7th Feb 2018 5:30pm-7:00pm

Edward Street 102

Dr Hester Barron(University of Sussex)

This paper is based on work that Claire Langhamer (Sussex) and I have done on 269 essays written in 1937 by Middlesbrough schoolboys aged 12-16 on the topic ‘When I leave school’, which were collected by the social research organisation Mass Observation. The essays provide a counterpoint to social scientific surveys of ordinary people and allowed us to work with the boys’ own understandings of the world they inhabited. They offer an alternative lens on a period which, at least in relation to the industrial areas of Britain, is often characterised by poverty and unemployment. A sense of this is largely absent from the children’s essays: instead, an overwhelming sense of possibility characterises their writing, from their wildest fantasies to their most concrete plans. Most dreamt of lives that would be long, fulfilling, domesticated and happy. This is not to say that they were oblivious to the world around them; indeed an emphasis on security and planning suggested an implicit awareness of material context. Nonetheless these boys expressed a marked determination that their lives would be better than those of their parents. As such, they embodied the educational and occupational aspirations that are more often seen as characteristic of postwar Britain. Their essays illustrate emergent and widely-held expectations of social mobility and dreams of cradle-to-grave security in the years before the Second World War, articulated – as they were being lived – by a generation which would go on to elect the 1945 Labour government.

Dr Hester Barron is a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Sussex. She specialises in twentieth-century British social history.