I managed to get to two seminars at the Institute of Historical Research this week.
On Wednesday I went to hear Angela Davis on 'Gradual Separations and Substitute Mothers: The Influence of
Anna Freud's Hampstead War Nurseries on Post-War British Childcare
Provision and Practic' in the Psychoanalysis and History series.This is part her much larger project on childcare provision and I realised that I had already heard her speak on other aspects of post-WWII childcare provision. This was an excellent paper on the very particular approach taken by Anna Freud's Hampstead nurseries, which were geared towards child observation and research along with care for children in what were often, given the period fairly dire straits requiring it. Apparently it was always heavily oversubscribed with waiting lists. Its findings had a significant impact on post-war nursery policies in the UK (though on reflection, I note that recent opposition to proposed changes in staffing levels in nurseries has focused almost entirely on the physical and organisational problems, rather than the issues around attachment and psychological security that were central to Freud and Burlingham's work).
There was a good deal of lively discussion, including personal experiences such as the very different approach taken in France (where of course there is a rather longer tradition of childcare outside the home), and bad personal memories of another North London nursery at about the same period, run by idealistic Communists with an ideological commitment to collective childcare.
The following evening I attended the Modern British History seminar, at which Selina Todd gave a very rich presentation on 'Post-war British people...was it ever that good? Working Class Life in England postwar', which tended to confirm my own arguments, coming from a rather different angle, that far from being cosy and complacent, the 1950s were a good deal less stable and about the haven of the stable familial household than the usual narrative suggests. Todd's work (I am now longing to read her forthcoming book on the working classes in C20th Britain) indicates that there was an assumption that the full employment of the post-war era and the advent of the Welfare State meant that poverty was no longer an issue and indeed this tended to drop out of discussion. Todd, however, found that while working class families were tending to be better-off than in the 1930s, and more able to purchase consumer goods, this came with long hours of hard work and overtime for the head of the family, fears of job loss, taking less congenial but better paid jobs, 'housewife' shifts for mothers, and the 'never-never' hire-purchase of newly available luxuries under the threat of repossession if payments could not be kept up. Social mobility through education was still low, though parents were determined to improve the position of their children. There were many questions during the discussion session and quite possibly discussions could have gone on even longer.