In January the Greenwich University Centre for the Study of Play and Recreation launched ‘Children and the Law’ as a new strand in its programme. The conference introducing the strand was supported by the Centre together with the London Network for the History of Children, the Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past, the University of Greenwich Safeguarding Hub, and the Life-Cycles seminar, Institute of Historical Research. The flyer announcing the launch and conference noted that despite the uproar surrounding ‘the activities of sometime celebrity and BBC identity Jimmy Savile many ‘important questions have not been raised nor addressed’:
‘Why are the voices of the young not listened to or considered of value in the courts or in legal processes? Conversely, how could legal systems be better adapted to respond to the voices and concerns of the young, rather than excluding or labeling them through increased criminalisation or limitation of resources such as housing?’
‘Children’ includes both girls and boys, as the presentations during the day conference affirmed. Yet for historians concerned about women’s rights and the impact of the law on women, many had a particular resonance. Girls are recognised by the United Nations as being particularly disadvantaged the world over, simply by reason of being female. This was significant in the presentation by Dr Ishita Pande of Queen’s University, Ontario, entitled ‘Sexology, the Education of Desire and the Conduct of Childhood in Late Colonial India’ and the accompanying paper in that session, ‘Courtrooms and Truth Telling – What Chance a Child?’ by the author of this WHN Blog.
Dr Pande analysed sexological literature produced in India between 1891 and 1929. That period was selected because the age of consent was raised to twelve years for ‘women’ in 1891, and in 1929 ‘a path breaking law sought to restrain the marriage of “children” below fourteen’. How, asked Dr Pande, did ‘vernacular sexology help constitute, contest and disseminate norms of childhood’ in India. In this, she referred to the effect Havelock Ellis, through his research and writings, had in India – an effect that, participants noted, was profound throughout the Western World, extending not only into psychological and psychiatric discourse, but impacting on the law in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand as well as India.
The issue of child-brides and child-wives is one that continues to engage the law and social sciences today, as well as the United Nations in its efforts to gain recognition of the negative consequences of child marriage and its impact, particularly, on girl children. The Parliament and courts of the United Kingdom have been involved, with Parliament endeavouring to outlaw child marriage through immigration restrictions. The courts have, however, obliged the government to return to the legislative drafting board to ensure that legitimate, consensual arrangements between young adults are not impacted.
That the issues surrounding child marriage are not isolated to India was apparent in that Dr Pandit’s paper led to a lively discussion on child marriage in India and other parts of the subcontinent, its existence in other parts of the world, and its relevance to countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia in light of migration.
Children as offenders and as offended against was the subject of Dr Lily Chang’s paper and that of Penny Wilcox. Dr Chang, of Magdalene College, Cambridge, presented ‘in absentia’ under the title ‘Adjudicating War: Juvenile Offenders in Wartime China, 1937-1945′. She took as her subject the rise in juvenile crime following the First World War and Great Depression, and up to the War of Resistance fought by China against Japan. Her research was based on legal case records of juvenile offenders, previously unexamined, adjudicated by the ‘collaborationist’ Shaghai District Court for the First Special Area. In this, Dr Chang looked at war in its social impact on juveniles living in urban areas, and ‘how the Court attempted to challenge the liminal space occupied by juveniles within the legal sphere that once marked the parameters of childhood and adulthood’ by legal definition. She sought to illustrate how the war ‘crystallised’ the Court’s attempts to ‘introduce the process of a “legal construction of childhood” through an analysis of its legal reasoning towards juvenile offenders under wartime conditions’.
Solicitor Penny Wilcox looked at ‘Changes in Youth Justice post 1998′, subtitling her presentation ‘A Practitioner’s View’. The watershed year of 1998 was chosen because it was in 1998 that the major report Misspent Youth was published, leading to the establishment of the Youth Justice Board, the development of Youth Offending Teams, and ‘changes in custodial regimes’. Ms Wilcox emphasised the low age of criminal responsibility existing in the United Kingdom as contrasted with that existing elsewhere in the European Union, and focused on identifiable groups of young people, including youth ‘in care’, black and minority ethnic youth, youth with learning or other difficulties, and girls’. For girls, the notion that there is a rise in violence and, hence, violent crimes committed by girls, along with the rise of ‘girls in gangs’ is prevalent today, although this notion has been articulated in times past. Particularly in the nineteenth century, ’girls in gangs’ was written of in the United States as in the United Kingdom, and the rise (as it was seen) of ‘the Women’s Movement’ in the 1970s led to a spate of criminological and populist writing suggesting that this movement was ‘turning girls and women to crime’, particularly violent crime. Here, it is difficult to determine whether indeed numbers are ‘soaring’ (although generally violent crimes against the person remain stable over time), or whether courts and care agencies are treating girls and women differently in different periods.
