enter youth workers

Chapter 1 of Mark Smith’s (1988) Developing Youth Work explores some of the key factors that led to attention being focused on youth, and, in particular, the behaviour of working-class young people. He charts the history of ‘adolescence’ and the ‘discovery’ of bourgeois youth work.

contents: introduction · little ladies at home · the making of modern leisure · threats from within and without · psychology - the final piece of the jigsaw · the new provision · there will be drill · ennobling their class · bourgeois youth work · further reading and references

developing youth workThis chapter has a strong focus on developments in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. If I were writing it today I would want to highlight two themes much more strongly.

First, there is a need to go back to the work of people like Hannah More and Robert Raikes – and link the development of some of the strands identified with debates and tensions within the churches. While there is some discussion of Sunday schooling in Chapter 2, the activities of different churches was not given enough evidence – and the work of key figures like Maud Stanley, Emmilene Pethick and Baden-Powell was not properly located with regard to ‘the religious impulse’.

Second, I did not link the emergence of the youth work described with the drive to school young people. It was no accident that More, Raikes and Stanley were concerned also with formal education. Much early youth work grew out of an effort either to attract young people to schooling initiatives or to develop more appropriate work once they were involved.  

This said, I think that the main line of the argument – that a discernibly ‘bourgeois youth work emerged – still holds up and that it can be contrasted with more popular forms (see Chapter 2).

Mark K. Smith

Links: Robert Raikes, Maud Stanley, Lord Shaftesbury and ragged schooling, Emmiline Pethick,  youth work and schooling, Christian youth work 


[page 1] Before large-scale industrialization, the now familiar ways of differentiating people according to age were not widespread. The emergence of the concepts of childhood and adolescence appear to have corresponded with the development of the capitalist system of production (Thane, 1981), although there is no simple relationship between the two (Springhall, 1986: 25). While for most people there was a period of infancy, when the child was dependent on adults, modern ‘childhood’ was something that arguably emerged in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries within middle- and upper-class families (Aries, 1962; Pollock, 1983). Within pre-industrial European economies children were working in the home or around it by about age four or five. Many young women and men had left home by puberty to work as servants or apprentices in other households. Thus, children were quickly absorbed into the productive process and would mix with adults in both work and social situations.

As the middle and upper class came to understand childhood as a time of innocence and preparation for adulthood, the technical demands of the economy produced the need for ever-longer periods of training and apprenticeship. Worries about children’s experiences of work and their behaviour on urban streets led to a range of interventions and legislation aimed at creating the conditions for childhood. Attention also turned to youth. In an often quoted phrase, Musgrove has claimed that the adolescent was invented at the same time as the steam engine, ‘the principal architect of the latter was Watt in 1765, of the former Rousseau in 1762’ (Musgrove, 1964: 33). In Rousseau’s view puberty was a second birth. It was then that ‘man really enters upon life; henceforth no human passion is a [page 2] stranger to him’ (Rousseau, 1911: 173). However, it was not until the late nineteenth century that ‘adolescence’ came into anything like widespread usage in the United Kingdom (Gillis, 1974: 95-132). Like ‘childhood’, ‘adolescence’, as far as young men at least were concerned, could be viewed as being ‘an innovation of, by, and for the middle class’ (Macleod, 1983: xv). The aspirations of the middle class concerning their offspring then became the template by which the experience of others was later to be judged.

Two interlinking elements are pictured as crucial to the widespread application of the concept to working class young people - the development of compulsory schooling and changes in the economy (Walvin, 1982: 186-92). The effect of these was apparently to create or highlight a time of delay and discontinuity which could be labelled as a peculiar property of youth. Throughout the nineteenth century schooling expanded, first in voluntary and ragged schools and Dame schools, then by the state following the 1870 Education Act. By 1893 the school leaving age was 11 and by 1899 it had risen to 12. This, combined with increased efforts to enforce attendance, had a considerable impact: first, by pulling children ‘off the streets’, it transferred the problem of their control to the classroom (Humphries, 1981); and secondly, while there may have been seasonal, part-time and indeed casual employment, children had their access to the symbols and benefits of adult economic life postponed. Their importance to the labour market had become marginal.

