Are Modern Expectations Around Childcare and Parenting Skewed?


School closures instill fear and stress in many parents. Image by jdurham

School and daycare closures often elicit very emotional responses from all sides. Parents get cross with teachers, teachers get cross with parents, and parents get cross with each other. Arguments seem to focus around whether parents – and mothers in particular – no longer want to take responsibility for their children, or whether teachers and schools are doing their jobs.

At the heart of the issue, however, are the economic and social pressures on families, and the perceived role of children in our society. Looking at childcare arrangements in Victorian Britain might help to put things in perspective – and question traditional ideas about parenting.

The Perennial Dilemma of Working Parents

The most obvious reason that the average modern working parent resents unexpected school closures is not because they do not want to spend time with their children, but because unforeseen closures result in problems taking time off work, especially at short notice.

This will vary according to one’s job, and it is arguably much harder for those who have frontline positions (nurses, doctors, police, teachers, emergency workers, etc.) or who are at the bottom end of the labour market, with less rights and stricter work conditions.

Currently, in the United Kingdom (UK), Conservative Ministers promote the idea that schools should offer a much longer day, as long as 45 hours a week, as well as shorter holidays, and that the government should deregulate childcare provision to make it more accessible and affordable.

Theoretically, this helps working families, and those who struggle with the high costs and often complicated  logistics of childcare might welcome this. However, education experts warn that deregulating childcare providers could potentially harm the wellbeing of children.

The first problem concerns the need to find extra pay for teachers and school staff. Such long periods of time in school are, in actual fact, counterproductive to learning because they are tiring for staff and children; school is not a glorified form of babysitting.

Or is it? It is now an accepted social rule that adults cannot leave children unattended. Educators, health professionals and social workers tell us that even teenagers can suffer from prolonged lack of supervision. This was not always the case.

State schools, as we know them today in the UK, did originate in many ways during Victorian times as a kind of official, state-sponsored child-minding institution; the purpose of which was to prevent children who were too young or just too unruly to work for pay from roaming the streets and getting into trouble.

Their transformation was also part of the regulation of society’s relationship with its children to ensure its functioning. Looking at the social backdrop of mass schooling, some very familiar issues seem to crop up.

The Realities of Victorian Childcare and Social Reform

The aristocracy employed wet nurses and nannies to look after their offspring for centuries. In Victorian Britain, the wealthy middle and upper classes employed governesses to mind the children while mothers pursued various social activities such as charity endeavours and social visits.

Upper class children often saw their parents at set times, and spent most of their childhood with various servants. The children typically took their meals in the kitchen or the nursery away from the adults.

Victorian urban working classes had, by and large, lost the extended family network which was often available to rural communities. The children of the poor, who unfortunately, were the majority, had the following options: they could expect to work from as young as five years old; left in the care of anybody who would look after them, either out of the goodness of their heart or for a fee; or simply left to fend for themselves.

Predictably, these arrangements made social and private tragedies commonplace. Children often suffered fatal accidents in hazardous work places, or while left unattended, like the three-year old who perished drinking scalding water from a kettle while his mother was at work. Their caregivers often neglected and abused them.

Eventually, the case of the very bad abuse of a young girl from New York by multiple, haphazard foster ‘carers’ reverberated across the Atlantic and prompted the Protection of Children’s Act of 1889 and the start of child protection organisations like the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) in the UK. Prior to this, adults would face more sanctions in law for maltreating an animal than a child or baby.

Baby Farmers


Women who had conceived out-of-wedlock suffered terrible social stigma and economic hardship. Image by DuBois

The horrors of baby farmers summed up the lethal consequences of the lack of regulated social provision, women’s rights and labour protection legislation in Victorian times.

On top of the age-old stigma of single motherhood, since 1834, the law held single mothers solely financially responsible for the maintenance of their ‘bastard’ offspring in order to promote their morality and punish them financially as a deterrent.

Even the workhouses might be closed to these ‘fallen‘ women. For those from the lower classes in particular, this meant starvation, prostitution or worse. Many killed their own babies, and faced certain execution if discovered.