The highlighting of ‘learning difficulties’ in Ms Wilcox presentation was prescient, for education consultant Katherine Marshall of Waltham Forest Dyslexia Association followed with her own presentation on issues relating to the law and dyslexia, and ways in which law and practice need to catch up with developing knowledge in the field. Although dyslexia has been seen as primarily a ‘boys’ learning issue’, Ms Marshall’s presentation made clear that this is not so. She posited that girls may be and have been more likely to be able to ‘cover up’ the condition, through being less visible in the education system or being consigned to educational streams where dyslexia was less evident.
Dr Lucy Bland of King’s College, London, provided introductory insights into her new field of research, ‘Adoption and Ethnicity: thoughts on the study of mixed-race GI babies in Second World War Britain’. She became interested in pursuing this research in consequence of a 2012 change announced by the United Kingdom government, that local authorities would be required to reduce delays in adoption by ‘no longer seeking the “perfect ethnic match”‘, otherwise known as ‘racial matching’ or ‘same race’ policy. Dr Bland’s presentation was particularly invigorating as she sought comment on the direction of her research and the way her research might be enhanced. To date, she has found little research into adoption and particularly the issues relating to GI babies in the United Kingdom.
The launch of the ‘Children and the Law’ stream was complemented by the launch of the University of Greenwich Safeguarding Hub, announced at the conference by its initiator, Janet Webb of the School of Health and Social Care. This is an important initiative, as is the inclusion of the ‘Children and the Law’ strand. Both have a significance in terms of current events, as well as providing avenues for exploration of history, particularly in relation to women and girls.
Jocelynne A. Scutt (c) February 2013
Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt is Visiting Professor at the University of Buckingham. A short piece on the issues raised by the Jimmy Savile revellations is published as ‘Charity, Celebrity and the Corporate Condonation of Child Sexual Abuse’, OnLine Opinion, 19 November 2012, http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=14367 (accessed 19 November 2012)
I was born Edith Amelia in September 1910 in Peckham, London. As I was not born within the sound of ‘Bow Bells’ I was not a Cockney. My Grandfather, who died before I was born, was a writer-at-law at William Watlow’s of London. It was a part of family history that the Watlow carriage came regularly to collect my Grandfather, to take him to work. His caul, mounted on parchment, has been passed down through our family, and I have it now. Written in beautiful script are the words: ‘The caul of John Scutt born 15 March 1828.’ The caul is a skin over a baby’s face when it is born. In those days it was preserved, and was supposed to be lucky for mariners.
When the war began, I was four-years-old. My mother took my baby sister Elsie in a wicker pram, with me running beside it, to an air raid shelter to escape the bombs. That was the first world war, in 1914. On another occasion my father took me into the garden during a daylight raid over London, and we saw a Zeppelin go over. The guns were firing, trying to shoot it down, and I was told later that they succeeded. It went down at Silvertown, just outside the city.
Our family grew to seven children, with me as the eldest. I had one brother and five sisters. Hilda died at five-years-of-age, of the measles. In 1922 my Grandmother died, and the twins were born We grew up in a large and happy family. I won a trade scholarship at 12-years-old, but left school at 14 to help my mother bring up the children. I won my scholarship with cookery. I was taught to cook by my mother: she was a good teacher.
My mother’s hands were full. For many years she was unwell, although she didn’t show it. She died of cancer at 42-years-of-age, when I was 16. I had been looking after her and the children until our doctor put her into hospital. She lived for one month after that, and it was heartbreaking for me. I had lost my mum, my best pal. But I loved my sisters and brother, and that helped me through.