At the same time, there were changes in technology and in the economy which gave rise to different types of employment opportunities for young people, particularly in urban areas. For instance, large numbers of young men found employment in the various occupations that emerged with the growing complex of distributive and administrative functions. Frequently these jobs were ‘reserved’ for people in their teens; paying adult rates for van boys and messenger boys was seen as uneconomic. With young people being forced to leave such employment in their late teens, a discontinuity emerged between juvenile and adult work. This entered political debates at the turn of the century and was expressed in a number of books and articles concerned with ‘The Boy Labour Problem’ (Urwick, 1904; Russell, 1905; Bray, 1907). The moral panic engendered by large numbers of children on the streets had apparently been replaced by one involving young people (Pearson, 1983: 58—62), In addition, between 1890 and 1910 the accuracy of national statistics concerning juvenile crime improved substantially, and these changes were mistakenly used as evidence of a massive [page 3] increase in crime. This judgement was further enhanced by increased action being taken against certain types of ‘crime’, e.g. drunkenness, gambling, malicious mischief, loitering, begging and dangerous play (Muncie, 1984: 40).

Little ladies at home

Some young women were also observed to be involved in a street problem of another kind. In many larger cities and towns there was a flourishing trade in child prostitution, due in part to the incidence of venereal disease (young women were less likely to be infected), to the cult of the ‘little girl’ and sexual fantasies around young children, and to the appalling social and financial position of many working-class families. In response to the work of journalists such as W.T. Stead and campaigners such as Josephine Butler there was a considerable public demand for the Government to act. Thus, in 1885, Parliament passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act which raised the age of consent to 16 and made it an offence to procure a women under the age of 21.

A number of middle-class women were also worried about the conditions faced by young women in domestic service and in the factories and sweated labour shops, and still others were appalled by young women’s experiences in the home.

Many a girl who works hard all day can never get to rest early, because she has to wait till all the family go to bed. She does not know what it is to have a solitary or a quiet half hour. She lives in a chronic condition of nervous exhaustion. (Pethick, 1898: 113)

In one sense the experiences of these young women was hidden. They were not seen to be quite the problem that young men were and, as Nava has argued, the control and supervision of young women has always been in the home (1984: 1). Yet home life was also undergoing a restructuring.

The separation of the home from work, changing rhythms of working life and demands for different forms of skill had their impact upon the shape of household life. Some of the changes were consciously promoted; for example, the middle class through their economic and political power were able to influence significantly the shape of, and power relations within, the family. Their ideals and beliefs came to dominate nineteenth-century legislation and ideology:

The central belief that emerged . . . was that of a male [page 4] breadwinner gaining a livelihood through work and maintaining his female (and child) dependants within the home. . . . In this view, husband and wife were the archetype, but father and child, brother and sister, uncle and niece, master and servant reproduced the relationships of clientage and dependency. (Davidoff, 1976, quoted in Gittins, 1985: 31)

Gittins goes on to comment that this was not just a family ideology, but also a gender ideology. It was a careful and deliberate attempt to reorganize the relations between sexes according to middle-class ways and values and then define the outcome as somehow being natural. These changes both affected the way in which young men and women experienced these institutions and how young people were perceived by adults, or at least by middle-class adults. Thus, both young men and women were viewed as problematic and they had to be fitted into the new social and industrial order that the reformers wished to see. Indisciplined, dangerously independent and precocious, their ‘personality’ was a matter of grave concern (Hendricks, 1986: 33—9). The family was to play its part, with women undertaking the major productive role therein and providing the conditions for the men’s activities in the world. In addition, women, were to provide a reserve army of labour, to be used as the economy demanded their services.

The making of modern leisure

By the second half of the nineteenth century, allied to changes in work and the structures of household life, leisure began to take a form that is recognizable today. Four key factors have been identified by Cunningham as influencing its shape (1980: 140—87). First is the operation of the market forces of supply and demand. In response to the growing wealth of the working class a considerable commercial sector developed. This included the growth of various forms of variety theatres and penny gaffs, public houses, travel opportunities such as day excursions, popular literature such as the ‘penny dreadfuls’, and sports of various kinds. Secondly, these market forces were clearly modified by the attachment of the working class to forms of leisure created in the first half of the nineteenth century and before. This included loyalty to various games and sports and to the public house, the usage of which was already fragmented by gender. Thirdly, increased provision by government and charity organizations in the name of ‘rational recreation’ led to the spread of public parks, libraries, wash houses [page 5] and museums. Finally, market forces were also affected by a growing view of the dangers of leisure and these were expressed in calls to control leisure activities and to privatize a number in the home. Furthermore, not only did leisure become privatized, but within Western society a particular concept of the individual developed, and this increasing differentiation of people has subsequently been mirrored by a mounting specialism in leisure pursuits (Rojek, 1985: 18—25).

