From social control to coercive control: A reflection on 16 Days of Activism Against Violence Against Women and Girls

In August of this year, the multi-agency partnership, Empowered, in East Dunbartonshire, approached the Centre for Gender History to take part in the council’s events to mark 16 Days of Activism, an international campaign against gender-based violence. Rose Elliot from the Working-Class Marriage in Scotland project team, and Hannah Telling, a PhD student in the Centre for Gender History at the University of Glasgow, worked with the Empowered partnership to contribute to the launch of the campaign at a local school, Bearsden Academy, on 25 November, and run a workshop on masculinity and crime in Victorian Britain on 5th December with learners in HMP Low Moss, part of the New College Lanarkshire Learning Centre.


The 16 Days of Activism campaign dates from 1991 when it was started by the Women’s Global Leadership Institute coordinated by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership; it runs annually from November 25 (International Day Against Violence Against Women) until December 10th (International Human Rights Day).[1] The start and end dates symbolise the point that violence against women is a violation of human rights, and is made possible by structural as well as personal inequalities. We did a presentation in Bearsden Academy to an S3 Assembly and a more informal workshop with self-selected male learners at HMP Low Moss. The events were structured differently for each audience, but our central argument was the same: there is a continuum in the perpetration of domestic abuse across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the exact manifestation reflecting gendered norms and the rights which women have at any given point.

If one surveys the progress of women’s rights from the nineteenth century to today, the story would appear to be a positive one, and in many ways, for the young women in the audience we spoke to at Bearsden Academy, it is. Men and women, on paper, have equal rights in law, and equal opportunities in education, employment and parenting. And yet, statistics suggest that, in Britain, women in full-time work are paid on average 13.9% less than men[2]; that women still do the lion’s share of child-rearing and domestic work; and still face life-threatening violence within their intimate relationships. Crown Prosecution Service statistics on Violence Against Women and Girls demonstrate that, on average, two women are killed by their partner or ex-partner every week; the police receive an emergency call relating to domestic abuse every 30 seconds; domestic abuse cases accounted for 14.1% of all court prosecutions, and 92.1% of defendants were male and 7.9% were women.[3] Further, as Evan Stark has argued, where physical violence exists, it is more often than not part of a larger framework of gender-based control including psychological, sexual and financial abuse, often over a long period of time and shaped at an individual level by knowledge that the perpetrator has gained about the victim’s weaknesses.[4] The UK government recognised in December 2015 that coercive control is a crime.

For historians, these developments are notable. Much of the way domestic violence is rendered today involves the dominant partner, usually the man, controlling things in the private sphere which were previously governed through a range of legal, cultural and political processes and legitimated gender-based inequality. Thus, in the nineteenth century, women were restricted in what they could wear, where they could go, who they could consort with and what kind of behaviour they could indulge in and still be considered respectable. In 1911, Glasgow Parish Council, in common with many others, believed that ‘every girl born into the world is endowed by nature with an instinct for virtue. Women’s highest asset is an unsullied character’.[5] This ideal of virtue and the default positioning of women in the domestic sphere for biological reasons underpinned the sexual double-standard and women’s economic and legal inequality, inequality which was only slowly chipped away at over the twentieth century. Whereas social purity reformers in the nineteenth century sought a higher moral standard for men, by the twenty-first century, women’s sexual liberation is routinely commodified for male consumption. At the Bearsden Event, another speaker showed a series of adverts which sexually objectified women and the latent sexism in society became overt. The gendered standards which women were held to in the nineteenth century have morphed into a different set of gender-based, equally damaging, expectations, despite advances towards legal equality.


In both the event at Bearsden Academy and at HMP Low Moss, we used a range of historical images, prescriptive literature, court cases and newspaper articles. At HMP Low Moss, we were particularly keen to get participants’ impressions of nineteenth-century masculinity and the links with domestic violence, rather than convey our own analysis. This approach was fruitful: within the first quarter of an hour, participants had discussed elite masculinities in the practice of duelling, the notion of the ‘rule of thumb’ (the idea that men could legitimately beat their wives with something no wider than their thumb), the context and location of violence in history and the way in which it could be normalised. Using the source materials, we broadened out to discuss the ways in which social and gender norms were constructed in the media historically and perpetrators and victims could be presented to uphold these norms.

Where domestic violence occurred in the nineteenth century, men were often excused on the grounds of provocation and the misdemeanours of their wives. In this court testimony from 1882, for example, Thomas Kinnear justified his violence to his wife by linking it to her failure to keep a nice house and budget for the family, minimising his harm to her:

‘I did not live very happily with my wife. She obtained drink with the money I gave her for housekeeping. She neglected the children and used very coarse language. I have given her a push when the house was dirty, telling her to go away and clean it up … but never a push that could have hurt her’.

Thomas Kinnear, 1882[6]

In middle and upper class households, educated men distinguished themselves socially by refraining from leaving bruises and broken bones on their wives. Edward Reid refused to allow his wife into the kitchen, locked her in the attic and chained her bed to the fireplace so that she could not light a fire. The court testimony states that ‘[H]e not only withheld from her the comforts and conveniences entitled to their social position, but refused to supply her with the bare necessities of life’. He defended his actions on the basis that his wife had ‘drunken habits’; she was the one transgressing respectability in his eyes, justifying his treatment of her (provocation in different words).[7]

But for most ‘respectable’ people, Victorian social norms worked to keep a wife in check for fear of loss of status and reputational damage, rather than through fear of chastisement from her husband. It is therefore striking that, decades after women’s emancipation, the Crown Prosecution Service guidance on Coercive control covers many things which women have historically fought against: preventing someone from working, attending school or college; controlling their access to money; being the one to define all roles; making all the big decisions; treating someone like a servant; taking control of what they can eat, wear and when they sleep; controlling what someone does, who they talk to, what they read, limiting outside involvement, controlling movement; putting someone down, name-calling, humiliation, reputational damage – among other things.[8] In today’s society where men and women have equal rights, on paper at least, coercive control moves the power hierarchies into the private sphere in multiple and complex, subtle and more overt, ways.

