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The Public Perceptions and Personal Experiences of Only Children Growing Up in Britain, c. 1850-1950

Violett, Alice (2018) The Public Perceptions and Personal Experiences of Only Children Growing Up in Britain, c. 1850-1950. PhD thesis, University of Essex.


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This thesis argues that only-childhood was never the sole, and only ever a minor, determinant of only children’s experiences. It analyses autobiographies and oral history interviews of only children who grew up between 1850 and 1950 to show how personal inclinations, parental attitudes, domestic circumstances, geographical location, class, gender, and historical time, alone or in combination, were far more important influences on childhood experiences than only-childhood per se. These factors not only created differences between only children themselves, but also demonstrably influenced sibling children’s experiences. Its findings challenge negative ideas about only children that spread to the public from childrearing manuals through other media from the late-nineteenth century, when numbers of one-child families began to increase. Previous historians have inadvertently maintained these stereotypes by tending to present examples of only children who conformed to them, not seeking alternative explanations for their experiences, and presenting sibling relationships as vitally important. This thesis also questions these largely-positive portrayals of siblings. It additionally shows how some only children use only-childhood as a ‘lens’ through which they present and explain their childhood traits and experiences, attesting to the pervasiveness of only-child stereotypes. By doing so, this research builds upon the work of Raphael Samuel, Paul Thompson, Natasha Burchardt, and others regarding the role of ‘myth’ in adults’ representations of their childhoods. This thesis’ main argument supports sociologists’ suggestions about the influence of factors other than only-childhood, but it takes a more historical and personal approach. It also builds upon, and is informed by, childhood and family historians’ research into the advantages and disadvantages of decreases in family size from the 1870s onwards. Furthermore, it enhances demographic historians’ work on fertility decline by examining why some only children had no siblings, and contributes to the history of emotions by examining loneliness and unhappiness.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Uncontrolled Keywords: Only child, only children, nineteenth century, twentieth century, history of childhood, history of the family, history of emotions, social history, Britain, British history, World War I, World War II, autobiography, oral history
Subjects: D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
H Social Sciences > HQ The family. Marriage. Women
H Social Sciences > HT Communities. Classes. Races
H Social Sciences > HV Social pathology. Social and public welfare
Divisions: Faculty of Humanities > History, Department of
Depositing User: Alice Violett
Date Deposited: 07 Sep 2018 09:47
Last Modified: 07 Sep 2018 09:47

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