Not long after, my father gave me the ultimatum of putting them in an orphanage or me raising my siblings. My thoughts were that my mother had us, and dad wanted to get rid of us. I took the only alternative: I had a family of my own. My mother’s sisters often said they were sorry for me. But there was no help from them. I grew up with my siblings as my children. We had a big house, and I knew I could manage. I did.
One night I saw a bright star in the sky and showed the children. We all agreed it was mum looking down at us. Her grave was her flower garden, which we tended when we could go to the cemetery. Money in those days was scarce. My dad was not wont to help out, but we managed.
The family grew up. I was getting older. Sister Gladys hurt her spine and was put in an orthopaedic hospital at 10-years-of-age. She was dependent on a spinal carriage for two years. The hospital was 20 miles away and I travelled by bus and train to see her. Some Sundays my dad went by motorbike to visit. My sister Elsie, four years younger than I, was able to help, looking after the children in my absence. I left the dinner cooked for them.
There were no holidays, but it was picnics in the park for us, when the weather grew warm. I put Mabel and Grace in the twin pram when they were little, and packed in Bill who was a year older, together with the food, then it was off to the park. It took an hour to walk to Peckham Rye Park, but it was worth it.
Chicken pox were followed by measles and whooping cough, but the children (and I) came through it. I felt a sense of accomplishment as they reached maturity: I had done what I aimed at, with love and understanding.
In 1934 I met Henry Webb, who owned a grocery business nearby. We had a lot in common. His parents were dead, his mother dying when he was a teenager. He was raised by his aunt and uncle, who also brought up his sister and brother. Henry’s brother was in the army, but Henry followed his uncle, joining the navy during the first world war.
My father, not wanting to lose me, objected to our friendship. Henry was 10 years older than I. But Henry got to know the children and we created a family together: the twins were 10 at that time, Bill was 11 and Elsie and Gladys had already begun paidwork. When we went out, the twins came too.
Henry ran the grocery store for nine months or so, then returned to sea, sailing on the liners that travelled to Australia, calling in at Hobart to pick up apples. We wrote to one another during the four month periods it took to get to Australia and back.
In 1938 I began work at the business in Tooting, London SW, a grocery and provision store where we set ourselves up when Henry left the sea that year. I had grown older. The children had grown up. I wanted a life of my own.
In September 1939 the second world war began. With the blackout and air raids, travelling to and fro between Peckham and Tooting was traumatic. So, in October 1939 Henry and I decided to marry. My step-sister, a cousin and friend as well, was married on 1 October that year. (My dad had married my aunt after the war.) We chose 29 October.
It was to be a quiet weddding, but the girls were up in arms. They wanted to be bridesmaids and we said: ‘Why not?’ We married at St Giles Cathedral, Camberwell. It was a white wedding after all, with three bridesmaids. My father gave me away.
I married a man who was my friend and whom I loved dearly . We went home to Tooting that night in the rain, on a train and then the underground. When we arrived at the other end, Tooting Broadway, we had to stay in the underground because there was an air raid. But the all-clear soon sounded and we walked home, only to find that our dog had gnawed up one of my new shoes. Paddy was forgiven, and married life began with a laugh.
Edith Amelia Webb (c) 1995
Edith Amelia Webb was born in the United Kingdom on 26 September 1910, married in 1939, and emigrated to Australia with her husband Henry Webb in 1950. She took up residence in West Hobart in the house she and Henry Webb bought upon their arrival in Tasmania. She wrote this short autobiography in 1995.
‘Travelling Together – Then Alone’ is an extract from an article of the same title published in Glorious Age – Growing Older Gloriously, Artemis Publishing, Australia, 1996 (compiled and edited by Jocelynne A. Scutt).
The Woman Reader (2012) by Belinda Jack is a wide ranging account of women’s historical writing. In her review of the work, Bee Wilson focusses on the pertinent question it raises: ‘Why for millenniums did men try to control what women read?’ Other important questions are: what did women write to evade that control? What subversive methods did they use in their fiction to give it the appearance of suitability? What did women do to ensure that they and their feminist works were published? One response was producing overtly ‘suitable’ and covertly feminist fiction. If the men to whom Jack refers had known how women’s literature would progress they would have been even more concerned. In particular, historical fiction has developed in way that threatens traditional ways of looking at women’s role.