The manifestation of some aspects, such as buying clothes as gifts (which the recipient then has to wear, regardless of her own tastes), accompanying one’s partner out (all the time and/or regardless of whether they wish this), talking to one’s partner (when they are trying to study, watch TV or sleep) and checking they are safe (tracking them via their phone or texts or phone calls) are recognised culturally to be an expression of love and/or protection (if one ignores the bracketed subtext). Context is everything. The very invisibility of techniques of interpersonal governance makes them all the more insidious. The discussion at HMP Low Moss covered the visibility of violence in nineteenth-century working-class tenement homes and close-knit communities, among other things, and the availability of support networks for women to seek refuge, at least temporarily. Tellingly, one participant noted that ‘today, they would just turn up the radio [at the sound of domestic violence]’. But if the violence is silent, there is nothing to hear.

We are grateful to the Empowered partnership and to the New College Lanarkshire Learning Centre at HMP Low Moss for inviting us to be part of 16 Days of Activism in East Dunbartonshire. No-one, least of all us, has the answer to the issues raised here, except to continue to raise awareness and break the silence.

[1] Accessed 13 December 2016.

[2] Accessed 13 December 2016. This does not take into account that many women are in part-time work and may take time out of the workplace for childcare reasons.

[3] Crown Prosecution Service, Violence Against Women and Girls Crime Report, 2016 Accessed 13 December 2016. These figures do not include a range of other gender-based offences such as rape and sexual assault, forced marriage and female genital mutilation, as well as stalking and harassment aimed at women.

[4] Evan Stark, Coercive Control: how men entrap women in personal life. Interpersonal violence stories (2007)

[5] ‘A Great Social Evil in Glasgow by authority of the Parish of Glasgow’, 1911

[6] National Records of Scotland (NRS), CS46/1883/49/2.

[7] NRS CS46/1883/63/2

[8] Accessed 13 December 2016.

The Story of a ‘Fallen Woman’: Reflections on Family, Narratives and Archival Sources

As oral historians, we are often confronted with the scepticism of those who use conventional archival sources and to some extent rightly so. Historians, who use oral history research, including this project team, are aware of the myriad problems a respondent’s narratives can create.  A tendency to nostalgia, misremembering exaggeration, and the influence of the interviewer on the respondent’s storytelling through to an individual’s attempts to compose their memories to allow them to feel comfortable within themselves and about their past in an interview situation are just a few of the issues. What are less likely to be acknowledged are the ways in which oral histories can reveal the problematic nature of archival material, as the story of Mary McKenna demonstrates.

The telling of Mary’s story has been passed through several generations of my family and is in itself a construction of her past shared between Mary’s sister, her daughter and myself, her granddaughter. My mother, Mary’s daughter Ann, recounted how her mother was born in 1899 in Glasgow to second-generation Irish Catholic parents who lived in the south side of the city. Her father had a small coal merchant business and was an illegal bookmaker which allowed the family to live in relative comfort. Mary’s brothers worked alongside their father. However, Mary’s mother died when she was just sixteen years old and from family archival records I know that she had left home by the time she was twenty, perhaps even before then, and that she was employed as a waitress in Glasgow city centre.

Very little is known about Mary’s life because she died when my mother, Ann, was only ten years old and Mary had also become estranged from her family. Ann recollected how she had nursed her mother through cancer, and was initially in her father’s care but his behaviour meant that she was subsequently removed from his custody. Her father, who drank before his wife’s death, seemingly turned to alcohol to get over the bereavement. He was also taking male friends home and Ann was sexually assaulted. She was then sent to live with an aunt who claimed that she was an unruly child and placed her in the care of Nazareth House orphanage. Ann remembered with sadness how her father had passed by her window at the orphanage every evening until he died when she was fifteen years old.

Ann knew that Mary had been married twice and had obtained this information from her birth certificate which listed her mother as a divorcee. However she was told by her mother’s sister that Mary had been given a special Catholic dispensation to divorce her first husband to marry Ann’s father. Ann was not really sure why the first marriage had ended but believed that cruelty was involved.

Being a historian of domestic violence and marriage breakdown I was curious and therefore I sought out some archival material relating to my grandmother. The archival records pertaining to Mary McKenna tell a somewhat different story from that narrated by my mother and her aunt. Mary had married her first husband, William Jack, a Protestant Scot, in the Church of Scotland in 1921. She seems to have been living at his address, although because of Glasgow’s tenement structure and the large number of lodgers amongst the working classes, it is difficult to say whether they were residing in the same home and if so whether they were cohabiting. She was certainly not living at her parental home and the marriage does not seem to have been condoned by Mary’s father as it is her older brother James whom she cites as her father in the first marriage certificate.


An accidental find in the archives allowed me to see that the marriage seems to have been an unhappy one from the outset. The couple did not reside together as man and wife until six months after their wedding when they took possession of a rented house in Parkhead, in the east end of Glasgow. Whilst living there, Mary was prosecuted and jailed for thirty days for the crime of reset or rather possession of stolen goods. After her release from prison the couple moved to Dovehill Street in Glasgow’s city centre, a slum area. In all they resided together as man and wife for eighteen months until they finally split in October 1923. According to William Jack’s testimony, Mary was associating with other men and this is what led to arguments and the final breakdown of the marriage.

In 1924 Mary approached Govan Parish Council and made a poor law application for relief which stated that she was a deserted wife, was destitute and pregnant and that she had converted on her marriage to Protestantism. In Ann’s telling of her mother’s story she identified Mary as having been a Catholic all her life. She was aware that her mother had had two stillborn children but she assumed that the children were her father’s, Mary’s second husband. This is not to suggest that Mary did not have two stillbirth children to her second husband but that a part of her pregnancy history may have been concealed from Ann, my mother, because if the testimony of William Jack is to be believed, the child was not his.