Others turned to baby farmers, who offered to look after the children for a fee, until they found them a new family. Often what the baby farmers actually did, particularly in the case of poor mothers, was to starve the toddlers and babies slowly so they could get their fee for as long as possible, then let the children die. There was no new family.

Eventually, the case of Amelia Dyer, the most notorious and murderous baby farmer, prompted authorities to  start regulating adoption and baby farming. Suspected of killing at least 400 infants, she murdered her charges instantly.

The tragic irony stemmed from the fact that Dyer, a former nurse and a widow, was herself a single mother unable to support herself following the birth of her child; baby farming offered mother and daughter a way out of poverty and the workhouse. Dyer’s execution was in 1894.

Teenage Gangs


Youth gangs armed with knives and sticks were responsible for frequent violent crime in Victorian times. Image by Friedel

The youngsters who survived childhood in the 19th century and lived to see their teens also posed problems for the emerging and fast-developing urban areas. While parents were at work, teenagers were either in factory lodgings themselves or just roamed the streets, surviving hand to mouth.

Youth gangs were rife, with frequent violent fights which often resulted in members being horrifically injured, often fatally. The press and politicians called for sterner discipline, while social observers and entrepreneurs identified a need to make the country economically stronger and the workforce more efficient.

To this end, the 1870 Education Act introduced state-provided secular education. Since poorer working parents resisted this because they needed their children to work, state schools became free of charge in the 1890s and education compulsory up to the age of 10.

It was not until later decades that the modern notion of child development and, crucially, the importance of nurturing parental presence became common assumptions; the compulsory education age wasn’t raised to 14 until 1944.

Modern Parents and the Education System

So whether we are teachers, frustrated parents, disgruntled childless members of the public, dismayed at others’ attitudes to childcare, or anyone fed up with schools’ regulations; we may draw comfort from knowing that our ancestors had a much tougher time of it. The current system, flawed as it is, resulted from hard-won fights to replace something much worse.

Revellers, Rebels and Resistance: Politics of Carnival

Image by Alvimann.

Caribbean Carnival is a ritual which transcends time, space and culture. Image by Alvimann.

‘Carnival is the control of a space by people who do not have control of it normally’… It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, if you have a carnival where people take over the streets … it is an important event and a dangerous event to any government.’ —Michael De La Rose, British Author.

To most tourist spectators, Carnival in the Caribbean is essentially an exotic event from Europe. Christians celebrated this time as a prelude to the restrictions of Lent; involving fancy dress, drink, frenetic music, dancing, often scantily-clad people cavorting in the street. The colonised people and slaves later adopted the customs.

And yet, the essence of Caribbean Carnival is much more complex; it is really a rich canvas painted by the local people of colour over the centuries, and a tribute to the black cultural diaspora. Carnival was originally a pagan custom with roots in ancient Rome and ancient Egypt; so in a sense it has come full circle as a cultural event with African roots.

In Jamaica and the Bahamas, during the 18th century, the slaves were only allowed open celebrations of any kind immediately after Christmas; and they celebrated from 26th December with the street masquerades called Jonkannu, or John Canoe. This celebration derives its name from the French ‘L’Inconnu,’ or the unknown (masked) man. Jonkannu celebrations involved groups of masqueraded slaves who gave themselves mighty themes and names linked to mythology, heroes, rulers and Native American tribes. They also had self-styled Kings and Queens.

Carnival as Afro-Creole Culture Building

Around the same time, in the 1760s, white and French creole colonists introduced Carnival to Caribbean colonies and to New Orleans. The colonists celebrated with indoor masked balls. The best known instance was in Trinidad, which then exported itself back across the world to the United Kingdom in 1965 in the shape of the Notting Hill Carnival, and so returned to the Old Continent almost two hundred years later in a new, reinvented version of itself.

In Trinidad, Carnival’s first day, or Jouvert, from the French Jour Ouvert (Open Day) started in the early hours of Monday and consisted of the Canne Broulees (burnt Sugar Canes)  parade, eventually known as Canboulay. Whites and Creoles re-enacted the slaves’ missions from one plantation to another to stop burning canes. They dressed and actually made themselves up to resemble black African slaves, carried burning torches and long sticks, and sang.

