Men were men, and dads were strangers: Steve Humphries talks to fathers about their role in the first half of the century

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The Independent Online
We know little about the experience of fatherhood in the first half of the century. The main reason is that fathers had precious little involvement in bringing up their children. There were powerful pressures which ensured that the majority of men were kept on the margins of home life and child rearing: long hours of work; an all-pervading assumption that the home was a mother's natural domain; and two world wars which took millions away. Today attitudes and expectations have changed dramatically, yet almost every survey tells us that the 'new man' still plays a minimal role at home. Perhaps that is not so surprising if, only a generation ago, deep in the psyche of most fathers was a fear that helping at home would somehow undermine their masculinity. Fifty years ago, however, there was a minority of men who defied convention and tried to take a more active role in bringing up their children. Others have, in later life, realised how oppressive some of the conventions were - both to men and women - and now regret missing out so much on their children

TIME TOGETHER: I was only their father at Christmas

Long working hours during the first half of the century, when 55- and 60- hour weeks were common, meant that many fathers saw little of their children. Alfred Short was a bus driver in Sussex in the Thirties. He had two children.

I MISSED out on my children all through their young years. I was working all the time so really it was up to Enid to look after them. I wish I could have been at home more. But I had a job and that was the important thing in those days, and really, with overtime and that, I brought home quite good money.

I was up early in the morning before they got up and I was out driving the bus all day, sometimes on a double shift, till they were tucked up in bed. They used to know when I was passing the end of the road and the two of them used to stand at the gate and wave at me as I drove past. So I used to see them, but never to talk to, see?

Then after my shift I used to get home, dinner in the oven and that. And I'd always creep in to see the two of them were OK. Sleeping quietly, they would be, but I'd always have to be sneaky because they woke up quite easily.

Never missed peeping in at them to see them asleep.

Because I was generally not at home and their mother would be doing things around the house they used to go next door a lot. He used to take them out for walks and that. Really, I suppose you could say I was jealous. They used to think an awful lot of him. More than they did of me, I think. Well, I didn't have the time to spend with my own, working all the hours God sent. I missed out and that was the sad part of it. I didn't get many kisses and cuddles off them when they were young.

It was the Saturdays or Sundays that I had off that I would look forward to. They were something for my family, when I could help Enid get them out of bed and dress them up all nice, like, and take them off for a walk. We used to walk for miles on Sundays. Sometimes we'd go on the bus 'cause I could get quarter fares for us. Then we'd go into town and go and see a picture that they liked, Abbott and Costello, something funny. And then fish and chips and into a pub with them - lemonade and crisps while me and my wife had a couple of drinks. And we used to think that was such a treat, all being together, having a day out with the children.

But that was something quite rare because I could only have time off when my boss saw fit. So all year round I used to look forward to Christmas. Then I would have a whole day with them at home. I used to look out in the places I went to in the bus for toy shops and things I could save up and buy them for Christmas. I would see, say, a train set for my boy and I'd keep my eye on it for months till I'd saved up enough to get it and put it away for December. I suppose I thought that with working so much I wanted to buy them special treats, like.

I remember packing all their presents up with the wife and creeping up to put them in their stockings at the end of the bed. One year they woke up and I don't know whether they believed in Father Christmas still or not, but I pretended that I was doing something and that if they didn't go back to sleep Father Christmas wouldn't come . . . We did have a laugh, though. Having to be quiet and not knowing whether they were asleep or not. And it always seemed to snow at Christmas then.

We'd get all excited. 'You will take us out for a walk in the snow, won't you, Dad?' And we'd go whilst Enid was making the dinner. Play snowballs or make a snowman. It was my only really family time. I missed so much of their growing up. I used to treasure those odd days and always look forward to Christmas.

Now I dread it. It's not the same without children. I just try and remember back all those years to the time I spent with the children, all the excitement and presents. Seeing their little faces all happy and smiley, it was really like a novelty for me to be with them.

CONTRACEPTION: We tries separate beds. . .but it didn't always work

James Hardie was born in Motherwell in 1910. He met his wife, Mary, in 1928 at the Maple Dairy, where he worked making butter pats and later became the manager. After the birth of their first child, in 1931, James sometimes used condoms, but, like many men at that time, he found them expensive and was occasionally too embarrassed to buy them at all. He and Mary turned to the most common methods of contraception at the time, withdrawal and abstention.

WE HAD just had our family. There weren't the same precautions or the things that there are today and it was a case of . . . well, I suppose there was some kind of luck attached to it. We had to be careful, that was all. Hope for the best. I used to buy condoms if I was working away from home. But they were difficult to get.