William Jack was contacted by Govan Parish Council in 1924 and although he claimed that his wife was adulterous, he had paid the rent for the room she was lodging in for several months in advance but he had also refused to give her any money for food and necessities because they were no longer living as husband and wife. Mary, on the other hand, claimed that the marriage was unhappy because of her mother-in-law’s interference. Certainly her husband worked and resided with his mother and they seem to have been very close. However from these records apparently the couple had remained in contact after the supposed break-up. We can only assume that sometime thereafter Mary found employment or some other means of sustaining herself because William Jack was not compelled by Govan Parish Council to maintain his wife.

Knowing that it was more difficult for Catholics to divorce, I deliberately targeted this divorce record as part of our sample of separation and divorce records for the Working-Class Marriage project. The divorce record corroborated the idea that Mary was adulterous during the marriage. It seems that she had moved to Greenock sometime between 1924 and 1931 where she met and was cohabiting with James Smith of 46 Weir Street. Her husband and two witnesses testified to this effect and Mary admitted this in the divorce action. The divorce record also states that there were no children to the marriage.

However, this archival record is riddled with lies and inaccuracies. There was no James Smith because shortly after the divorce Mary married James Armstrong of 46 Weir Street, with whom she had been cohabiting for at least over three years. In Scot’s law the guilty party of an adulterous marriage was not allowed to marry the person they had had an affair with. It seems likely that William Jack and Mary collaborated in the lie because they both wished to escape the marriage.

It is also unlikely that there was a Catholic dispensation to divorce given to Mary as narrated to Ann by her aunt. It was William Jack, not Mary, who filed for the divorce on the grounds of adultery. In addition, James Armstrong and Mary were married by a minister of the Church of Scotland at Ladyburn Manse in Greenock, so she was moving from one ‘mixed marriage’- as these marriages were known – to another ‘mixed marriage’, neither of which would have been recognised by the Catholic Church because the ceremony was not conducted by a priest within the sacramental rites of Catholicism. However the second marriage certificate indicates that Mary may have been reconciled with her family as her father’s name, Peter, rather than that of her brother James, appears on the section of the marriage certificate identifying the father.

It is also unlikely that Mary converted to Protestantism as the Govan Parish records suggest based on information Mary had given them because whether unbeknown to her husband, James Armstrong, or not, Mary had her only child baptised Catholic and was buried after her death in a Catholic ceremony. Yet, irrespective of this, their child was raised to all intents and purposes in the Protestant tradition of her father until her mother died and she was removed from her father’s care to that of her Catholic relatives.

Because Mary did not contest the divorce, her version of the marriage remains untold so that we can only read between the lines of her marriage breakdown and subsequent marriage to James Armstrong. Nor do we know whether Mary carried the child she was pregnant with in 1924 full term and had it adopted or whether she lost the child to miscarriage or stillbirth, and we do not know if the father was indeed William Jack as they had remained in contact. Ann died apparently unaware of these ‘facts’ about her mother whom she idolised. What little she knew of her mother’s relationship history had been created by her Catholic aunt, her mother’s sister. In the narrative that her aunt and then Ann composed, Mary became a victim of abuse from a nameless, faceless man and the Catholic Church sanctioned her escape, allowing her to marry a man whom she loved and who cherished her and all the while she was apparently able to maintain her Catholic faith.

However I, Ann’s daughter, was not so fortunate. I had been raised with a romanticised and nostalgic view of my dead grandmother Mary. She was presented as a perfect personification of womanhood and mothering that fitted with feminine expectations from her historical era. Therefore the material from the archives was initially difficult to come to terms with. I experienced some shame and I was slightly embarrassed because I had made my grandmother’s hidden history public amongst my colleagues, yet I also felt a deep pity and sadness for a woman whom I understood to have had a difficult life, but also a woman whom I had never known personally, although she was my grandmother.

So my grandmother was apparently a ‘fallen woman’ destitute and a criminal too! Why should this concern me: I am a historian of marriage and marriage breakdown and a feminist and so I should reject such discourses as far too simplistic? Indeed she was to all intents and purposes a wonderful mother and she had had cohabited and was then married happily to my grandfather from 1927 to 1950 when she died. Moreover, Mary’s story of a complex relationship history is not that exceptional as our research has uncovered.

However I also realised at this point the difficulties respondents might face in revealing such personal family histories in a public forum when perceptions prevail that unhappy marriages, adultery and marriage breakdown were far less common in the past than they actually were, especially those that are further complicated by historical ideas about good woman and female virtue. In fact we have used a wide variety of archival records and we have published numerous articles which show that bigamy, cohabitation, adultery, family desertion, separation, divorce and illegitimacy were very much everyday experiences for a significant number of men and women in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Scotland.[1] Indeed desertion and bigamy were regarded as the ‘poor man’s – or in Mary’s case, woman’s – divorce and often involved cohabitation with a new partner, and therefore adultery, and frequently what were called ‘adulterous children’ or rather illegitimate children because many people could simply not afford the costs incurred by a divorce.

What I also came to appreciate is that, while the narrative of Mary’s life provided comfort for a child who had lost her mother, the untruths allow us to consider and unpick the inter-relationship between religion, gender, class and inter-generation in the re-telling of family histories of marriage and marriage breakdown. Indeed a part of me wonders whether my mother did know the ‘truth’ about her mother’s past and was perhaps, given her own upbringing, too ashamed to reveal it even to her own children, especially her daughters.

The family narrative was full of half-truths and inaccuracies, but so too were the archival sources. This highlights the importance of triangulation and subjecting all sources to the same rigorous treatment that oral history narratives are exposed to. As well as historical ‘facts’, we also have to seek out of the archival material and the oral narratives the ‘untruths’ to evaluate their significance to our understanding of the past as Mary’s story demonstrates.