Philippa Gregory refers to herself as a feminist writer, and her historical and contemporary work give abundant clues to her feminism. Her recently published selection of three historical essays, non-fiction accounts of the women in her fictional accounts of the ‘wars of the cousins’ reveals her method, which is focussed on writing women back into history. Zoe Fairbairns is a feminist writer who, while not having made a name as an historical writer has written a feminist historical saga. Stand We at Last (1983) is a feminist approach to British women’s history from the 1850s to the 1970s. Benefits (1979), newly published as an ebook, presents a chilling account of women’s position in the political world of the 1970s, which still resonates with the 2000s. Katharine McMahon’s historical novels are rich feminist perspectives on women and medical practice in World War 1 in The Rose of San Sebastopol (2007) and past legal practice in The Crimson Rooms (2009).
Of the three, Gregory and McMahon are the identifiable writers of feminist historical novels. Gregory is also the most well-known, mostly through her historical work but also through contemporary novels such as The Little House (1998). Fairbairns’ work is predominantly contemporary. However, Stand We at Last provides a compelling and accessible introduction to the body of her feminist work. Each writer has used historical fiction in a way that undermines the control of women’s reading. They have produced work that, while ostensibly is safe because it is ‘women’s fiction’, questions women’s place in history. Historical novels have had a mixed reception, not all of it respectful. Again, such a reputation has added to the advantages a feminist writer can enjoy in her writing history. Each writer has written her history inspired by women’s role, actions, feelings and aspirations.
Gregory has rejected the traditional way of writing about historical events which either centres on men deemed to have made history or, if they focus on women, have seen them largely in a romantic role. Gregory writes about women as the makers of a history which exists in parallel with the history of men; links women on equal terms with men’s traditionally superior role; or highlights the disadvantages affecting women who, despite these, operate capably with intelligence and fortitude. The women are also often portrayed as manipulative, cruel, antagonistic to other women and veritable ‘lionesses’ on behalf of the men in their family – son, brother, husband or father. They also neglect, or are actively antagonistic, to daughters, sisters or mothers.
The lack of ‘sisterhood’ amongst the female protagonists raises the question: how feminist are Gregory’s historical novels? Firstly, Gregory places women at the centre of her work. In non-romantic work, this is an important feature of feminist fiction. Secondly, women are acting in as wide a community as the men with whom they are associated. The only activity in which they are not physically present is in battle. Admittedly this is a major portion of the lives of men: it was the work of kings, would-be kings and their supporters. However, while uninvolved directly in the wars to win land and crown women are also depicted in physical and life threatening battle. One of the most dangerous is their fight to bear a son. Gender controlled the means by which women and men fought for the crown or land. Gregory makes it abundantly clear that women’s dangerous role was to provide a male heir for either purpose. Women and men united in seeking advancement for their family. As individuals, women were pitted against each other, often as pawns of the male members of their family.
Gregory is writing historical fiction that is soundly researched and realistically charts the tempo of the times. However, by placing women at the centre of her work she provides a feminist account of that history. Most importantly, Gregory graphically illustrates the discrimination against women that is the foundation to the history she writes.
Fairbairns’ Stand We At Last has been described as ‘a family saga’ and an early paperback edition cover features a bonneted woman in 1800s dress, clearly defining the novel as historical fiction. However, the novel is a strong feminist account of women’s lives. The issues that are familiar in novels about women, sexuality, marriage, motherhood and death are seen through a feminist prism. Like Gregory, the discrimination that features in women’s ‘normal’ is shown in its sometimes brutal reality. Explicit feminist issues are also raised in Stand We At Last. Women’s suffrage; their right to land ownership; implementation of the Contagious Diseases Acts, which becomes a personal as well as public issue for some of the protagonists; middle class women’s move into paid work; women as colonists; sexual freedom and sexism in a university environment; abortion; and the 1970s women’s movement.
Women in this contemporary novel also deal with the consequences of war. A young wife dies as the result of syphilis her husband catches in the army. Another is an oysterseller at the army barracks in the 1860s. She bears a child to a man whose comfortable lifestyle dismisses marrying her. Although the consequences are not as severe, the First World War creates the environment in which a young woman loses her virginity to a man who is joining up. In the Second World War women are depicted working on the land; caring for injured male family members; and dying on the home front.
