Forget Jamie Oliver or David Cameron, Victorian men were the original hands-on father, far from their image as distant and severe, new study concludes
They are seen as the embodiment of a severe and aloof brand of parenting, as far removed as it is possible to image from the hands-on style of today’s “new dads” – embodied by Jamie Oliver, David Beckham or even David Cameron.
But a study of Victorian fathers has concluded that the image is largely a myth and that they had more in common with their 21st Century counterparts than many would imagine.
Dr Julie-Marie Strange, a social historian based at Manchester University, scoured hundreds of contemporary sources – ranging from memoirs to music hall comedy lyrics – to test the traditional caricature of fathers in the 19th and early 20th Century as strict, unaffectionate and often brutal.
The study, which focused on working class family life, concluded that fathers in the era not only far more affectionate and involved than widely assumed, but also had many of the same foibles – and were even the butt of the same jokes – as those today.
Her book, “Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1865-1914”, published by Cambridge University Press, concludes that the myth of the Victorian father grew up partly to subsequent generations, including today’s so-called “new men” feel better about themselves.
“When you read stuff about the ‘new man’ it is generally set up against the foil of another, older man who just didn’t kids and didn’t do family,” she explained.
“But if you look historically the new man pops up again and again, always against this stereotype of the old man as somehow retrograde.
“The context is usually self-justifying, as if to say ‘haven’t we progressed?’”
She read 250 autobiographies from people who grew up in the period – ranging from memoirs by political, trade union or religious figures to accounts written by ordinary people in the middle of the 20th Century, often to preserve memories of world which was already vanishing.
She also scoured musical hall lyrics, advertising, and pamphlets from the cheap press, containing stories.
“There is a stereotype of the Victorian father which has become a bit of a joke, he is meant to be very strict, completely humourless, a little bit of a hypocrite and definitely not fun, in fact rather severe,” she said.
“With working class fathers where there is an added dimension of the stereotype being extremely negative, sometimes alcoholic and often rather brutish.”
But she said much of the social history the period carried the same assumptions partly because they relied on contemporary commentaries written middle class social reformers with an agenda to “improve” the working class.
More recently, the study of the history of the family has been written from the perspective of women’s history in which men were viewed as the “negative embodiment of the patriarchy”, she explained.
“The accounts were written by people often who grew up in extreme poverty but they gave a far more complicated picture than the one we are used to,” she said.
“Even where a child might say sometime my father was drunk or was in a foul temper that was never the full story.
“The vast majority talked about fathers who were fun, who spent time with their kids in their spare time, fathers who taught their children to be interested in politics, history, religion and how things worked.”
She said she found almost no examples of children being severely beaten by fathers – a staple of the popular caricature of Victorian family life.
There were, however, several examples mothers effectively inventing the idea of their father’s discipline as a threat to keep in them line.
There was even one story she came across where a man came home from work and was told by the mother he was give his naughty child the strap and so father and son colluded to convince her that this had been done. He took his son into the bedroom and thrashed the bedpost with his strap and made the boy cry out as if he was being beaten.
One popular theme in Victorian comedy, she said was a narrative still regular used in television adverts in which a father is left in charge of the children while the mother goes out but the house quickly descends into anarchy because he was disastrously inept at domestic chores and a hopeless soft-touch when it came to discipline.
The book also cites on advertisement from the 1890s joking that mothers should not worry about leaving children with the father because they had Dr Ridge’s Food For Infants to rely on.