After emancipation, however, the newly freed Afro-Caribbean population re-inverted the inversion. They embraced their former masters’ class-conscious celebration and turned it into a street masquerade, or ‘Mas.’  The Black Caribbean population now mocked the mockers, re-enacted the Canbulay, and in doing so appropriated it. They added enthusiastic stick-fighting dances, or Kalinda, and the singing of Caiso, or ‘joyous songs,’ by female street singers known as Chantwelles, or ‘singing birds.’

The Kalinda soon turned into a local event in itself, an actual real street fighting discipline, and Kalinda contests and champions flourished. Training for stick fighting eventually blended and morphed into Cricket training, almost a century later.

Soon after, Carnival in Trinidad became more of a street affair, appropriated by the lower black social class. It became known as Jamet Carnival, or, according to the Anthropologist Richard D Burton, the ‘Carnival of the Plebs.’ The street people organized it as an expression of irreverence and also a chance for the more deprived population to express its discontent. Authorities banned stick fighting and Carnival celebrations were subject to curbs from the 1850s to almost the end of the 19th century.

The Afro Caribbean Time-Travelling Court

Carnival continues as a mirror of social trends and aspirations of the Black Caribbean culture that nurtured it.
Caiso became Calypso, and, just like in Carnival’s parades and New Orleans’ Krewes, Calypso’s musical stars gave themselves mighty, powerful and highly symbolic stage-names: Conqueror, Destroyer, Roaring Lion, Pharao, Black Prince, Duke, Mighty Sparrow, and so on.

Calypsonians are irreverent and, not unlike the European court jesters of old, are able to speak truth to power. Celebrants speak many true words in jest, or, indeed, in Calypso lyrics. Equally, during Carnival, from Trinidad to Jamaica, Brazil, New Orleans, Venice, Nice, and London’s Notting Hill; ancient warriors, Native American Chieftains, modern politicians, Kings, Queens, mythological figures and deities of old mingle, parade and cavort through the streets side by side to the sound of drums, steelpans and joyous singing.

Carnival is also a focus and a mirror for Caribbean and Afro-American society and its contradictions and conflicts. In the post war period, Steel Pans took over from Stick Fighting as the new means of sublimated posturing; both against each other as against those who represented authority, such as the police, for example. Carnival floats came to represent more and more political themes and eventually, in the 1960s and 1970s, Black Power and African Pride subjects.

Carnival became an independent cultural expression in the Caribbean after emancipation. Image by wintersprite.

Carnival became an independent cultural expression in the Caribbean after emancipation. Image by wintersprite.

A Tale of Two Women and One Vision

The immediate post WWII period also saw the crucial movement of Caribbean migrants into the United Kingdom aboard the Empire Windrush in 1948, when the old colonial power asked its then subjects in the Caribbean for help to rebuild itself after the devastation of the war.

Ten years later racial tensions caused riots in the UK and, here again, Carnival came to the rescue as a colourful social glue.

Two London women, Claudia Jones and Rhaune Laslett, separately managed to conjure up a mighty vision of cultural and social harmony by organizing a social event the magnitude of which they probably would not have predicted: the Notting Hill Carnival.

Both women worked as committed social activists: Claudia Jones was of Trinidadian descent and a Communist, and Rhaune Laslett was a former nurse and a social worker from the East End of London, of Russian and Native American descent.

One envisioned a cultural celebration as an empowering, interactive street event, one more of an English Fete with cultural bonding.

Crucially, both had in mind social solidarity through cultural celebration. Though they never actually knew each other, their combined vision survives and uplifts thousands to this day. Here are once again the ingredients of Carnival, which produced something new from the old, across space and time.

As a reveller puts it:

‘The Carnival did more to bring whites and blacks together than anything else..nothing had ever seen so many people gather at ease than at the Carnival….We’ve got to express a new way of relating to the host society, and there also was this need to express control anger which Carnival could do that as well…’

Performer, NHC

The Notting Hill Carnival has endured controversy and racial tension, but people celebrate it to this day in London every August Bank Holiday (the last weekend and Monday in August), and each year it is bigger than ever. Carnival is a true allegory for the Black Diaspora, the Afro-Caribbean cultural journey across space and time, and above all human endurance.