Recovering the voice of the child to mark Australian Children’s Book Week 22-28 August

By Kimberley Reynolds, Professor of Children’s Literature, Newcastle University UK, & CHE Senior Honorary Research Fellow

To mark Children’s Book Week I was asked to think about how the voices of children from different eras can be identified in literary and archival materials. This request came about because for the last 18 months I’ve been working with colleagues from CHE on a collection of essays about emotional responses to the death of children in the early modern period. There is quite a lot of evidence about how adults responded to child death, but as so often is the case, the voices of children themselves are hard to locate. That is one reason why I was excited to discover, while working on an entirely different project, a publication put together by pupils from Britain’s public schools system in the 1930s (perversely, in the UK ‘public’ actually means ‘private’). The story of this short-lived journal is worth briefly reprising briefly before looking at a few examples of how it gives us access to the lost voices of children and young people from this turbulent decade of the last century.

Writing and rebellion

Cover of ‘Out of Bonds’ Volume 1, 1934.

One morning in the early summer of 1934, a hand-picked group of public school pupils received an anonymously produced circular announcing the birth of an anti-establishment magazine written by pupils for pupils. The circular invited its readers to become involved with this new publication which was to be called Out of Bounds: Public Schools’ Journal Against Fascism, Militarism and Reaction. Its aim was to introduce pupils in Britain’s elite public schools to left-wing political ideas and to make them relevant by linking them to what its editors identified as significant forces of militarism and oppression in the public school system: the Officers’ Training Corps (known as the OTC), fagging and corporal punishment. Their aspirations went beyond reforming schools, however. As the second editorial explains, Out of Bounds was intended to be a vehicle for reforming society by changing a key mechanism for reproducing the status quo. The forces of conservatism, or what are called reactionaries in Out of Bounds, it claims, ‘have long regarded Public Schools as their historic stronghold…. It is our job to attack them in their stronghold. But we must go further than this…. We attack … the vast machinery of propaganda which forms the basis of Public Schools and makes them so useful to the preservation of a vicious and obsolete form of society…. ‘

Esmond and Giles Romilly. Photo by Howard Coster, 1934. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.
Esmond and Giles Romilly. Photo by Howard Coster, 1934. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Though they may sound mature, these are the voices of teenagers, in this case Giles and Esmond Romilly, nephews of Winston Churchill and pupils at Wellington College. The Romilly brothers headed an editorial board made up of pupils from across the public school sector. Under their guidance four numbers of the journal were produced and sold in 23 public schools, despite the fact that it was immediately banned in the majority of such schools. In fact, the ban and an article in the right-wing Daily Mail which identified contributors to Out of Bounds as a ‘red menace’ in Britain’s public schools probably stimulated sales: the initial print run of 1,000 rose to 3,000 for the second number.

In terms of children’s reading and the history of emotions, Out of Bounds is interesting for the way it explores youthful passions, concerns and ambitions, often in relation to reading. The dependence on reading in this pre-television era is clear throughout the journal which, of course, was itself meant to be read. The Romilly brothers had educated themselves in the concerns of the Left through reading, and Out of Bounds features lengthy book reviews of the kinds of materials they recommended as well as advertisements and offers from radical bookshops. There were few children’s books on suitable subjects so many of the books recommended are for a general audience. When left-wing children’s books were available they were reviewed; Geoffrey Trease’s 1934 Bows Against the Barons, for instance, is ‘wholeheartedly’ recommended as ‘an enthralling study of England in the Middle Ages that shows ‘that every uprising has an economic cause’.

Two page spread from ‘Out of Bounds.’

Contributions to Out of Bounds frequently find young people railing against war and fascism. One letter to the editors gives a detailed account of attending the huge Blackshirt rally at Olympia in 1934. The correspondent explains that though he had gone out of curiosity, not yet being sure what the British Union of Fascists stood for, the event turned him firmly against fascism after he was brutally attacked by the Blackshirts in the melee that broke up the rally. Other contributions urge young people to turn away from militarism and join the peace movement. Even more heartfelt are the discussions of sex in public schools. In a feature called ‘Morning Glory (Sex in Public Schools)’, Giles Romilly complains mightily about the lack of sex education in public schools.   The piece boldly discusses masturbation, boys’ passions for each other, lewd talk, and the efforts of masters to control though not to explain sexual desire in adolescent boys. Girls too wrote about the way single sex education affected behaviour. Phyllis Baker of Ashford High School contributed an article on the unhealthy worship by girls of some female teachers (‘she must be young, fairly short, and essentially “sporty”; she must have fair hair, a good figure, shapely legs, and a very short gym tunic’). The article ends with the observation, ‘what a lot of anguish would be saved by educating the two sexes together’.

Despite its popularity, Out of Bounds was not solvent. Once it became known that the editors had outstanding debts it is likely that printers refused to take on the journal, but other factors contributed to its short life. By the time the fourth and last number appeared, Esmond was in a remand centre because his mother claimed he was out of control. This coincided with the outbreak of civil war in Spain, an event that saw many of those who had been passionate in their opposition to war become equally determined that fascism needed to be defeated. On his release Esmond joined an international brigade. Giles too went to Spain but as a journalist. Out of Bounds was gone, but that does not mean it was ephemeral. Producing the magazine was a defining moment for both its contributors and its readers. In the course of writing articles, reviewing books, advertising and reporting on peace rallies, and devising ways to circulate their magazine, they helped call to into being an idea of youth as resistant to authority. Many went on to become active members of left-wing political parties and continued to work to overthrowing the conservative forces that had previously shaped their lives. Their youthful voices are preserved in the pages of Out of Bounds and in the journal it is clear that reading and writing together enabled this group of young people to fashion themselves in ways that arguably changed British society for ever and helped bring the nascent welfare state into being.

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