The middle class already had a degree of control over the experience of work, schooling and other forms of incarceration, including hospitals, poor houses and prisons. Considerable effort was also expended in an attempt to cultivate correct attitudes and behaviour within the churches. What appeared to elude the middle class was any influence over the private world of the working class home and the ‘dangerous’ pastimes they enjoyed. There was an abhorrence of ‘brutal’ sports, cheap entertainments, drinking and gambling, all of which were seen to be ungodly, as posing a threat to order and as a reflection of the moral failure of the working classes. Leisure was ‘that dangerous time for working boys - the time between leaving work and retiring to bed’ (Greenwood, 1869: 44). For it was in that space and in the pursuits undertaken, that many of the middle classes’ worst fears about the working-class young were manifest: ‘they were said to be completely free from restraint or guidance; they mixed with friends of their own choosing (and often with undesirable adults); and they were thriftless with money’ (Hendricks, 1986: 33). The leisure activities of the working-class young were therefore to be singled out for attention.

Threats from within and without

As if the dangerous personality of working-class young people were not enough, other forces were also at work. The growth of working-class political organization was seen by many in the middle class as heralding a period of intensified class conflict. Socialism, like Chartism before it, was perceived as a threat to stability (Simon, 1965: 60). Crucially, it can be argued that something akin to a remaking of the working class took place in the years between 1870 and 1900; that the solidarity and organizational strength achieved in earlier struggles were:

channelled into trade union activity and eventually into a political party based on that activity and its goals. The distinctiveness of a working-class way of life was enormously [page 6] accentuated. Its separateness and impermeability were now reflected in a dense and inward-looking culture, whose effect was both to emphasize the distance of the working class from the classes above it and to articulate its position within an apparently permanent social hierarchy. (Stedman Jones, 1983: 236—7)

These interrelated developments can be seen as signifying a shift in the central forms of working-class activity. The dangers of this were not lost upon the middle class. Later, William Smith, the founder of the Boys Brigade, while defending the training and discipline brought by war, claimed he was ‘not at all sure that there were not elements of just as much evil . . . and bitterness of spirit in the industrial wars between class and class which many signs point to as the conflicts of the future but which, like other wars, may have their part to play in the progress of the race’ (quoted by Springhall et al., 1983: 20). Young people were sometimes pictured as being particularly susceptible to the appeals of extremists, a point taken up by Baden-Powell:

Extreme ideas are seldom much good; if you look them up in history you will see almost always they have been tried before somewhere. The Socialists are right in wishing to get money more evenly distributed. . . . But they go the wrong way to work; they want to fight all other people to get themselves up, instead of joining in with everybody in doing a great thing for the whole country by a way which is fair and good for all.

More thrift rather than a change in government will bring money to all. And a strong united Europe, where all are helpful and patriotic will bring us power, peace and prosperity such as no Socialist dream could do. (quoted by Rosenthal, 1986: 183)

In contrast, some, particularly from dissenting traditions, felt able to strike a rather more conciliatory note. For example, Dr John Gladstone prepared a paper for the YMCA in 1891 on its ‘Attitude with regard to Socialism’, in which he admitted that ‘the sufferings that oppress whole classes of men baffle the efforts of individuals; they must be grappled with by organized co-operation or the compulsion of the government’ (Binfield, 1973: 375).

To fears of, and debates about socialism and working-class political organization were added concerns about Britain’s ability to maintain the Empire. This had particular implications for domestic stability and wealth:

The exploitation and degradation of the colonial working class [page 7] was an indispensable requirement in maintaining the standard of living of the British working class. . . . The British economy is really a ‘parasitic economy’ dependent on colonial revenues for its maintenance. (Ramdin 1987: 63)

The ‘issue’ of Ireland further ‘condensed anxieties about the British imperial position as no other could, for if the Empire were to be dislocated at its very centre its prospects looked bleak’ (Hall and Schwarz, 1985: 13). The South African war of the 1890s revealed ‘both the poor physical condition of the recruits and the inefficiency of their military commanders’ (Springhall, 1977: 14). Yet it was not only war on the physical front that was causing concern, but also the emergence of other industrial and trading nations, in particular the United States and Germany, and the possibility of ‘economic defeat’. Therefore, due to the experience of the Boer War combined with fears about the British economy, there was ‘a demand for state and voluntary welfare measures designed to increase “national efficiency”, in the contemporary phrase, among influential social groups who previously had been hostile or indifferent to social issues’ (Thane, 1982: 61).