If you have stories of broken families for the period from 1850 to the 1970s and you wish to share them with us, please contact either Andrea Thomson or myself, Annmarie Hughes, at the following:

[1] See, Eleanor Gordon, ‘Irregular Marriage: Myth and Reality’,  Journal of Social History, 47 (1) (2013), pp. 1-19; Annmarie Hughes, & Jeff Meek,  ‘State Regulation, Family Breakdown, and Lone Motherhood: The Hidden Costs of World War I in Scotland, Journal of Family History 39,  2014, pp. 364-387; Eleanor Gordon, ‘Irregular Marriage and Cohabitation in Scotland, 1855-1939: Official Policy and Popular Practice’, The Historical Journal Volume 58 / Issue 04 / December 2015, pp 1059-1079; and Rosemary Elliot, Annmarie Hughes and Jeff Meek, ‘Working-class family breakdown and the First World War in Scotland, Scottish Labour History, Vol.50, 2015, pp.141-159. Please note there are also a series of workshop papers delivered by the team which are available by clicking the link to our dissemination page.

Header image: ‘The Outcast’, Richard Redgrave, 1851

From Institution to Intimacy: Courtship, Marriage and Marriage Breakdown in Historical Perspective, c.1650 to 2000

On 12 and 13 September 2015, the History of Working-Class Marriage in Scotland research project hosted an international symposium: From Institution to Intimacy: Courtship, Marriage and Marriage Breakdown in Historical Perspective, c.1650 to 2000. The symposium brought together over a dozen international academics whose work engages with the history of emotions, courtship, marriage and marriage breakdown. Our intention was to challenge and reconceptualise our understandings of these concepts across time and space. We were delighted to welcome a panel of both established and relatively new researchers, whose papers were engaging and provoked considerable discussion which challenged our understandings and framings of intimacies and relationships historically.

The symposium was organised around the history of emotions and considered what related theoretical perspectives add to our understanding of intimate personal relationships. Our geographical focus was far-reaching and we heard papers examining themes relating to Europe, Asia, and North America, which enabled us to note some fascinating similarities and differences in how individuals and societies experienced a diverse range of emotional bonds. This wide-ranging geographical approach enabled detailed engagement with cross-regional and cross-cultural perspectives across a range of topics such as same-sex intimacies and relationships, courtship practices, contracting unions, informal relationships, marriage intimacies, bigamy and marriage breakdown. The experience of diverse ethnic groups was also explored.

The subsequent discussions prompted project members to consider how the history of working-class marriage in Scotland is situated within an international dynamic, and how working with colleagues from across the globe can offer substantially more nuanced understandings of emotions and relationships.

Part of our symposium was a Postgraduate Masterclass on the history of emotions, courtship and marriage, which attracted Masters and PhD students also currently working in this field. The opportunity to discuss their research with a panel of historical experts was greatly appreciated by all attendees, as was the opportunity to probe the minds of our panel. This session offered the chance to engage with related themes, concepts, discourses and sources, in order to better understand how the historian might skilfully navigate narratives of love, romance, courtship, and sexuality. The Masterclass was recorded, and is now available to watch here.


We would like to thank all of our attendees for their valued contributions, and the Arts & Humanities Research Council, the Australian Research Council Centre for Excellence for the History of Emotions, the Economic History Society, and the University of Glasgow for supporting this symposium.

The History of Childhood

Part of the Working-Class Marriage Project research focuses on the role of the family within experiences of childhood, and the way in which the family may affect the history of childhood and our understanding of childhood experiences. The following is a brief discussion of some of the key texts that help to form a foundation for anyone interested in the history of children and childhood.

The history of childhood, like many sub-genres of social history, has been of increasing interest to historians since the 1960s, 1960 itself seeing the publication of one of the most influential books in the genre – Philippe Ariès’ Centuries of Childhood. Ariès’ book came at a time when there was no other book on the history of childhood in print in English or French; in fact, it had only been preceded by one other work, long forgotten, The Child in the History of Progress (1916) by George Payne.

In Centuries of Childhood, Ariès made the contentious claim that the concept of childhood is entirely modern, and that within medieval society the idea of childhood did not exist. Further to this, he also made the claim that childhood was not understood as a distinct stage of life until the 15th century, and prior to this point children were seen merely as ‘little adults’. Ariés’ work faces a comprehensive critique, and several individual works have been dedicated to directly refuting his claims (for examples see Shulamith Shahar’s Childhood in the Middle Ages, and Medieval Children by Nicholas Orme). However, despite the decline in the significance of Ariès’ work, Centuries of Childhood did offer, for the first time, the idea of an ‘invention’ of childhood, as well as drawing attention to the role of children within society and the family, and changes in the parent-child relationship.

The idea of a ‘discovery’ or ‘invention’ of childhood has been used by a number of scholars who argue that childhood was discovered in line with a “surge of sentiment” and the emergence of the nuclear family in the eighteenth century (Edward Shorter, Making of the Modern Family, 1976). Prior to this, historians such as Edward Shorter and Lawrence Stone (The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500 – 1800, 1977) argue that early childhood and parenting were characterised by a lack of emotional attachment between parents and their children due to the high infant mortality rates, alongside formal and affectionless rearing techniques, such as the practices of swaddling and wet-nursing. However, the majority of these arguments have been both contested and countered by a number of historians, not least of which is Linda Pollock, who stated in Forgotten Children: Parent Child Relations from 1500 to 1900 (1983) that loving relations between parents and children were the historical norm.

One of the main criticisms of the works of Ariès, Shorter and Stone stems from their use of secondary material in assessing childhood, leading to a common problem in the history of childhood: the difficulty in accessing the direct experience of children themselves. This issue was partly addressed by Paul Thompson, a pioneer in the field of oral history, who stated in his seminal work on the topic, The Voice of the Past: oral history (1978), that the use of oral history meant that “the history of childhood as a whole becomes practicable for the first time.” The 1980s witnessed a new direction in studies of the history of childhood, with the likes of Stephen Humphries taking Thompson’s approach in his Hooligans or Rebels? An Oral History of Working Class Childhood and Youth, 1899-1939 (1981), and John Burnett accessing the experience of the child via their own writings in Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s (1982). The increasing use of primary materials in the history of childhood reveals a much less repressive experience of childhood. The importance of understanding the lived experience of children is an on-going issue in the history of childhood and one that my own research is also seeking to address in relation to the impact of family life.