McMahon focuses on professions such as the law and medicine and depicts the irrationality of the discrimination women suffered, concentrating on the early years of each profession. In her blog she notes that her type of historical fiction is sometimes criticised because it does not ‘take real people… put[s] words into their mouths, and [try] to work out how the past would have been for them’. She says ‘My type of historical fiction takes real events…and tells a fictional story about fictional characters, but with an authentic (whatever that means) historical setting’. Significantly, in the context of writing about the way in which feminist writers use historical environments to project feminist arguments in an acceptable way, she goes on to argue: ‘But do not dismiss. One type of historical fiction is neither more nor less valuable and fun than the other.’
McMahon’s comment makes a salient point about the three types of historical novel covered here. They are ‘fun’ to read. At the same time the feminist authors are writing about topics which are clearly not ‘fun’: discrimination against women in their private and professional lives in the past. That the past resonates with the sexism women encounter in contemporary society makes the historical novel an excellent vehicle for making feminist arguments in a form in which thoroughly undermines the men who wanted to control women’s reading.
Robin Joyce (c) November 2012
Robin Joyce’s PhD thesis is entitled ‘The Troublesome Woman: A Study Barbara Pym’s Novel and Short Stories’. She began her academic life as an historian, covering the period in Australia’s history when women fought for the vote. In particular, Robin identified women’s early activism in the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and trade unions, concentrating on women such as Cecilia Shelley and Jean Beadle – ‘the Grand Old Woman of Labor.’
 Bee Wilson, Review of The Woman Reader, “Culture” The Sunday Times, July 1 2012, p.36.
 Philippa Gregory, Interview, BBC Radio 4, September 2012.
 Philippa Gregory, David Baldwin and Michael Jones The Women of the Cousins’ War (2011) Simon and Schuster: London.
The 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement saw 24 hour childcare as an essential plank of women’s rightful demands. Conservative forces wilfully interpreted this as indicative of a desire on the part of women to be free of motherhood: anyone who would listen was assailed with tales of women’s wishing to ‘dump’ their children in childcare centres for entire days. This was far from women’s aim. Recognising that many women shared motherhood responsibilities with the responsibilities of paidwork, and that many worked shifts, the demand was framed so as to incorp0rate egalitarian needs. With many women working in factories or as nurses, it was evident that childcare run from 9.00am to 5.00pm would not encompass the necessities of their daily lives. Even for women working ‘regular’ jobs and hours, leeway was necessary to ensure women could arrive at work on time and engage in paid employment that fitted into what was seen as the ‘ordinary’ working day.
Kindergartens long pre-dated the 1970s Movement, and childcare was part of government action during wartime, in particular. In both the First and Second World War, governments – local, regional/state and national – established centres for children who were below school age or who required after-school care. Kindergarten teachers and childcare workers devised forms of play and instruction that encouraged childhood development and recognised children’s right to benefit from childcare – even if the motive in establishing these centres was related to the war effort and the need to ensure that women could move into posts vacated by men joining up and going to the front.
Today, the right to play – for all children, girls and boys - has a firm place on the rights agenda. The Convention on the Rights of the Child – signed up to by all United Nations members apart from two (Somalia and the United States) incorporates this right specifically in Article 31. Play as a right can be read into other provisions of the Convention, as well. Presently, a committee comprising NGOs dedicated to affirming and supporting children and children’s rights is working on an agreed communique expanding upon or explaining the terms of Article 31. The aim is to ensure that Article 31 is acknowledged as central to children’s rights and to the Convention, and that the notion of ‘play’ as a right is not given a limited interpretation, nor subjugated to other provisions.
The work of the NGO committee was the subject of discussion at the 26th World Play Conference held in Estonia from 17-19 June 2012 at the University of Tallinn. Jan Van Gils, President of the International Council for Children’s Play (ICCP), led a lively discussion encompassing issues going to the nature of play, the right to leisure, and what these mean in principle and practice.