There was also a growing shift from fears about the ‘fitness’ of the population, to the aspiration to breed and educate an ‘imperial race’ (Donald, 1985: 223). This can be seen in attitudes towards ‘immigrants’. By 1900, while Irish and Jewish immigration had dwindled, these groups had settled in the cities:

concentrated in small inner districts, in a pattern which foreshadowed later waves of immigration, not only through overcrowded housing and competition with older residents for already poorly paid work, but also in their uneven path to social integration, marked by considerable social prejudice and political protest. (Thompson, 1975: 42)

At the same time the small black communities adjoining major ports were also experiencing considerable deprivation and discrimination (Law, 1981: 24—7). Racism, the ‘principal handmaiden to Empire’ (Fryer, 1984: 165) was to be found in the attitude of the middle class and in that of the organized working class. Nationalist and Imperial fears gave some stimulus to arguments for racial purity. The Eugenicists advocated measures to restrain the mentally and physically weak from reproducing, offered some credence to the growth in anti-semitism, and fed the hostility that led to restrictions upon Jewish immigration in the Aliens Act 1905 (Thane, 1982: 59-60). For the middle class these indeed did seem dangerous times. [page 8]

Psychology - the final piece of the jigsaw

Middle-class reformers already had access to common sense explanations of the problems faced by young men and women. For instance, Eagar talks of early youth workers looking ‘to what became of the growing boy who was no longer a child but was not yet a man. They discerned an intermediate age, plastic, impressionable, perilous and formative’ (1953: 21). However, there now arrived a scientific justification for such work with young people and an ‘explanation’ of why working-class young people might be considered as lacking the potential for intellectual and emotional development. The conceptualization of adolescence which initially emerged under the influence of writers such as Hall (1904, 1906) and Slaughter (1911) provided a key means by which a pathological picture of working-class young people could be sustained.

Hall argued that people pass through a number of stages in their development and that these stages correspond to those that occurred during human evolution. In this he drew heavily on Darwinism:

Thus each individual re-lived the development of the human race from animal-like primitivism (childhood) through periods of savagery (adolescence) to finally achieve civilized ways of life (adulthood). Within such a psychobiological framework he thus argued that ‘adolescence is pre-eminently the criminal age’ and that ‘criminals are like overgrown children’. (Muncie, 1984: 42)

Hall emphasized adolescence as a time of storm and stress and laid particular stress upon the overriding importance of puberty within adolescence. His ideas about adolescence were, in many respects, ‘simply a culmination of views that had been around in a less systematic way for much of the nineteenth century’ (Springhall, 1986: 29).

While much of Hall’s major work on adolescence was devoted to the study of young men, he did discuss female adolescence as well. At the time of publication, and subsequently, the book aroused considerable fury among feminists:

For the boy, [adolescence] was a time of ambition, growth and challenge. For the girl, it was a time of instability; a dangerous phase when she needed self protection from society. During adolescence, boys grew towards self knowledge. Girls on the other hand, could never really obtain self knowledge. They [page 9] could never hope to understand much of themselves or the motives for their conduct, for their lives were ruled by ‘deep unconscious instinct’, and a girl’s self consciousness was only the “reflected knowledge that others had to offer”. Women, Hall insisted, never really outgrew their adolescence and this constituted their charm, their eternal womanliness. (Dyhouse, 1981: 122)

Hall’s work was disseminated through a large number of other people’s writings and in texts directly aimed at youth workers and teachers. For example, Russell and Rigby (1908) were clearly influenced by him, as were key figures in Scouting and Woodcraft such as Ernest Westlake and John Hargrave (Rosenthal, 1986: 242, 250). His attempt to refute the possibilities of female autonomy dove-tailed with earlier Victorian concepts of femininity and the family. That idea of femininity represented economic and intellectual dependency and saw service and self-sacrifice as defining features of womanhood.

The more generalized use of the notion of adolescence, and the way in which a number of behaviours could be thus attributed to a phase young people were going through, helped to shift attention away from material inequality as a way of explaining the position of young people. Juvenile delinquency could be explained as the ‘natural attribute of adolescence’. Lack of parental guidance combined with ‘troublesome adolescence’ remained the dominant form of explanation of deliquency up until the 1950s.

Working class adolescents were thought to be most likely to display delinquent and rebellious characteristics during this ‘storm and stress’ period in the life cycle because it was widely assumed that working class parents exercised inadequate control over brutal adolescent instincts. (Humphries, 1981: 17)

The new consciousness of ‘adolescence’ was thus considerably enhanced by the efforts of psychologists. While some may have stuck tenaciously to the epithet ‘youth’, the codification of thinking that had taken place in the name of adolescence could hardly have escaped them. Those who saw it as their duty or job to intervene in the lives of young people, now had a suitable vocabulary of scientific terms with which to carry forward their intentions.