Despite this emerging interest in the history of childhood as a distinct historical genre, there was still an observable shortage of works by the early 1990s. Writing for the Economic History Society’s ReFRESH in 1992, Harry Hendrick argued that while women had been “hidden from history”, children had been “kept from history” and had still received inadequate attention in the field. Whilst there had been child-centred research in to particular topics, the history of childhood itself was still a relatively understudied area. Family history (itself an arguably under-studied topic), Hendrick continues, remained the only subject to consider children as serious, albeit passive, historical figures. Hendrick’s brief article, ‘Children and Childhood’, is an engaging short piece that discusses and reviews emerging and established histories on the concept of childhood, the position of the child in society and the family, and changing parent-child relations – offering a concise overview of the history of children and childhood.

In addition, Hendrick built on his brief assertions in the article with the publication of Children, Childhood and English Society, 1880-1990 (1997), just a few years later. Taking a thematic approach, Children, Childhood and English Society draws not only from historians and historical material in its evaluation of the evolution of some of the most important developments in adult-child relations during the 20th century, but also utilises sociological, anthropological, and psychological theories in its findings. Hendrick’s work not only offers an overview of the existing literature on children and childhood at that time, but also highlights the necessity of an inter-disciplinary approach when attempting to understand our ‘modern’ ideas of childhood.

In a similar approach to Hendrick, Hugh Cunningham’s Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500 (2005) goes beyond the earlier question of whether parents loved their children, and offers an insight into the role of society in our understanding of children and childhood, looking at the impact of: religion, the Reformation, the Renaissance, and industrialisation. The Invention of Childhood (2006), which accompanied a six-part radio series produced by the BBC for Radio 4, goes further and draws extensively on primary materials such as letters, diaries and oral histories in an attempt to offer a chronological overview of the experience of childhood in Britain over the last 1,000 years. Narrative in its treatment of the topic, Cunningham’s book highlights the importance of primary material in offering a much-needed depth to the history of childhood, but also raises interesting questions in regards to the future of the concept of childhood. Together, Cunningham’s two main publications offer a comprehensive chronological survey of childhood in Britain and the West since the Middle Ages.

The history of children and childhood is still a burgeoning field and the above is far from a comprehensive list of the books on the topic. There are still some considerable gaps in the historiography, not least of which is the role of the family in experiences of childhood, alongside a general understanding of childhood experience in Scotland.

Further Reading

Ariès, Phillipe. Centuries of Childhood: Enfant et la vie familiale sous l’Ancien Régime. Translated by Robert Baldick. London: Cape, 1962.

Burnett, John. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s. London: Routledge, 1994.

Cunningham, Hugh. Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500. 2nd edition. London: Longman, 2005.

Postgraduate Masterclass 12 September 2015

From Institution to Intimacy: Courtship, Marriage and Marriage Breakdown in Historical Perspective, c.1650 to 2000


In association with AHRC History of Working-Class Marriage in Scotland Project, University of Glasgow, ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, University of Adelaide & Economic History Society

Postgraduate Masterclass in the History of Emotions, Courtship and Marriage, c. 1650-2000

Saturday 12 September 2015, 3.00pm-4.30pm, Lilybank House, Bute Gardens, University of Glasgow

This free-to-attend Masterclass offers postgraduate students an opportunity to engage with a panel of academics from across history and the social sciences on how the history of emotions, courtship, relationships and marriage shape and inform our understandings of intimate relationships over the course of the period 1650-2000. This session will offer opportunities to engage with themes, concepts, discourses and sources to better understand how to navigate narratives of love, romance, courtship, and sexuality.

Our panel will include:

    • Katie Barclay, Research Fellow in the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, University of Adelaide
    • Helene Carlbäck, Associate Professor in History, Södertörn University
    • Julie Hardwick, Professor of History, University of Texas
    • Jeff Meek, from the AHRC Project, A History of Working-Class Marriage in Scotland
    • Penny Morris, Lecturer in Italian, University of Glasgow
    • Julia Moses, Lecturer in Modern History, University of Sheffield
    • Mary O’Dowd Professor of History at Queen’s University Belfast
    • Christina Simmons, Professor, Emeritus of History and Women’s Studies, University of Windsor
    • Andrea Thomson, from the AHRC Project, A History of Working-Class Marriage in Scotland
    • Ruth Vanita, Professor of Liberal Studies, University of Montana
    • Garthine Walker, Reader in History, Cardiff University

Spaces for this Masterclass are limited so we welcome expressions of interest in participation which should include your postgraduate status and a brief summary of how your research interests link to the themes outlined above. Expressions of interest should be sent to Dr Andrea Thomson at by Tuesday 1 September 2015. Please note places at this event will be confirmed by Thursday 3 September 2015.

A History of Working-Class Marriage in Scotland, 1855-1976:

 ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions:

Centre for Gender History, University of Glasgow:


Women, the vote and electoral politics: From segregation to inclusion?

There has been some publicity given in recent weeks to the fact that 9 million women did not vote at the last election. At first glance this seems a very concerning issue and one which suggests that women are becoming more politically alienated than men, or alternatively, that they are politically more apathetic. However, it is important to set the figure in context, almost 8 million men did not vote at the last election and it is only since 1992, that the percentage of women who vote has demonstrated a falling trend. As is usual in these situations, there has been a tendency to assume that women are the problem, hence the focus on the 9 million women rather than the 8 million men. In fact the difference between the percentage of men and women voting is not so great. At the last general election, 64% of women voted and 67% of men. In order to engage women, we have seen the parties adopt various strategies to entice women to vote for them, including the launch of the pink bus and Harriet Harman’s promise to bring ‘politics to the school gate and the shopping centres’.

This approach relates to women voters in a way that emphasises the difference between men and women and has a long pedigree. The early suffragists often laid claim to the vote by arguing that because of women’s ‘special qualities’, their enfranchisement would create a more civilised and moral society. The suffragists capitalised on contemporary political concerns about the health and welfare of the nation which emphasised the importance of motherhood in improving the quality and quantity of the nation, by arguing that women’s expertise in this area justified their participation in the state. They also argued that women should be responsible for issues such as public sanitation and housing. As Millicent Fawcett, a leading suffragist argued, ‘We want the home and the domestic side of things to count for more in politics and in the administration of public affairs than they do at present’.

