Were children once safe in the streets, adept in the three R's, minding Ps & Qs? Some adults remember childhoods in five different decades
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The Independent Culture

Male, 67, accountant

We respected the law, gave our seats up to ladies, doffed our caps to them and kept the Sabbath as a day of rest. Adults were respected, irrespective of their station in life. Front doors were, in summer anyway, ajar, and everyone was welcome. But it is hard to say what growing up was like. We weren't given time to grow up. One moment it was school, the next work. At 14 I was found a job and expected to contribute to the family budget.

When I was a teenager I considered that my elders were out of touch with reality as they listened to our battery radio, always the BBC, and steadfastly refused to search the dial for other programmes that I was sure existed - never questioning paper editorials, politician's speeches or the local church minister's remarks. Perhaps that question was a stage in growing up that continues as each generation makes its own contribution to human evolution.

Female, 70, retired aero-engineer

Truancy was almost unheard of. The register was called morning and afternoon and if you didn't respond to your name two days running the school-board man called at your home to find out why. All illnesses had to be reported. When I had scarlet fever at 11, there was an epidemic of it in Derby, and the isolation hospital was full. I had to be kept at home isolated in a bedroom with a curtain soaked in disinfectant over the door. My parents had to wear protective clothing when they entered my room. I didn't see my brother and sister for six weeks.

Male, 70, retired civil servant

I wore a navy blue jersey, fustian short trousers and wellington boots. All hair cut off and just a fringe at the front. Must have been for the best as I still have all my hair. Perhaps it was the lard my mum rubbed in each Sunday.

Female, 70, clerical assistant

I am quite nervous and don't like to be alone at night. But as a child I never felt threatened, and our house doors were never locked except at night. We could go anywhere without being frightened, not once was I approached by anyone with evil intent. In fact, I can remember once that a little girl was abducted by a man called Nodder and it made headline news, he was hanged for murder. How times have changed, and not for the better.


Male, 54, professor/illustrator

My sister and I had a very strict "Victorian" upbringing from our Lancastrian grandmother. I shopped for her every Saturday and when I returned she would weigh the goods, not just to check if the grocers had been cheating but also to make sure I hadn't been eating any of the produce myself. If I ever said anything rude to her or uttered a mild expletive she would wash my tongue with a loofah and carbolic soap. Once, when I was eight, I was caught stealing some pennies from my grandmother's purse. This resulted in my being kept upstairs in my bedroom for the whole weekend, with only a jigsaw puzzle to play with and bread and water to eat and drink.

But despite the severity of our upbringing, we always felt safe, secure and loved. My grandmother was always consistent. If she said she would punish you for a particular offence she would always act upon it.

Male, 64, retired export sales manager

We practised our writing at first on slates using a slate pencil. There is no sound worse than a classroom of 40 illiterates practising their letters in this fashion. We graduated to blue-covered exercise books after a year or so. These had Middlesex Education Committee printed on the front, well, half of them did, because as an economy measure we were only ever issued with either the upper half or the lower half of one book which had been cut across the middle.

Female, 55, child minder

We used to walk in Hockley Woods alone and had no fear of being attacked or assaulted. Perhaps we were naive, but it was rare to hear of rape or assault then. Perhaps things were just as bad then but girls were afraid to report it. Most of my friends saw the odd flasher, but being very shortsighted and too vain to wear glasses, I missed them.

Male, 59, LGV driver

There was a time when any adult could put a stop to any activity which was too outrageous, while policemen, teachers and park-keepers were absolute authority to be obeyed instantly without question. I once turned the gas on in a lamppost and filled it with gas; when the lamp-lighter applied his flame the result was spectacular. When I tried it again I was caught by a neighbour, who walloped me and told my Mum, who also walloped me. In the same situation today, the neighbour would have been charged with assault, my Mum would have an army of social workers descend on her, while I would be off looking for the third lamppost.