The new provision

Armed with the new language of social science, and stung by fears of [page10] social disruption and imperial decline, significant elements of the middle class devoted some of their energies to charitable efforts. Perhaps the largest single inspiration was evangelicalism. Similarly, the efforts of the Jewish community, especially after the influx of refugees from the Russian pogroms, made an impact upon welfare thinking and provision. Much of the financial support came from well-to-do middle-class families, although lower income groups also made contributions (Thane, 1982: 21). Throughout the mid-Victorian period there had been a steady rise in the proportion of people in the UK population engaged in middle-class occupations. Those engaged in trade, commerce, literature, science and education increased significantly (Best, 1979: 104—11). However, there is a danger of treating this grouping as if it was homogeneous. While the use of class as an explanatory tool had developed, and class consciousness had grown, responses to social questions were varied. Thus, for example, we might wish to distinguish an educated professional sector from ‘the mass of small employers, shopkeepers and house-owners at one end of the spectrum, and from substantial merchants, bankers and the City elite at the other’ (Stedman Jones, 1984: xv).

Much of the charitable effort was centred in large cities where there was a significant middle-class presence close to the forms of deprivation and ‘problems’ that so alarmed their sensibilities. London, especially the East End, became the site for many forms of philanthropic intervention. The composition of London’s middle class was skewed towards professions such as law, medicine, the church, the military and the civil service, groups which were of considerable importance in determining the formation of characteristic attitudes towards the problem of poverty. The absence of substantial, direct economic links between these particular groupings of the rich and the poor, as for example between employer and employee, can be seen as explaining the importance of charitable activity in London, ‘both as a mode of interpreting the behaviour of the poor and as a means of attempting to control them’ (Stedman Jones, 1984: 240).

There does appear to be something of a sea-change in the attitude of key groups to the notion of intervention - particularly with the ‘casual poor’. The London dock strike of 1889 and the riots of 1886, along with the concerns already outlined earlier, provoked the ‘intellectual assault which began to be mounted against laissez faire both from the right and the left in the 1880s’ (Stedman Jones, 1984: 297). Nevertheless, while the extent of government action concerning perceived social problems undoubtedly increased from [page11] 1870 to 1900, it was limited when compared with the demands for action and the nature of the problems themselves. The prevailing anti-interventionist ideology in relation to the state undoubtedly played a part, but other factors were also at work. Perhaps the central factor related to the importance attached to low taxation, especially within the Liberal Party. Such a commitment ‘remained an obstacle to central government action and was actually worsened by the high cost of the Boer War which opened in 1899’ (Thane, 1982: 45). The state, both local and central, was envisaged as providing a ‘safety net’, a net which operated to a large extent through the Poor Law. Beyond this there were incursions into welfare, such as in education, but by-and-large such works were to be left to voluntary organizations.

It was against this backdrop that youth work was developing Youths’ Clubs and Youths’ Institutes appeared in the late 1850s and early 1860s (Eagar, 1953: 161) - the first Jewish youth organization of which there is any convincing record is the Leman Street Girls’ Club in 1883 (Bunt, 1975: 11), the Girls’ Friendly Society was founded in 1874 and by 1885 had 821 branches (Dyhouse, 1981: 108), and handbooks on club work appeared in 1889 (Pelham) and 1890 (Stanley). By 1884, Pelham reported that the growth of Working-boys’ Clubs and Institutes had been remarkable. ‘Such an institution is now considered part of the parochial machinery in every populous district. There are now about 300 parochial institutions for young men and boys in the Diocese of London and about 50 others not connected with any church. Twenty years ago there were probably not a score’ (quoted in Eagar, 1953: 240). Many of the London boys’ clubs not connected with a church were closely tied in with public school and university missions. Significantly, it was in the 1880s that the first ‘youth organization’, the Young Men’s Christian Association, initiated in 1844, began to make a mass impact (Simon, 1965: 62).

From the mid-nineteenth century on, youth work was to assume many guises although Jeffs, among others, has suggested that with the passing of the 1870 Education Act and the gradual addition of other welfare legislation to the statute book, there was a significant shift in its style and emphasis. With schools apparently offering basic instruction and other agencies material and other welfare assistance, many clubs and youth organizations now chose to concern themselves overwhelmingly with ‘the inculcation of intangible social and spiritual values amongst their clients rather than in improving their material well-being’ (Jeffs, 1979: 4). Thus, youth work could be understood not as an effort to further the  [page12] natural intellectual development of the person, but as a means of producing subjectivity. It helped to secure often ‘unconscious structures which make people responsive to certain representations’ (Donald, 1985: 241).