Although there were many different suffrage organisations, the majority of suffragists subscribed to the view of the distinct and separate nature of women, that is, women were equal but different, and they sought equality in difference. For only a small minority was it a means to bringing about a more radical transformation in gender identities and in the meanings of masculinity and femininity. Far from challenging contemporary notions of the female nature, the majority of suffragists were anxious to display their feminine traits and to distance themselves from the few ‘advanced’ women who cut their hair short and adopted a masculine mode of dress. Suffragists were sensitive to charges of being ‘unwomanly’, ‘harridans’ and ‘harpies’ and took care over their appearance, particularly when appearing in public. Lady Francis Balfour remembered that Millicent Fawcett defended one of their number, who had been criticised for her public remarks, by observing ‘besides she looks so nice’. In fact the London Suffrage Association allowed only docile and attractive women to sit at the front at public meetings.

The emphasis that the early suffragists placed on the differences between men and women reflected the realities of the many women’s lives, particularly the middle-class women, who comprised the majority of the suffrage movement. The vast majority were not employed for a wage, and domestic duties were their primary, and sometimes sole, concern. The reality of the majority of women’s lives has changed dramatically in the last hundred years or so. Although women continue to shoulder most of the responsibility for child care and care more generally, and the gender pay gap still exists 45 years after the Equal Pay Act, the vast majority of women work, there are more and more female breadwinners and there has been some cultural shift in attitudes to family roles. Any campaign to involve and engage women needs to do so in ways that reflect the structural, material and cultural realities of their lives and the broad spectrum of political issues that concern women. Conversely, issues such as domestic violence, childcare etc. should not be bracketed as ‘women’s issues’ but ones which concern everyone if we are to move to a genuinely inclusive society.

Indeed, it is only by seeing traditionally ‘women’s issues’ as part of the general picture that there is any hope of addressing the structural inequalities which beset both men and women’s lives and are multiplied when other forms of disadvantage exist. While the ‘group hug’ was heralded in the press as perhaps one way that women can change the face of politics, the relative absence of any non-white, non-able bodied faces across the campaign remains an indication of how far we have to go in that direction.

The rapid demonization of Nicola Sturgeon as ‘the most dangerous woman in Britain’ echos arguments a century ago which derided suffragettes and ‘advanced’ women as ‘harridans’ and ‘harpies’ unfit to participate or negotiate on equal terms.

Beauty & Intellect are superior to Brute Force

Whatever your political persuasion, it remains the case that what the suffragists and the suffragettes fought for, Nicola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennet and Leanne Wood embody. Similarly, women’s groups such as the UK and Scottish Women’s Budget Group  offer proposals which both address women’s proportional inequality and suggest economic and social change to benefit everyone, regardless of sex. These are voices which, a hundred years ago, would not have been heard. Whether they are heard today remains to be seen.

Immigration and Elections, Then and Now

As the 2015 General Election approaches, immigration has become a central feature of political discourse, a trend increasingly evident over the past decade or so. Immigrants and immigration have been discussed in each of the ‘leaders’ debates’, and have crept into the manifestos of all major parties. The emergence of UKIP as a new, minor, political force in Britain saw immigration become a hot potato, with each of the major parties giving more space to discussions of immigration. Recently, the Labour Party caused some controversy by revealing a party mug for sale which is emblazoned with party ‘Pledge 4’: ‘Controls on Immigration’. The Conservative Party have reiterated their desire to clamp down on so-called benefits and health tourism. According to UKIP leader Nigel Farage parts of Britain have been ‘taken over’ by foreigners, leaving areas of major towns and cities ‘unrecognisable’. Worse still, according to UKIP, economic migrants were stealing ‘British jobs’ and ‘British benefits’.

While Scotland has a relatively liberal voice on immigration in this on-going debate, this has not always been the case. A century ago the main focus of the hysterical anti-immigration lobby in Scotland was the Irish. Irish migration into Scotland had peaked in the late 19th century, and by 1911 there were around 175,000 Irish people living in Scotland; 4% of the population. Throughout this period immigrants were the subject of discriminatory discourses, being accused of changing the face of Scottish towns and cities, corrupting our language, and ‘bleeding’ our welfare dry. Then, just as now, critics of immigration were unable to provide incontrovertible evidence to support these claims. An editorial in the Dundee Courier from May 1923 lamented the increasing threat the Irish posed to Scottish workers, and called for stricter controls over our borders. In a letter to the Dundee Evening Telegraph, from May 1929, ‘Scoto Scotorum’ lamented that if Irish migration – and it seems reproduction – was not checked Scotland would become swamped and its glorious heritage lost for future generations. In another letter from the same edition of the Dundee Evening Telegraph, ‘Pro Patria’ claimed that Irish Catholic immigrants were stealing bread from the mouths of Dundonian families, with ‘hundreds of Scotsmen in Dundee alone idle and looking for work: men who have paid rates and taxes in their own native town for years back, yet ‘Pat’ can come and get the work from under their noses’. Substitute ‘Pat’ for Polish joiners or Romanian fruit pickers and we see a trend here.

Just as immigrants in Britain today have been used as political fodder and sometimes as scapegoats, the Irish in early 20th-century Scotland faced the same fate. John Gilmour of the Scottish Unionist Party, who was later to become Home Secretary, promised if elected to ‘send back to their native land those people who, either lazy or incapable of contributing anything to our economic life, come over here, often purposely, for the sake of parish relief’. Reid Miller, a Tory candidate for Shettleston, who ran a vitriolic campaign against John Wheatley of the Independent Labour Party in 1924, also whipped up fear by claiming that unless Irish immigration was more strenuously regulated Scotland would fast become ‘merely a colony of the Irish Free State’. Critics of Irish immigration were not limited to fear-mongering politicians and pseudonymous letter writers. Reverend Duncan Cameron of the Church of Scotland was a fierce opponent of immigration from the Irish Free State. Cameron saw Irish immigration as the ‘tragedy of the Scottish race’.

