Defining 18th Century Childhood

Defining 18th Century Childhood

18th century child girl crime
Childhood has several features that make it inherently difficult to understand and research. Ludmilla Jordanova identifies four components of childhood that make it such a complex area of study:

  1. Childhood is not a “separate” history; children do not have their own world isolated from adults (and vice versa!).
  2. Childhood begins and ends, but the boundaries are not clear-cut.
    1. (For the purposes of this project, I am considering a “girl” to be between 5 and 16 years of age; 14 is when boys came of legal age, although no concrete legal equivalent existed for girls [see “Marriage” under Girls’ Social Realities].)
  3. Those who study childhood have all experienced it themselves, and so therefore all researchers have direct personal bias.
  4. Our society currently holds “complex, deeply contradictory, and largely unarticulated views about children” (78-9).

That said, in eighteenth century England identifiable changes in the understanding of childhood occurred.



18th Century Changes in Conceptions of Childhood

Throughout the century, a somewhat more sympathetic and modern view of childhood took hold. The religious insistence on original sin began to fade among the rationality of the Enlightenment and the optimism of capitalist middle class growth (O’Malley). In its place rose recognizable ideas that still hold sway today: children are malleable, so they must be raised–and punished–accordingly.

Two books exerted great influence in promoting these ideas: John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education, published in 1693; and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile, published in 1762. Both expressed the belief that children could be explicitly taught to become functioning members of society.

For Locke, that meant “a system of reward and shame” (O’Malley). To make a personal connection (against which Jordanova warns), I remember being toilet trained through rewards of stickers. I got to pick from a variety of stickers and place it on a poster wherever I liked. It was toddler heaven! I also remember when I put stickers, although not the same ones I imagine, all over the dining room table. My mother made me sit there, sobbing, and pick them all off. Reward. Shame. Locke’s methods live on.

Rousseau approached the upbringing of children at a different tack. Epitomized by the titular Émile, Rousseau’s idealized childhood occurred in a pastoral setting, “where he could learn from nature and for himself” (O’Malley). Summer camp, anyone? Perhaps not: Rousseau envisioned one child and one adult (a tutor) isolating themselves in such a setting, the importance of social interaction not yet grasped. Yet the assertions that children should get fresh air and learn through experience are still with us today.

Childhood Crime and Punishment

To bring this back to criminality, children did become a subject of greater interest in the eighteenth century, but the figure of the “juvenile delinquent” does not exist until the nineteenth century. So while the publication of the legal handbook, the Infants’ Lawyer, in 1697 recognized the necessity of treating children as sometimes separate from adults in the eyes of the law, the causes of childhood criminality were not clearly understood before the century was up (Giovanopoulos 45).

As Locke’s and Rousseau’s ideas might suggest, child crime represented a failing on the part of the individual child. Children were viewed as the product of habit and upbringing, who “were eager to imitate” (Böker 136-7). Reports from the Newgate Calendars cited various causes of a child’s criminal behavior: idleness, a stubborn or reckless temperament, allowing oneself to fall into bad company, and general divergence from the religious and contentment of station taught by one’s parents at home (Böker 139). In other words, neither parents themselves nor systemic poverty were factors.

In the home, first-hand accounts of childhood punishment in the eighteenth century varied considerably, much like one would expect today (Pollock 161). However, Pollock does not deal with first-hand accounts from illiterate lower class families, so it does not provide a view of class differences in home punishment. Sources from lower classes are of course limited, but court records provide some accounts of childhood punishment or abuse. But in this forum, the child’s perspective is given infrequently. Here are two accounts of home punishment from the Old Bailey:

From the case of Mary Broadbent, aged 10:

“[Her father] and his new Wife have used the child very barbarously. They beat her till they made her confest any thing that they desir’d.”

Mary was found not guilty, and furthermore, the court arranged for her father to pay what would now be called child support for her to live with her aunt.

The case of Hannah Downs did not end so happily:

“The Prisoner said, she run away [from her apprenticeship] because they abused her, and beat her, and pinched her in her Victuals, but denied she stole any Money, or that she did confess it. Which was submitted to the Jury.”

Nevertheless, Hannah was found guilty and branded. (Her age is not provided, but the record refers to her as a girl.)

In courts then, conflicting desires existed to forgive youth but also to make an example of them (Böker 138). More frequently, though, Old Bailey records indicate the latter. The non-fiction page examines some case studies.

Next Steps

With the prevailing view in eighteenth century England of an individual, malleable child, childhood takes on a new urgency and importance: a family’s future, especially an upwardly mobile family’s future, depended on pouring attention and resources on its children. Even the future of the nation then depends on successfully raising the next generation (O’Malley). The nineteenth century arguably saw the most social changes in regards to childhood, but they only built on the foundation laid in the eighteenth century.

Check out the timeline below for more specific examples of how these attitudes manifested, then learn how this all played out in terms of gender on the Girls’ Social Realities page.


Nicole DeGuzman ~ 5/6/15

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