How were young people to be attracted by sponsors and workers to these places of improvement in their ‘own’ time? The answer was to be recreation, i.e. in return for an opportunity for some amusement, young people would have to submit themselves for ‘improvement’.

They have their special wants and dangers, which call for such an agency as the Youths’ Institute. Their peculiar wants are evening recreation, companionship, an entertaining but healthy literature, useful instruction, and a strong guiding influence to lead them onward and upward socially and morally; their dangers are, the long evenings consequent upon early closing, the unrestraint they are allowed at home, the temptation of the streets and of their time of life, and a little money at the bottom of their pockets. (Sweatman, 1863: 42)

Working-class culture was a primary target for workers’ actions:

Children required salvation from the vices of their parent culture; . . . a second set of evils lay in the wiles of gambling, moral laxity, the ‘animal excitement’ of theatres . . . and the curse of drink. Clubs, then, wished to direct working-class leisure into respectable channels, with either a religious or military bias or both. They also existed to act as a focal point for loyalties. To their organizers, the closed nature of working class society evidenced a self-centred and selfish perspective on life. (Blanch, 1979: 105)

Mixed up in these two accounts are two key traditions of conceptualizing working-class youth: theories of mass culture and theories of deprivation. The former view stressed change in the economic and social systems and the way they undermined many traditional values and weakened any collective or individual sense of purpose. Working-class young people, whether through their structural position, lack of experience, immaturity or ignorance, were thus viewed as particularly vulnerable to the effects of a mass society (Humphries, 1981: 3-14). On the other hand, there have been those who have articulated concerns about working-class youth through theories of deprivation. Here a common form was a belief that they had a ‘hereditary lack of potential for intellectual and emotional development’ (Humphries, 1981: 14). Other forms have tended to  [page13] focus on cultural deprivation, the belief that that allegedly restricted linguistic and conceptual codes, authoritarian or inconsistent discipline and low expectations of achievement contributed to a culture of poverty.

Jewish youth work also expressed these concerns. Bunt argues that it was the extreme squalor and the perception of the ‘temptations of the street’ that led to the establishment of many early Jewish Youth Clubs. Significantly, one of the key elements of the work was the ‘anglicizing’ of the children of new Jewish immigrants. The intention was to provide a new culture of ‘Jewish Englishness’. Central elements of Jewish culture were to be retained in such a way as to ensure its maintenance and, at the same time, the new immigrants were encouraged into ways of life that the Jewish middle class saw as appropriate to British society.

If young people were to be ‘improved’ then they would have to be taken out of the home or street or any other environment that contributed to that which was offensive to middle-class mores. It was necessary to provide an environment that would create a strong identity to the youth organization and its ideology, and to the other members. In doing so it was only then possible to transcend the cultures so offensive to the middle-class philanthropists. At first the two strands of amusement and improvement were set against each other, particularly in work with boys. Later, they were frequently joined in the notion of ‘improving amusement’. For example, many of the London boys’ clubs, particularly those under the aegis of public school missions, placed an emphasis on games. In part this was in response to the lack of opportunities for sports in Board Schools and at work. The muscular Christianity of Kingsley and Hughes was well adapted to club life (Simon, 1965: 68).

Sponsors of early clubs and youth provision recognized that if they were to safeguard the values and institutions they themselves believed in, then young people would have to be socialized into seeing the world as they did. There was not total agreement about what should be done. Within the middle class, there evolved competing understandings and these were reflected, to some extent, in the different traditions of practice which emerged. Inevitably, differing experiences and intellectual and moral positions were to find expression in debates such as that between Smith of the Boys’ Brigade and Baden-Powell, or in the feminist and collectivist analysis that emanated from parts of the girls’ work movement.

