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