Play is critical to physical, social and psychological development of all children, girls and boys. Girls may be particularly susceptible to a narrowing or limiting of the scope of ‘play-rights’ in consequence of social or cultural demands. Cultural denial of girls to be outside or to run, jump and engage in outdoor activities cannot be allowed to override the principle of non-discrimination on the grounds of sex/gender which has a firm place in UN treaties, covenants and conventions and is applicable to children as well as adults. Girls’ right to play cannot, either, be subjugated to a notion that household tasks and duties take precedence. Indeed, the Convention on the Rights of the Child makes this clear. Article 1 provides that discrimination breaches the Convention.
The imagination children bring to play and their ability to make play ‘work’ in conditions that, at first glance, appear to be discouraging, was evident in many presentations and exchanges that followed. Dr Jennifer Cartmel’s presentation gave a particular insight into the capacity of children to play in an adult environment – both making the space their own and incorporating adult roles into their play. The initiative exhibited by girls, in particular, resonates in itself as well as providing insights into the way women’s lived histories are influencing girls’ appreciation of their own worth and the value of their own ideas.
Dr Cartmel (of Australia’s Griffith University) was assigned the task of providing play in a boardroom: a company wished to extend to their employees’ children a week of childcare on the business premises. This meant taking over a boardroom on the 18th floor of a busy office building. Armed with craft materials, cartons, fabric, masking tape and various items she saw as lending themselves to engaging children in play, Jennifer Cartmel advanced into a room that was set up for adult meetings, not children’s play. Ultimately, neither she nor the children were daunted: the children adapted to the space or, rather, adapted the space to themselves.
On the first day, one young girl requested ‘job descriptions’ which she saw as essential to organising play: clearly, the boardroom atmosphere appeared to have had some influence on her perception of play-in-the-space. Being eager to showcase the group’s talents, the child nominated job descriptions as a necessary foundation to the holding of a fashion parade, which duly went ahead, sans manufactured job descriptions. Recognising the importance of non-directed play and the necessity of the freedom to play, Jennifer Cartmel’s approach was not to impose upon the children or ‘dictate’ to them by her producing ‘duty lists’, but to provide scope for the children themselves to work out how they should undertake the various tasks and who should be assigned them.
Girls’ confidence in play settings was evidenced also in their approach to cubby-building. Constructing a canopied structure by adding swathes of material to a small tent, they commandeered the space for their meetings. Ensconced in the tent, they played out corporate roles – taking advantage of the ‘boardroom atmosphere’ rather than allowing it to limit the parameters of their play.
When window cleaners advanced up to the 18th floor on a pulley-and-plank system some of the children perceived as dangerous, one girl (with an offsider) invented a prototype harness. She explained to Dr Cartmel that the prototype would ensure safety for window cleaners working on all levels and particularly up high. She added, however, that she intended to preserve the harness and the ideas that had gone into its development – until she was older. Being a child, she said, there would be little chance of the prototype being taken seriously by government or manufacturers: ‘they won’t listen’, she said, because ‘they won’t take a child seriously’. However, she added, ‘they will when I’m older’. Then, the prototype would be seen for the valuable aid it should be.
So, history, women’s demands and children’s rights collide. This collision – both constructive and instructive – illustrates the way in which principle and theory become embedded in practice and the actuality of girls and women’s lives. The historical struggle by women for education and employment opportunities resonates with girls in their own world of play. The demand of women for the right of girls to an education, played out in the West and mirrored around the globe, presently occurring in Afghanistan (for example) with the work of RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan), is vital to the advancement of girls’ right to be human. Play is a part of this and, as the work of those engaged in the ‘play’ movement indicates, the right of girls to play is fundamental. The space in which to exercise this right is a necessary component. The right to space cannot be denied on the grounds of sex, or age. Girls’ right to space to play is a right to be exercised – inside and out.
‘Growing Up Feminist – The New Generation of Australian Women’ and ‘Growing Up Feminist Too – Raising Women, Raising Consciousness’ are amongst the books in the Artemis ‘Women’s Voices, Women’s Lives’ series edited by Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt, whose mother was a kindergarten teacher - providing her daughters with a memorable childhood.
On May 21 1937, 75 years ago, British philanthropists helped thousands of children from a Spain being torn apart by war ( http://www.basquechildren.org). Los Niños (pictured arriving) were to stay in England for up to two years.