Just as extremist political movements in Britain have fixated not only upon ethnic origin but religion too, much of the opprobrium directed at the Irish related to their Roman Catholicism, and links were also made between Irish immigrants, Roman Catholicism, and political agitation. The Free Church of Scotland saw a threat not only from immigrants’ religion but from ‘Romanist’ political influence, which it hinted had led to the formation of a ‘socialist’ government in 1923. According to an article in The Scotsman, from July 1928, a strain of thought dominated in Scotland which saw the Irish as ‘a pestilential lot who make it their business to stir up strife in politics and industry’. Here we see the immigrant not only as a ‘job snatcher’ but one who occupies the fringes of so-called religious and political extremism.

Such anti-Irish rhetoric was by no means universal, and letters pages also contained counter arguments, but these were in the minority. The pejorative discourse on Irish immigrants demonstrates that concerns over immigration over the last century tend to be very similar no matter who the immigrant is, or where they are from. The immigrant is perceived by some to be a threat to ‘indigenous’ culture, religion and politics with alarmist predictions offered by the likes of ‘Scoto Scotorum’, ‘Pro Patria’ and the rest, that the Irish would soon smother Scottish society. Yet this vitriol ignored the fact that in places such as rural Angus, Irish labour was instrumental in supporting agriculture, while in the central belt the economic success of the Second City of the Empire owed much to Irish immigrant workers who provided the labour force for much of the unskilled work in the docks, mines and shipyards whilst receiving low pay that forced them to live in poor quality housing. The argument that immigration poses a serious threat to Britain is nothing new, and just as disingenuous as it was 100 years ago, but it still gets used as a political football, which dehumanises the thousands of men, women and children who contribute significantly to the nation’s social, cultural and economic life.

Child Sexual Exploitation: An Historical Perspective

The recent appearance of Trevor Phillips, the former head of Britain’s Commission for Racial Equality and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, in the Channel 4 documentary, Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True made headline news in the media and on the internet. He was applauded by many on the right as a brave individual but others are more sceptical about his views on the relationship between race and crime and his inferred support of racial profiling of criminal activity. Phillips’ views linking race and crime come hot on the heels of the recent series of high profile convictions and inquiries into child sex grooming by Asian perpetrators in Rochdale, Rotherham and Derby and other areas of England. The victims were white working-class girls and young women, identified as vulnerable due to their social environment.

The media has made much of the fact that it has been suggested that, in Rotherham in particular, the authorities were disinclined to take action because the victims were white and the perpetrators black. However, this ignores the fact that in most of the recent high profile cases of historical abuse those involved are wealthy and powerful white men who exploited vulnerable children who were then silenced by disbelief and fear. It also ignores the fact that many young Asian women have been the victims of abuse by black and white men.

Historically concerns over child sexual abuse emerged in Britain around the 1870s driven by the Social Purity Movement and the media and drew attention to the exploitation of girls by wealthy white men, but increasingly the focus shifted towards race. In 1909, for example, Glasgow Parish Council published a report entitled, A Great Social Evil In Scotland, drawing attention to a ‘seething gulf of sexual depravity through the seduction of young girls’, many of school age. The report conducted by James R. Motion, Glasgow Parish Council’s Inspector of the Poor, was based on a decade of personal investigations and criminal proceedings brought to court by the Parish under the Children’s Act (1908). It detailed the extent of child sexual exploitation of young girls by wealthy men from the city’s office district, in hotels frequented by the middle classes, in middle-class suburbia and in taxis paid for by wealthy men. Young girls were seduced by the men who offered them relatively large sums of money for sex. The Parish also uncovered sex grooming operations, one run by two local men, involving up to twenty girls, many under twelve years of age. The girls were lured by flattery, small sums of money and even bread and jam. These two men were prosecuted but those from the office district, suburbia and the wealthy more generally were not. It was believed that their conduct, performed in ‘private’ could not be confirmed as Scottish law requires two forms of corroborated evidence.


As well as a ‘slum dwelling class of men’, fathers, kin, neighbours, taxi drivers, artisans, clerks and students were also identified as having sex with underage girls. The majority of these girls were deemed to come from dysfunctional homes in which over-crowding, poor environment and incompetent parenting meant they had lost all innocence thus making them susceptible to temptation. Most of the men were not prosecuted because of lack of evidence. Neither were the Brazilian sailors who were accused of sexually exploiting over twenty girls, most of whom were under the age of consent. The sailors had been docked in one of the city’s ports but had left by the time the evidence came to light. They were said to have groomed the girls by providing chocolate, scarves and cheap jewellery. Ignoring the wealth of his own evidence which showed many powerful Scottish men were sexually exploiting children, Motion lamented that it was ‘truly remarkable the enormous influence some of these foreigners exert for evil over women belonging to this country, whose downfall they have accomplished’. He maintained, the worst offenders are foreigners, by which he meant Italian, Jewish and Irish immigrants, although he qualified this by observing that, ‘for our own reputation we would like to believe this at all events’.


Debates, investigations and prosecutions of contemporary and historical cases of child sexual abuse are to be more than welcomed, but to concentrate on racial profiling, on the experiences of working-class white girls and geographically on Greater Manchester masks the catalogue of forms of sexual abuse endured historically by young people across Britain irrespective of their class, gender, race and geography. It also detracts from the reality that neither class nor race explains the incidence of child sexual exploitation; rather it is the deviant conduct of individuals and groups of perpetrators.

The Valentine that never was?

As historians, we weave together stories from the evidence we have; we know that this evidence is only part of what there ever was, and that there are ‘gaps’ and ‘silences’. So we analyse what we have and look for evidence to fill these gaps. Over the summer and autumn months, we invited members of the public to tell us their story, and many did. We have gathered photographs, interviews and written testimonies, which we will be analysing and building on over the next few months. It was a wonderful privilege to be given such personal material and we have a responsibility to work carefully with it.