Within the girls’ club movement there initially appeared to be a concentration rather more on amusement than education or leadership. ‘We must turn to and provide for the girls that which  [page14] their parents truly say they cannot provide - healthy and safe recreations, amusements and occupation for their leisure hours’ (Stanley, 1890: 14). Yet there were those who sought rather more. Montagu desired to correct the ‘tendency to individualism and self-seeking which are produced by workshop life’ (1904: 246). She saw clubs stimulating ‘the members’ power of self-control and their sense of responsibility and widen(ing) the average conception of happiness’ (Montagu, 1904: 247). Pethick reported on her experience of girls work in the 1890s:

The conditions, not only of the home, but of the factory or workshop had to be taken into account. It became our business to study the industrial question as it affected the girls’ employments, the hours, the wages, and the conditions. And we had also to give them a conscious part to take in the battle that is being fought for the workers, and will not be won until it is loyally fought by the workers as well. (Pethick, 1898: 104)

The effectiveness of the new provision was, as might be expected, limited. For example, while clubs might have exploited the need for recreation among working-class adolescents, and combined this with their being vehicles for a conservative ideology, they did not necessarily attract large numbers. As White comments upon one Jewish club in the early 1900s:

The Butler Street Club, for example, sought ‘to lure girls from the streets, the Penny Gaffs and the musical halls’, but it succeeded in luring less than 200 girls away from pursuits unacceptable to the middle class. The stronger attractions of that culture of the streets and the musical hall and the cinema held greater sway over the youth of Rothschild Buildings than the given culture of the club. (White, 1980: 190)

Part of the reason for the failure to attract working-class young people lies in the tension between social provision and improving aims. First, the grand claim:

Their primary object, the keeping of lads off the streets, has gradually grown into the altogether wider and larger conception of moulding their characters and physique until the elements be so mixed in them that Nature may proclaim them men. The making of men! That in a word, is the ideal aimed at and. . . [we] hope to show that it is not altogether unfulfilled. (Russell and Rigby, 1908: 22)

Then some of the tensions are revealed in what Russell and Rigby  [page15] described as the three objects of boys’ clubs. Recreation (the compelling force which brings members to the club), education (comprising the whole physical, moral and mental training of lads), and religion (comprehending all the impalpable influences which give a club a grip on its members and tend to awaken their higher nature) (Russell and Rigby, 1908: 19—20). Substitute temperance for religion and we have the three fronts upon which Solly envisaged working-class improvement would proceed (Bailey, 1987: 178). These he claimed were like a three-legged stool, remove one and the whole project collapses. The early reformers fashioned the three legs, but appeared incapable of getting them the same length. ‘Striking a balance between easy congeniality and earnest improvement - “How to steer between weak tea and good behaviour and a rollicking free and easy” - was a social exercise for which the bourgeois philanthropist was ill equipped’ (Bailey, 1987: 179); a position further hampered by a lack of relevant commercial and managerial expertise and ‘historic capital of social skills’ in working-class leisure provision (Bailey, 1987).

Similarly, if the intention of middle-class workers and sponsors was to show the underprivileged how to live, then, as Gillis has commented, the slum dwellers had some lessons of their own to teach. A clergyman who had been active in the Oxford Men’s and Lads’ Institute in the 1880s remembered:

The boys were very good fellows, but they regarded the Institute as an opening for permanent ‘Town and Gown’ conflict, and naturally began at once to measure their strength against those who had come to civilize and instruct them. Classes were started, but often terminated prematurely; the scholars would turn off the gas, stick pins in their teacher, and break up the furniture. (quoted by Gillis, 1974: 174—5)

Stanley provides graphic accounts of similar problems;

Two bigger girls who were sitting happily at work. . . while a story was read to them, suddenly quarrelled about a thimble, and in a passion one girl threw the table over, the others mad with excitement began to act in the wildest, utterly indescribable fashion. . . . The horrified workers found the lower room in still worse confusion. Boys were banging at the shutters and door, the girls inside shouting and singing, and even fighting, slates, books and sewing being used as missiles. . . . One of the ladies went to speak to the lads outside, and one threw his cap in, and getting his foot in the doorway prevented the door being closed. Remonstrances were of no use. (Stanley, 1890: 195—6)

Given the wide discrepancy between the need of the girls as perceived by the organizers and as perceived by the girls, ‘it is no wonder that the most successful clubs tended to be led by a charismatic and devoted leader or else conducted through a process of self-selection that eliminated all but the quietest and most submissive members’ (Vicinus, 1985: 233). In this clash of cultures and of interests it is perhaps not surprising that it was the sons and daughters of the middle classes and upper-working classes who predominantly joined these early organizations. This tendency was generally true of the whole rational recreation movement where, ‘in their concern to expedite improvement, reformers frequently rejected the osmosis of example-setting and adopted an autocratic manner which alienated workingmen’ (Bailey, 1987: 179).

