Political Projects: Hobbies and Youth Activism in Mid-Twentieth Century Britain

by | May 21, 2020 | IBBYLink Spring 2019

Kimberley Reynolds

This article is derived from a presentation given at the November 2018 IBBY UK/NCRCL MA conference.

The presentation was accompanied by many images and extracts from works that cannot be reproduced here. Almost all of them can be found in their entirety in Reading and Rebellion: An Anthology of Radical Writing for Children 1900–1960 (eds Kimberley Reynolds, Jane Rosen and Michael Rosen, Oxford University Press, 2018). The first half of the last century saw a turn to the left in British society in which the general population, weary of the series of wars and economic upheavals that had plagued the first decades of the twentieth century, became interested in alternatives to capitalism, nationalism and militarism. Children were inevitably caught up in this shift at the levels of health provision, education and recreation, including hobbies. All of these areas came together in children’s reading; especially for children growing up in left-wing households, where emphasis on reading owed much to Lenin’s proclamation that the job of youth was to ‘read, study and learn’. At a time when print was the main medium for reaching out to children and young people, the kinds of material children of the left were likely to encounter included books in translation (and films with subtitles), plays, poems, lyrics and periodicals.

Conference poster and invitation. Copyright © 1951 Woodcraft Folk.

I wrote about this kind of material, which I call radical children’s literature, in a book called Left Out: The Forgotten Tradition of Radical Writing for Children in Britain, 1910–1949 (Oxford University Press, 2016). In a nutshell, these were works designed both to provide new visions of how the world might be organised and run, and to encourage children to skill themselves up so they could contribute to the work of bringing in and managing a more peaceful and fair future. Examples of these works can be found in the anthology I co-edited with Michael Rosen and Jane Rosen (not related) Reading and Rebellion. We decided to put together that volume because almost all the original works have been left out of standard histories and consigned to the library stacks (if they have been kept). To locate them I talked to many people, including Michael and Jane, who had grown up in left-leaning homes and communities. As they talked about what they had read and how they acquired and shared particular books and other publications, it became clear that there were strong links between hobbies in the broadest sense and reading.

Tolworth Woodcraft Fellowship group. Copyright © Woodcraft Folk.

Although many of the activities and books children of the left enjoyed were often the same or similar to those familiar to children growing up in households that did not share their political ideals and aspirations, they were part of a different social context. For children of the left, emphasis was placed on recreation as part of social transformation. Hobbies, then, were based on activities that would teach life skills and help children become healthy, well-informed, competent, well-adjusted adults and good citizens. The left’s approach to developing children’s skills often involved group activities under the aegis of organisations such as the Socialist Sunday Schools (founded 1909), the Young Communist League (founded 1921), or the Woodcraft Folk (founded 1924). These groups combined recreation with education, play with exercise and cultural improvement, and all activities with political development and work in the community. In these groups children were introduced to hobbies which included the art of creating pamphlets and publications, literary appreciation, learning first aid, hiking, camping, group singing and performances, and making banners and posters for demonstrations.

A flavour of the purposeful nature of their activities – and the enjoyment young people got from them – is found in the log books they kept. Extracts from Woodcraft Folk log books from these years (available on the official Woodcraft Folk website) show children running meetings, taking minutes, organising activities such as reading groups, camping holidays and hikes. For instance, a log book from 1930 records details of a hike undertaken by a group of youngsters who walked for 14 miles on the outskirts of London.

The Open Road: Sunday 10 Oct

Sunday the 10th October, the first hike of the season was held, eight people turning out. Hike started at 10:45, and our first path was up the Chalk Cliff. Climbing up and down hills, we walked to Romney Street and South of Kingdown, & then to Stansted at 12:45. We stopped one hour for Dinner. The sun was shining brightly and everyone was in good humour ….

Every group and most gatherings included singing; learning a repertoire of folk songs and how to accompany themselves on guitars was a must for any self-respecting young activist. It is important not to underestimate how deeply singing helped embed ideas and attitudes. Michael Rosen gathered a number of songs and performances associated with the left in a section of Reading and Rebellion and as we have been promoting the book, audiences have spontaneously joined in singing some of them, many decades after they were first learned. These include ballads about famous rebellions, songs that celebrated freedom, peace, comradeship and the spirit of internationalism, and a part of the script for The Big Rock Candy Mountain, first performed at the Theatre Royal, Stratford, London in 1955–1956.

Going to the theatre may not be considered a hobby, but mounting performances was a popular activity in left-wing groups that involved many hobby activities. Like singing, putting on plays and constructing tableaux were also an effective way of disseminating political lessons. Between the wars left-wing performances by children which spread ideas about political, social and economic reform could reach thousands of people. For instance, The Dawn, a play performed by children of the Co-operative Movement, is a parable about bringing industry and democracy together to ‘moralise’ the economy. In a single year it was performed by children in at least 11 groups to an estimated audience of 4,500 adults and children.

The most ubiquitous and enduring pastimes were reading and writing. Books were passed around between group members and discussed in meetings, on hikes and while camping. They were so valued that often they were kept, collected and passed down in families. As Lenin’s injunction about reading makes clear, for those growing up on the left, reading was part of acquiring the vocabularies and skills needed to argue their case, not least in print. Groups and summer camps regularly generated bulletins, wall newspapers and other publications. Even very young children were encouraged to learn how to put together publications. For instance, the Daily Worker circulated a pamphlet called The Little Tusker’s Own Paper (1945), a cartoon-style feature that shows a little elephant learning how to produce a newspaper. Newspapers here are presented as a fun way to stay in touch with friends; a kind of early form of social media for young activists.

Older children and teenagers were more ambitious. Probably the most ambitious youth publication of the interwar years was called Out of Bounds, created by pupils from many elite public schools in 1934 to challenge the establishment and spread left-wing ideas. It was produced to a high standard, had a print run of 3,000 and even attracted advertising. This example captures the way reading helped children and young people step outside the established structures and assumptions of British society and to experiment with ways of making life better for all. And that is the essence of radical children’s literature, whenever and wherever it is produced.

Works cited

Reynolds, Kimberley (2016) Left Out: The Forgotten Tradition of Radical Writing for Children in Britain, 1910–1949. Oxford University Press.

Reynolds, Kimberley, Jane Rosen and Michael Rosen (2018) Reading and Rebellion: An Anthology of Radical Writing for Children 1900–1960. Oxford University Press.

Kimberley Reynolds is Professor of Children’s Literature in the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics at Newcastle University, UK. She is a past president of the International Research Society for Children’s Literature, Senior Editor of International Research in Children’s Literature and in 2013 she received the International Brothers Grimm Award for contributions of children’s literature research. She has twice received the Children’s Literature Award for Children’s Books: Radical Children’s Literature Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformations in Juvenile Fiction (2009) and Left Out: The Forgotten Tradition of Radical Writing for Children in Britain, 1910–1949 (2016). She has also a long association with IBBY UK and the University of Roehampton. She is a Chapter One Founder of Seven Stories, the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature (NCRCL) and a founding member of the Children’s Laureate steering committee.