There used to be certain shops where you knew they sold them and you'd go by as if you were asking for something that you shouldn't ask for. It was looked down on a wee bit when they saw you walking in with a kind of sheepish look on your face. If you went in and there was a girl behind the counter, you were a bit embarrassed; you'd try and get the owner of the shop. In those days it was usually a man who prescribed the medicines, and if you could get hold of him, he would slip you a packet. You just said what you wanted to him and the girl would turn her head the other way.

But it worked all right, yes. Trouble was, they were quite expensive, you see. I never got used to them and it didn't seem the same, it wasn't a natural thing to do, put it that way. I suppose the main way of doing it was withdrawal. If you didn't have a condom, that was the next best thing.

We decided we'd be strong willed and sleep in separate beds. Yes, we did that for a while. It was quite difficult but we did quite well. We actually had eight years between the first and second babies. But we used to cheat on it occasionally. You just get kind of blase about it and start off sleeping with each other again.

That's what happens, you see, and then the odd accident happens sometimes. It doesn't really matter - you're happy to have your family. Other times accidents would happen at a time when you would not want another baby. I suppose we might have had a wee argument about it, but we accepted it. It was an expensive business - another mouth to feed. But the kiddies grew up to be healthy and we enjoyed them very much. So we've got no regrets at all about the family.

I'm not going up there, oh no]

CHILDBIRTH: I'm not going up there, oh no

Fathers used to be excluded from childbirth. Most women did not want their husbands to see them in labour. Hospitals did not allow fathers in on births. Medical orthodoxy was that they would be a nuisance, an embarrassment and a hygiene risk. Although most births took place at home, fathers were kept well away by the midwife or doctor. John Caldwell, born in 1908, was a storeman brought up in Barrow-in-Furness. He and his wife, Hilda, had two daughters, born in 1943 and 1946. John, like most men of his generation, had no desire to be present at their births.

WELL, of course, Hilda was upstairs and the midwife was there and I were sat downstairs, so the midwife says to me, 'We'd like some hot water, boiling water.'

I started to put the kettles and pans on for sterilisation purposes. I'll tell you also what I did, I was getting a tot or two of whisky down me, wasn't I? Giving me courage, yes.

When Hilda asked the midwife if I could go upstairs and help her, she said, 'There's no men in this room, only the doctor when he comes. We can't do with men messing about here; it's no place for them. He's all right where he is, down there boiling water, and that's all he needs to do.'

I was relieved. I didn't want to see it because I knew she'd be going through pain, in labour. I wanted to see a nice birth with no pains, but, of course, you've got to have pains, so I didn't want to witness it, because

I'd see the agony on her face.

I thought, I'm not going up there, oh no. I don't think I would have gone into that bedroom when she was having a youngster.

I'll tell you what put me off. I was manly. I was big, a tough body on me like a tree trunk, and muscles like great branches from that tree trunk. I thought, no, that's no place for me, like, even though she requested it. I thought, I'm a man, I'm not one of these shilly-shally blokes that want to be in on something that they shouldn't be in on. And that was it. I made me mind up there and then and, of course, when the midwife says, 'There's no room here for your husband,' I thought, well, that'll satisfy me. I'm not wanted up there and I don't want to go up there, so that's it.

I've never known any man ever be in the bedroom when the child was born. Me father had nine and he wasn't at the birth of one of them. I suppose I took after him, like. And me brothers-in-law didn't, so I thought, why should I break the pattern by going in?

I thought they'd all call me a big sissy that I wanted to be in the bedroom, and so I just brushed it off; no, no place for me.

I didn't hear a thing, thank God. The only thing I heard was the moment she was born and she had a hell of a pair of lungs on her. I heard her crying, but

I didn't know whether it was a girl or a boy. I heard this bawling out and I thought, 'Hello, it's here, whichever it is, a son or a daughter.'

Me sister brought it down, wrapped in a blanket, and she said, ' 'Ere, nurse yer baby daughter, Hilda's carried her long enough.'

And I looked at her like that and took her on me knee and then I looked at her face and said, 'What's the matter with her face?'

And she said, 'Nothing, why?'

And I said, 'Well, her face is very red.'

And she said, 'Well, that's good blood.'

And I said, 'Oh, thank God for that.'

I breathed a sigh of relief. I filled up, you know, with the relief it was all over and it was a healthy baby.

AT HOME: Type-cast in the boring role of strong-man

I'm not going up there, oh no]

Fathers took little part in baby care. Many were terrified of holding small babies, fearing they might drop or harm them. The child-care manuals of the time reinforced these fears, claiming that looking after infants was the natural preserve of women. Ray Rochford had five children, the first born in Salford in 1948.

