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‘The past is a foreign country…’

January 14, 2013

Some of my previous blogs concerned child sexual abuse, and more specifically, Jimmy Savile and the Yewtree Report. This blog concerns a topic no less controversial. I’d like to argue that what we would regard today as ‘child abuse’ was commonplace in the 1950s and 1960s; it was part of the back-cloth of most childhoods in the UK, and because of this, I believe that it is not possible to judge claims of historical abuse as if they were happening in the here-and-now. Let me explain.

I grew up in a loving family in a (largely) middle-class suburb of a Scottish city. I attended what was widely regarded as a ‘good school’, and I enjoyed many of the advantages that class and privilege were able to secure, including piano lessons and membership of uniformed organisations. And yet my daily life was governed by violence and threats of violence. A wooden spoon (‘paddled’ on the buttocks) was a regular feature at home; a ruler was used to strike sluggish fingers during piano lessons; strict control was maintained by adult and child leaders at Brownies and Guides. But the place where violence was most in evidence was school: here chalk, blackboard dusters, rulers, leather belts (the so-called ‘tawse’) and hands were used to cajole, humiliate and otherwise chastise children for all manner of mis-deeds, large and small. I have vivid memories of being taken to the front of the classroom on the first day of primary 1, aged 5, to be punished for ‘talking in class’. Punishment involved the (woman) teacher pulling back one of the legs of my knickers and smacking my bare buttock in front of the other terrified children. I’d like to say that I learned my lesson from this – that I stopped being a chatterbox – but that would not be true. In fact, what did happen was that I was fortunate enough to find myself one of the ‘clever’ ones. We were allowed to sit at the back of the classroom, and physical punishment was more often confined to the unfortunate kids in the front row – to the ones who actually needed most help, not most punishment.

Secondary school continued the pattern already set at primary school, the only difference being that there were now more teachers to exert their authority over pupils and playgrounds were also pretty scary places at times, with not infrequent physical fights and bullying amongst girls and boys. Again, one teacher stands out as particularly noteworthy. He was new to the school and was young and handsome. We all thought he looked like the Russian agent, Illya Kuriakin, from The Man from U.N.C.L.E., an American TV series that was broadcast in the UK between 1964 and 1968. His favourite activity was to belt the prettiest girls in the class (I was never belted!) and this led to his removal from the school after a pupil complained to her (G.P.) father. With him gone, the school reverted to its usual routine of daily acts and threats of violence, sometimes delivered by teachers in the classroom in the heat of the moment and, at other times, conducted by the head-teacher in his office. It was not uncommon to see a queue of children standing outside his office, waiting to be belted. Of course, not all teachers had to rely on the belt to maintain discipline; better teachers achieved this through humour, encouragement and loyalty. So-called ‘corporal punishment’ continued in state schools until 1986, long after I left school to go to university in 1972. Use of the cane was not finally outlawed from independent (private) schools until 1998, and still features in schools in some parts of the world today.

The reason why I am retelling this story now is because we are (again) in the midst of a perfect storm around child abuse and child sexual abuse in the UK; I believe that the Savile story should be viewed as one, albeit highly colourful, demonstration of this current day moral panic. The UK government is currently considering instituting a new inquiry into historic child abuse in England and Wales; meanwhile in Northern Ireland, such an investigation into abuse in care institutions between 1922 and 1995 has already begun. This inquiry includes a confidential ‘Acknowledgement Forum’ in which ‘victims’ and ‘survivors’ have been invited to recount their childhood experiences of living in institutions to members of the Inquiry Panel, following a similar approach adopted by a ‘systemic review’ and subsequent ‘pilot forum’ conducted in Scotland (see Shaw 2007 and 2011). There are now plans for a national hearing in Scotland to take evidence from residents of children’s homes across the country and Home Secretary, Theresa May, has announced a new police inquiry into allegations of child abuse in north Wales in the 1970s and 1980s.

These investigations follow on from an inquiry conducted in the Irish Republic, which led the Prime Minister to apologise on behalf of the State in 1999 and to set up a redress board to make pay-outs to victims of abuse. This has led to more than 14,000 cases coming forward for compensation, and 300 firms of solicitors being paid over 150,000 Euros. Simon Cox in a recent radio programme questioned whether a comprehensive nation-wide inquiry is really needed in England and Wales (see BBC Radio 4, The Report, 3 January 2013). He asks: ‘Would it just re-open old wounds or is a truth and reconciliation process necessary to learn the lessons of the past and protect children in the future?’

I would like to caution even further than this. In Smith et al (2012), we argued that Scotland’s Time To Be Heard had major epistemological and conceptual flaws. These, we write, ‘contribute to the construction of a particularly negative discourse around care homes and schools, with damaging consequences for those who live and work in residential child care today’. Time To Be Heard contains accounts of life in care that are disconnected, de-contextualised and often, ‘internally conflicted’:

‘Some respondents testify in glowing terms to childhoods characterised by plentiful provision, love and fun. Others claim that abuse was all around them and must have been evident to others living and working there’ [the children’s homes] (p13).

What is self-evidently true is that physical punishment was a feature of the lives of those in care between 1950 and 1995, the time-frame of the systemic review and pilot forum, just as it was a feature of my much more fortunate upbringing. So what are we to do – bring claims against all parents, teachers, Brownie leaders and piano teachers from the 1950s and 1960s? This question only serves to show the silliness of such a question, and the impossibility of achieving reparation or bringing ‘justice’ to those who have experienced abuse in the past. I am not for a second suggesting that some individuals have not experienced cruelty and brutality at the hands of their care-givers in different settings. It’s just that the task of separating out these claims from the more routine violence of a 1950s or 60s childhood is, in my view, a much more tricky endeavour. Highly charged, emotional sentiments do not help either. It becomes incredibly difficult (and unpopular) to say – ‘I don’t condone or minimise child abuse, but neither do I believe that all are necessarily ‘victims’ either.

I believe that we need to find a more considered, reflective and calm approach to this difficult issue, one that allows for contradiction and complexity, and one that encourages care and trust, not victimhood and blame. That’s the real challenge as we go forward.

Viv Cree, 14th January 2013

NB ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’ is the opening sentence in LP Hartley’s (1953) novel.


Hartley, L.P. (1953) The Go-Between, London: Hamish Hamilton.

Shaw, T. (2007) Historical Abuse Systemic Review. Edinburgh: Scottish Government.

Shaw, T. (2011) Time to be Heard: A Pilot Forum. Edinburgh: Scottish Government.

Smith, M., Cree, V.E., Clapton, G. (2012) ‘Time to be heard: Interrogating the Scottish Government’s response to historical child abuse’, Scottish Affairs, Vol. 78, Winter, 2012: 1-24. (available on our website:


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