13 had part time jobs or worked at home making goods like brushes or paper flowers. Children from poorer families often missed days from school to work. Girls in particular, were needed at home to care for younger siblings. It was legal for children to start full time work at just 12.
The 1870 Education Act obliged local authorities to provide primary education for all children aged 5 to 11. The 1902 Education Act established Local Education Authorities that also provided secondary schools. However places were limited and fees charged, so few working class children attended. For children of the upper and middle classes, school was already a fact of life. Dame Schools taught younger children reading and writing. Fee paying grammar schools offered lessons for older boys. Girls whose families could afford it were usually educated at home. Lessons were often limited to languages, music, sewing and house-keeping skills. The sons of the upper classes usually attended public schools like Eton and Harrow, before going on to university at 18.
The 1908 Children's Charter enshrined childhood to the age of 14; children under this age were legally minors. However, many children still finished their education aged 11. After school, poorer children worked in semi- or unskilled jobs. For boys, factory work was common, for girls it was domestic service. This was particularly hard as they would live away from home and not see their families for months at a time. Programmes of social reform after the First World War and a trend for smaller families improved life for poorer children. There was more time for play and in some neighbourhoods the streets were filled with children.
For children from wealthier families, money didn't always mean an easier life. Girls, with limited education, frequently had few prospects beyond marriage. For boys, schools were strict and corporal punishment was common. Childhood ended at 14 or 15 with an apprenticeship in a trade or office. Apprentices worked long hours for little pay. Even for the upper classes, childhood could be difficult. Boys as young as seven were sent away to boarding schools and cold dormitories, bad food and bullying were common.
In the 1930s, a focus on individual development began to replace the strict educational style. There were trips to the theatre and museums, for those who could afford it. For poorer children, better pay and conditions for workers made family holidays more common, with a week at Southend or a fortnight hop picking becoming an annual treat. In the 1930s, pocket-money also became a widespread occurrence. The Friday Penny was usually spent on sweets, comics and penny toys.
The Second World War disrupted life for most London children. 600,000 were evacuated from the city in the opening days of the war. Many lived with families in the country and attended local schools. The mixing of children from different backgrounds broke down many social barriers. For children who stayed in London, life was disturbed by bombing raids, nights spent in shelters, bombed out schools and a lack of teachers. However, food rationing and a better diet meant that the health of London children improved.
After the war, advances in medical care further improved children's health. Childhood diseases like measles and diphtheria were treated with vaccines and were no longer a major cause of death. In 1911, 10% of babies born in the UK had died before their first birthday. This fell to 3%. The N.H.S. , the Welfare State and the replacement of inner city slums with new council housing all had a positive impact on children's well-being. A post war economic boom created full employment and better living standards. For children, there was less need to work and more pocket money.
The 1950s saw the emergence of the Teenager, as some children rejected school and prolonged childhood. Youth cultures grew amongst young people in their middle to late teens in their first jobs but with less responsibility and more disposable income to spend on fashion and music. Linked to this, during the 1950s and 60s crime amongst children doubled. A major area was joyriding, possibly influenced by the desire to acquire the trappings of adulthood. Youth culture was particularly attractive to wealthier children, at school until 18. It was a way of expressing maturity.
As youth movements became more political in the 1960s and 70s, they became more visible. In 1972 the National Union of School Students was founded. Strikes were organised against corporal punishment and for the right for girls to wear trousers. London was a centre for activity.
By 1980s, schools had become more liberal and more respectful of children's rights. However, social change was affecting children's lives in other ways. There were teachers' strikes and rising unemployment meant financial hardship. Petty crime, race riots and a growing drugs culture were all problems for children. Many parents became very protective. Playing in the streets began to decline and children had less freedom than earlier generations. Another change was the increase in single-parent families. Previously, most children's parents were married and divorce was less common. By 1991, 19% of children were based in lone parent families
Children's habits continued to change in the 1990s. More exams led to more pressures at school and for university places. The popularity of junk food and the decline of sports in schools also affected childhood health. Children had more pocket money than ever before but spent much of it on mobile phones, computer games and fashions. However, more teenagers are going out to work, taking part-time jobs in the pressure to keep up with 21st century trends.
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