A conference, reunion and exhibition held 12-13 May 2012 at Southampton celebrate that mercy mission and its aftermath (http://www.southampton.ac.uk/ml/news/2012/05/09_exhibition_to_commemorate_child_refugees_of_the_spanish_civil_war.page)
Let’s give praise where praise is due. Women, socialist women, were the main organisers of that 1937 evacuation. They were led by Leah Manning (later a Labour MP) of Spanish Medical Aid, along with Edith Pye of the Society of Friends, and the Tory but progressive Duchess of Atholl, President of the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief.
Leah Manning, MP
And women, particularly single left-wing teachers, were the main people joining the famous Habana evacuation on an especially charted ship. They looked after the children on the two-day voyage.
I found this when researching women who had been escorts on other ships, for my new book, Risk: Women on the wartime seas (Yale University Press, 2013).
In world wars, women, almost always volunteers, escorted children – together with disoriented adult refugees – on British ships. Often they were not even being paid expenses. Some were captured, interned and even killed during their WW2 voyages.
Called ‘aunty’, many of the women were experienced travellers and lively independent types, at a time when women’s mobility was still limited and their solo travel problematic. Unsung and overlooked, these pioneers deserve recognition. They were members of a minority who cleverly utilised gendered conventions (‘women are suitable carers for little ones’) to do all the travelling they could, despite low incomes.
- WW1: women escorts, especially Quakers, often suffrage campaigners, escorted Belgian families fleeing to Britain, or German women and their children who were being repatriated (usually against their will).
- WW2: female escorts were employed by CORB, Children’s Overseas Reception Board, in summer 1940 to take British children to the US, Canada, the Cape and Australia.
- 1937: In the Spanish case the children and their escorts sailed as a result of intense British socialist campaigning, after Guernica was destroyed, on April 26 1937. The British Government insisted that this was a one-off voyage.
Homerton graduate Leah Manning, Dr Audrey Russell and others went out to fetch the nearly 4000 children, helped load them in Bilbao, then sailed back to Southampton. Evacuations almost always meant ships were worryingly overcrowded. The ship too, which was supposed to carry around 800 passengers, actually carried 3840 children, 80 teachers, 120 helpers (escorts), 15 catholic priests and 2 doctors.
Teachers’ and escorts’ work was not only to help children find places to sleep – even lifeboats. It was also to help them settle despite the difficulties such as separation trauma, disorientation and homesickness.
On the Habana, said Leah Manning, ‘Head to tail the senoritas laid out our precious cargo – on the bulkheads, in the swimming pool, in the state rooms and along the alley ways. [They were] for all the world like the little sardinas about which they were always singing.’
The Bay of Biscay is notoriously choppy and it was on that voyage too. Most of the children were so seasick, that ‘for two dreadful days and nights … [we] slipped and slithered from one pool of diarrhoea and vomit to another… assuring them it wasn’t the fascists who had stirred up the troubled waters against them,’ wrote Manning.
No one has mentioned that the escorts must have been suffering seasickness too, as they tried to do their job. New research has shown that women are nearly twice as likely as men to be seasick.
So these escorts were labouring under additional difficulties. But their main role was trying to determine how to handle the unknown children, who were all too often unhelpfully reserved about their agonies, which were instead expressed through bed-wetting.
Such seafaring escorts still accompany children travelling alone today. Some are employed by the Universal Aunts agency, which was founded by Gertrude Maclean, who escorted her nieces and nephews from far parts of the empire to boarding school before WW1. The ship in the image (pictured) shows the lure of the sea. (http://www.universalaunts.co.uk/history.html
Others were/are paid employees of shipping lines. Usually stewardesses and children’s hostesses, they were seconded for this function.
And sometimes, although they initially fancied a ‘free voyage,’ as well as wanting to support a worthy cause, escorts must have been very glad when the ship reached its destination. Many such ‘aunties’ continued to maintain contact with those they escorted.
WHN member Jo Stanley writes about gender and the sea in history.
 http://www.spanishrefugees-basquechildren.org/C-Leah_Manning.html. The citation is from her chapter, ‘From Basque Children for England’ in a book called With the Rearguard, but I can trace no such book. Manning’s autobiography, A Life for Education, Victor Gollancz, London, 1970 describes the event but not quite so well as the quote here.