The World of The Child

The child's world of 1904 varied dramatically depending on whether the particular child was part of a rich or a poor family. Even the chances of surviving infancy depended on this, with child mortality rates for the poor much higher than for the professional classes.

In the cities, the child of a rich or middle-class home grew up in a very protected environment. Boys were often educated by a private tutor and continued their education in one of the well-known fee-paying schools. Girls, whether educated at school or at home, were not expected to reach the same standard as their brothers in the Classics or Mathematics, but they were expected to be able to sew and sing and draw, and speak a little French or German.

Children of the poor rarely had a chance to receive more than a basic education, and were often involved in the day to day chores of farm or workshop at an early age.

In their leisure time, the children of the rich took part in such fashionable enthusiasms, as jigsaw puzzles or the more traditional ones such as dolls for the girls and toy soldiers for the boys. Further down the social scale, children made their own amusements with tops and hoops, marbles, hopscotch and ball-games, often played out in the street. The children in Joyce's story An Encounter play at cowboys and Indians, in a game that continued to be played throughout most of the century.

Those children that could read were reading some of the books which are still read by children - Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island and Andersen's Fairy Tales. The pantomime was a popular form of entertainment for those who could afford it, with perennial favourites such as Babes in the Wood and The Sleeping Beauty, vying with new ones such as Peter Pan, performed for the first time in London is December 1904. While there, the viewer could chew on bull-eyes, butterscotch and barley sugar sweets.

But perhaps one of the greatest differences between 1904 and 2004 is the level of absolute control adults had over their children. Legally, a parent could beat any child over the age of two. There were some controls; in a case reported by the NSPCA a man who had kept his children lice-ridden, starving and freezing was sentenced to six weeks hard labour at the Kingstown Court in 1904.

The children were sent to an Industrial School. Some of the children who ended up in charitable orphanages were not in fact orphans, but children that had been so mistreated that they were taken from their parents. Others could be sent to Reform Schools for six years because of such minor offences as breaking a window. This situation was not unique to Ireland, but was reflective of the prevailing attitude towards children which took little cognisance of their rights.

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