I'D NEVER pick the babies up, I was too frightened. I was in the building trade, I had big hands and I was clumsy. Babies were forbidden territory. They were women's work, that was that. And you'd never push a baby out in the pram, that was unthinkable for a man in our area. They used to call them Mary Anns, you'd be the laughing stock.

Few men - of any social class - were brave enough to be seen out pushing a pram. Mike Walters was an office worker in Bristol in the Thirties.

I HAD very little to do with John when he was a baby. I know I never changed his nappy. I know I was frightened he'd roll off the table or that I'd hurt him in some way. I never bathed him either, I think I was frightened he might drown. And the idea of a man pushing a pram, that was almost unheard of. I remember once saying: 'I'm not going to push that bloody pram.' I think that was embarrassment, everything to do with babies seemed to be embarrassing for men to get involved in. But after a bit I did start pushing John out in the pram. You felt people were staring at you a bit but I was so proud of him I didn't care.

Some men enjoyed helping with their babies, but this was often kept hidden from the outside world. Women were sometimes as keen as their husbands to keep the secret lest people assume they were not doing their jobs as mothers properly. Leonard Small was a church minister in Bathgate, near Edinburgh, in the Thirties.

I LOVED helping with the babies. I would often bath them, and I must have walked miles holding them on my shoulder, patting their little backs, winding them. My wife never objected to me helping at home but she did to anyone seeing me do anything with the babies. Once we were going up a steep hill and I was pushing the pram. That was fine until some women neighbours started walking towards us. She slapped my hand and said: 'Take your hands off, you big Jessy.'


Housework and child care were seen as exclusively female activities. To most men, having a wife who did not go out to work and devoted herself to the family was a badge of status and respectability. Most women gave up their jobs when they married. Between the wars 95 per cent of married women did not work outside the home and in some professions they were legally barred from employment. It was widely assumed men should not have to help around the home, especially in working-class areas, where this was interpreted as a failure of the husband and the wife. Although some fathers did a few chores out of public view, few admitted this 'embarrassing' fact to others. Ray Rochford recalls:

A MAN used to be the master of the house. What he said went because he fetched the money home. And when I married I carried on like this and my wife did as she was told because that was how we were brought up. She might have a load of kids around her feet all day but you still expected dinner on the table when you came home. The men did virtually no housework. And as for polishing and cleaning the windows, you might do it secretly, but you dared not be seen. You might hang the washing out in the back yard but never in the front street because you'd lose face. It was such a close-knit community and you had to abide by the rules. You'd lose your manly image if you were seen cleaning the front step. They'd take the Mickey. You were just too frightened to break the rules.

Robert Williamson, a millworker, was a father in Bradford in the Thirties:

I'D HELP with the washing and the mangling. We used to peg out washing in the street between the opposite houses and put the prop up. Then the coal man would come down with a big cart of coal and I'd have to lift the prop up for him to get by. I think I was considered a bit different and maybe some people thought I was a sissy. But I held my head up because I felt I was doing the right thing. I felt everything should be shared in family life.


Children were expected to know their place and the father played an important role in imposing strict discipline in many homes. When father was at home his word was law, with no room for discussion. Punishments ranged from smacked bottoms to more serious assaults. They were often inflicted on a 'wait till your father gets home' basis in the evenings. Ray Rochford says:

THE MEN were the heavies and the kids were afraid of you. 'Be quiet, the big bear's sleeping upstairs.' I'd get in from work and my wife would tell me a list of things to deal with. 'Michael's broken a window, Paul keeps spitting at me,' and you'd have to dish out the punishments. You'd talk about it to your mates at work. 'I had to give our Brian one last night, y'know.' It was like a Shakespearean part you played, dad was the bad guy.

Not all fathers were seen as ogres by their children. Many were seen as 'softer' and 'kinder' than mum. With fathers spending little time at home, much of the day- to-day discipline was left to mothers, particularly during the last war. Leonard Small remembers:

MY WIFE was quite strict with the children, probably stricter than me. I remember the Blitz was on and she had sent one of my sons to bed early for being naughty. We heard him say his prayers and as a postscript he added: 'Please God bless my dear darling daddy and bomb mummy]'

A Labour of Love', by Steve Humphries and Pamela Gordon, is published by Sidgwick & Jackson on 26 February ( pounds 15.99). A six-part BBC 2 series, produced by BBC Bristol, 'A Labour of Love: Bringing Up Children in Britain 1900-1950', begins on Saturday 27 February at 8.15pm and continues at 9.30pm on Thursdays throughout March

(Photograph omitted)