The value of oral histories, often accompanied by photographs, mementos and personal treasures, is that they allow a person to explain what was and is important to them. Building up this collection will provide us an unprecedented insight into marital and family life in 20th-century Scotland. But it raises questions about the hidden stories, and these are the ones we will also be thinking about in coming months. The hidden stories are the ones which, for many reasons, are not told or we do not know. The past disappears faster than we can catch hold of it, and with it, something of ourselves.

For some years, I have had in my possession a letter – very short, written on a small piece of parchment paper, undated. One of the recognitions from the project, albeit possibly an obvious one, is that – while policy discussion focuses on divorce and ‘broken’ families – the death of a spouse is still the most common reason for the end of a marriage. For the generation who were of marriageable age in both World Wars, death or loss of a suitor may have meant no opportunity to marry at all. The letter is from someone called Raymond to Jen; he writes – I kissed this when I sent it; I hope to kiss it again soon. And then he adds, in capitals – PS. FORGIVE ME.


The letter came into my possession when my great aunt died. The small letter was folded neatly in a small jewellery box, a box which was literally falling apart at the seam. In another small box, there was an RAF tie pin; there were also cufflinks and another tie pin in the shape of a horse shoe. One can only surmise that these belonged to Raymond. I know nothing about Raymond; I know very little about Jen, aside from that she was my grandfather’s cousin, she was never married, and she was spoken about with affection. Generational and geographical distance and a fragmented family mean she was mostly a name and a face known briefly in my childhood. And yet, she knew and cared enough about me to make sure that something of her life came into my hands. And even though her possessions arrived in a supermarket carrier, somewhat crumpled and passed through several hands, there was, well-hidden in there, the letter that she had obviously kept and treasured for many decades until her death. And so it sits in my drawer, meaning at once nothing and everything in the world.

Jen’s story, that of women (and men) who loved and lost, is replicated many times over. It reminds us that it is not only the complete stories which make up the history of marriage, but the fragments too. Not only the whole families, but the ‘broken’ ones, and the ones that were never made. Because these too, speak in some way of love, of loss, and oftentimes, are to be just as much treasured.

Marriage, Family Life and Childhood Experience

As a part of the History of Working- Class Marriage project, my PhD research is investigating the effects of marriage and family life on children in Scotland between 1920 and 1970. At this point in time there is no comprehensive history of childhood experiences in Scotland, and very little existing information on the experiences of children growing up in different family forms and circumstances. ‘Family breakdown’ is something that we are hearing more and more about, and there is increasing political and media interest in the affect that this is having on children specifically. However, historically the family has been a lot more diverse than previously understood and family dissolution is not a modern phenomenon. Whilst there is a considerable amount of research into the effects of family breakdown on children today, there remains little historical research to contrast this with and the voice of the child has often been obscured in these studies. Before we can begin to examine the effects of family breakdown on children, we must first attempt to understand the experience of childhood in general, particularly in the recent past given that families were often much more flexible and complex than previously thought.


In order to find out more about this lived experience of childhood, oral history interviews are being undertaken with volunteers born anywhere in Scotland between 1920 and 1960. In talking about their childhood, respondents have shared stories of their daily family life and routines, the homes they lived in, as well as experiences at school, and tales of playtime and leisure. In gathering people’s stories it becomes possible to build a picture of the changing experience of childhood over the course of the last century, as well as seeing if we can establish any common elements of Scottish family life. In sharing their stories of a childhood spent in Scotland, participants are enabling us to develop key elements of Scotland’s social history in general, as well as a much-needed understanding of the local history of childhood.


Although my research is mainly informed by oral histories, these are being supplemented by published memoirs. In recent years, autobiography and the memoir have become a democratised genre of writing; the autobiography is no longer the preserve of the rich or influential, and popular areas for the memoir have gone beyond experiences of individual historically and culturally significant events, such as the Holocaust or evacuation during the Second World War, to include wider and more common experience, such as childhood. Childhood is a particularly popular site for the memoir for several reasons: firstly, childhood is a period of shared experience that, for the most part, people enjoy reflecting on; conversely, accounts of traumatic childhoods have become particularly successful, tapping in to readers’ enjoyment of tales of triumph over adversity. ‘Misery literature’, as it is has been dubbed, has become increasingly popular since the publication of Angela’s Ashes in 1996 and was hailed as the book world’s biggest boom sector in the mid 2000s. For the historian, the memoir is especially useful as it not only allows for an in-depth access to the personal and everyday experience of a variety of different individuals but also gives an insight into the feelings, emotions, and personal experiences surrounding a specific time in the author’s life.


In recent years, events such as the ‘London Riots’ in 2011 have highlighted the political and media concern over the effects of family breakdown on children and youths. Media outlets focused blame for the riots on the family, citing “absent fathers” and the lack of appropriate male role models . More recently, Britain has been dubbed ‘The Single Parent Capital of Europe’  and campaigners are calling on the government to do more to ensure that couples marry in order to provide their children with the best start in life. However, as previous blogs have discussed, an examination of the census records reveals that single parent families, often headed by women, and complex stepfamilies are not that uncommon in the past, including Scotland’s past. In Govan alone, the project has uncovered, 1 in 5 households in 1881 were single-parent households and nuclear families only accounted for 45% of total households in 1901, increasing to 50% by 1911. When we begin to think about the fact that the family has consistently been more diverse than previously thought, in addition to there being no systematic historical evidence of a relationship between family patterns and wider social problems, we cannot draw a direct line between family breakdown and societal breakdown. Heading into the final year of my PhD, I have begun to identify and combine some of the themes of Scottish childhood that have emerged from my research and have begun to examine what they mean, and what they can tell us, in regards to the effects of marriage and family life on children in Scotland between 1920 and 1970.


Research suggests that socio-economic considerations might have more of an impact on experiences of childhood than the form or structure of families. Indeed, interviewees have highlighted the importance of familial relationships, parental relations, and material circumstances in the experience of their childhood. In addition, education, gender, and housing have also emerged as being highly influential. Therefore factors other than the structure of the family would appear to have more affect on experiences of childhood. Perhaps media concerns about the adverse impact of single-parent families, stepfamilies, and broken homes on childhood experiences are somewhat misplaced.


Felicity Cawley