Female, 45, tutor and JP

I remember being frightened of my father, of him hitting me for something. We were brought up to be seen but not heard. I had a cousin who used to be tied to the kitchen table leg and she and her brother had to sit under the table when they had visitors. I lived in fear of having a boyfriend and bringing trouble to the door, staying out late, and I was not allowed to go to youth clubs or join the Girl Guides. They were not a nice class to mix with and I was the oldest Brownie on record.

Female, 47, housewife

I had a sheltered upbringing. I was allowed to stay a child for a long time, and to discover things for myself rather than have them thrust upon me. True, I still thought you could have a baby just by going to sleep with a man when I was 15, but it didn't do me any harm, and discovering sex was a delightful, slow adventure, with no compulsion to have it off as early and as often as possible. I feel my children are constantly bombarded. It's all must - must do this, have that, go there. They seem to have no opportunity to just be still and thoughtful and be children. I suppose you could say life is circumscribed by what you know is available - and if everything's available and made essential, where do you stop?

Female, 49, adult education lecturer

I always wore hand-me-down clothes. I can't remember having a new coat, and all the other children were the same. We used to have fog a lot and I can remember being forbidden to go out in it but did anyway, and the handkerchief over my mouth was black when I breathed. Having said this, I don't remember being ill much. I had my tonsils out, used to suffer strange boils and rashes which required hospital treatment, and at one time had to wear a surgical boot to correct knock-knees. I must have been four or five at the time. I hated that green canvas boot and could not see why I needed it, although photos show a very knock-kneed girl.


Female, 32, teacher

My brother and I were both "good" children. Teachers, strangers and visitors often complimented us on our good behaviour. Most of my discipline came from my mum in the form of verbal reprimands or smacks, right up to the age of eight. Now that I have a child of my own, I feel that my discipline techniques have been influenced by the fact that I am a teacher. This has taught me to praise and reward good behaviour rather than constantly criticising, and, after chastisement, to re-establish friendship as quickly as possible. The rules that I enforce are similar to those of my parents but I try to make the rules positive and put them in a general context. When I was a child I had the rule but I didn't seem to have the reason.

Male, 46, engineer

Life was, at least in the lower middle-class groove, relatively peaceful and secure, mildly affluent even, with a different joint of meat on the table every Sunday. I used to roam all over London on a "Rover" ticket without any let or hindrance or any hint of possible sexual molestation or danger at all. I used to do this on a Saturday, when I was about 12. In today's world, any decision to let young people out is almost a matter of risk assessment.

Female, 33, writer/drycleaning worker

My mother would keep food and re-serve it until it went rotten. One harrowing experience was being about to eat a mouthful of meat when a maggot crawled out of it. I was told not to be so fussy. Now I buy just enough food for each meal so there are no leftovers.


Female, 30, housewife and mother

School was a torment. I was very shy and was terrified. My first schoolteacher was terribly strict and frightened the life out of me. She would inspect our hands at regular intervals to see if they were clean. She was nothing like the infant teacher my children are blessed with. Although Mrs N was strict, she certainly taught us how to read. The writing was different; I would keep putting letters back to front and Mrs N would be a dragon over mistakes like that.

Female, 36, tutor/writer

When I was a teenager, people used to worry that young people were taking drugs, smoking and generally being rebellious. There was concern that there was material circulating in schools encouraging children to revolt. I remember the head teacher telling us not to read some book if we came across it; I don't know what it was - some sort of Marxist propaganda. The problem was that adults thought all teenagers were equally susceptible to the dangers, without understanding that we could think for ourselves.

Female, 32, teacher

There was terrific embarrassment about sex in our family. We never talked about it, the television was closely censored, and sex education came in the form of a slightly dated heath education book left discreetly in my room. This left me as a teenager in something of a moral vacuum. I knew from church that it was wrong to sleep with someone before marriage, but in the absence of any further input I thought absolutely everything else was all right. I was on the brink of becoming quite promiscuous until a friend spoke to me about it. I don't think young people behave any worse than in previous generations, but they have access to more dangerous diversions - instead of scrumping apples they're stealing cars.

! These testimonies are taken from the Mass- Observation Archive at the University of Sussex