You Can Help Your Country: English Children's Work during the Second World War

June 2, 2011

When we think of children in the Second World War, a common image is that of evacuees bound for the countryside. The war, and in particular the German air raid attacks that led to the widespread evacuation of children from English cities, put young people in mortal danger. Accordingly, scholars in the field have devoted a great deal of attention to children's sometimes traumatic experiences of bombing and evacuation. But for children, was the war simply an event that happened to them?

A common trend in the literature on childhood in wartime presents young people as passive victims. And yet, as Berry Mayall and Virginia Morrow show, there was so much more to children's experiences than this. Their research focuses on children's much-overlooked contribution to the war effort in England during the Second World War. The central thrust of their work is to demonstrate that children were active participants.

What kinds of work, then, did children do during the war? You Can Help Your Country points to a whole range of activities, from growing vegetables to gathering horse chestnuts and knitting garments for British troops. Contemporaries also recalled being part of the Women's Voluntary Service's "Cogs" scheme, which encouraged children to see themselves as cogs in the war-work machine, helping out with salvage collecting. Older children did other sorts of work, such as serving in canteens and visiting wounded soldiers. Many also joined school harvest camps during the summer holidays. Given the variety of such contributions, it is surprising how little research has been carried out in this area to date.

Children's experiences of the war were, of course, far from homogeneous, and class was a critical factor in determining both the level and the type of participation. Prior to the war, the majority of working-class children were already in paid work by the age of 14, so their involvement in the war effort brought no great change. Children at grammar schools or private schools were less likely to have worked beforehand, but even during the war their formal schooling was prioritised, since they were regarded as future leaders of the nation. There were also geographical differences. Evacuees, it seems, were more likely to do paid work, perhaps because they did not have such easy access to pocket money. Those who stayed at home were more often engaged in "substitution work" - taking on the roles of parents who were busy with war-related activities.

Throughout the period, children's involvement in the war effort remained contentious. Educationalists were divided on the extent to which young people should be involved. Some were concerned about the potential for disruption to formal education if tending to the school vegetable patch was to take precedence over classroom-based learning. And yet others felt that broader lessons about citizenship could be learned through "doing one's bit". Overall, although there was a growing sense from the beginning of the century onwards that children's place was in school as learners rather than in the workplace as earners, their participation was generally deemed acceptable "for the duration" of the war.

In emphasising children's agency in the war effort rather than their victimhood, Mayall and Morrow offer a new way of understanding children's experiences of the war. In examining contemporary debates about children's war work, they furthermore reveal a great deal about shifting conceptions of childhood, both then and now.

You Can Help Your Country: English Children's Work during the Second World War

By Berry Mayall and Virginia Morrow. Institute of Education, 329pp, £25.99. ISBN 9780854738892. Published 13 April 2011

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