Humphries has also charted the resistance of working-class young people to the various attempts to improve them. He reports ‘larking about’ in the numerous youth organizations attached to churches and in the various uniformed organizations. Indeed, the lack of success of the boys clubs in bolstering up church attendances and the problems that arose when they did turn up is seen by at least one commentator as being a significant factor in the Anglican Church’s retreat from such work (Dawes, 1975: 100—101).

There will be drill

During the l880s, other more structured forms of work appeared. The Boys’ Brigade was the first to mix drill, athleticism and the wearing of a uniform, and it was later followed by a number of similar organizations including the Church Lads’ Brigade (1891), the Jewish Lads’ Brigade (1895) and the Catholic Boys’ Brigade (1896). The outdoor healthiness and social imperialism of Scouting appeared in its organized form in 1908. Blanch (1979) suggests three main strands of nationalist attitudes which link these early male organizations. First, the idea of national efficiency in the drive to mental and physical fitness, rooted in drill and discipline. ‘The very illiberality of drill and discipline reflected the attitudes of those concerned with youth to “freedom” (and therefore chaos)’ (Blanch, 1979: 118). Model authority was the second pervasive idea. Within these organizations we find a highly organized system of authority by ranks and levels and it was seen by their proponents as providing a model for social organization and leadership. The last theme was the enemy outside.

[page17] At least young people knew what they were joining. What was expected of them was clear. While there was some resistance to things like drill, military manoeuvres and uniforms, members were attracted by sport, the band and the annual camp (Humphries, 1981: 134—5). Further, there were significant differences between the Boys’ Brigades and the Scouts. From the outset the Scouts were independent of one particular religious organization (although they might be attached to a Church or Chapel), and they utilized a rather different concept of discipline (seen as an inner quality, rather than something that had to be externally drilled) (Jeffs, 1979: 7).

If the aim of organizations such as the Boys’ Brigade was to reform the behaviour and attitudes of the working-class young, those that reformers saw as ‘being at risk’, then they also failed. First, the uniformed organizations were, and still are, predominantly preadolescent. Secondly, the majority of working-class young people were in effect excluded from such organizations either because of the membership fees and the cost of uniforms, or because it was alien to their culture. There are numerous reports of the abuse and scorn poured upon Scouts or Boys’ Brigades when they paraded in working-class neighbourhoods. A sample of Boys’ Brigade membership in the 1890s, taken from enrolment books, demonstrates that sons of skilled manual workers or those with fathers in ‘white collar’ occupations clearly prevail over a negligible number with unskilled or semi-skilled parents (Springhall, 1977: 25). Of the 11,000 Scouts in London in 1910, Baden Powell calculated that about one-half or more came from the lower-middle class and the 1921 Census indicates that the South had a significantly higher density of Scouts per thousand teenagers than the industrial North (Springhall, 1977: 127). Thirdly, there was resistance from a significant proportion of those who did join. Yet, to some extent, such youth movements did allow the assimilation of upper-working class and lower-middle class boys into the new social order. They:

helped to absorb the upwardly aspiring into the ranks above them in the status hierarchy: by training boys to become accustomed to a new social identity with the minimum of disturbance to the class fabric of society. For the socially ambitious, hard working apprentice, a youth movement became an intermediary, providing a rite de passage between and within classes. (Springhall, 1977: 121)

Those young men who wanted to advance within the existing system were provided with a means of preparing themselves in a way acceptable to those who presided over entry into desired jobs and  [page18] social organizations. Those who did not wish to advance on these terms could at least be offered some recreation in the hope of containment. However, work with girls and young women tended to emphasize a different type of ‘getting on’, and suggests there were serious limits to this process.

Ennobling their class

While club leaders and Guide leaders often asserted that their aim was to develop habits of self-reliance and independence in girls and young women, the way in which this was interpreted and the reality of the work, on the whole, suggests rather different concerns. For instance, Agnes Baden Powell argued that a movement like Guiding was needed among working-class girls — ‘the girls of the factories and of the alleys of our great cities’ — because they would otherwise escape from any kind of restraining adult influence once they had left elementary school (quoted by Dyhouse, 1981: 113). Thus Guiding, girls’ clubs, Snowdrop Bands and the Girls’ Friendly Society could be seen as attempting to fill a ‘gap’. Such girls would otherwise be influenced by their working-class peers and relatives:

Too much independence amongst young girls was a dangerous thing. It is significant that in most of the literature expounding the need for clubs and societies amongst adolescent girls, the working girl’s independence is perceived as ‘precocity’. Wage earning is believed to buy them a premature and socially undesirable independence. Further there is a strong assumption . . . that financial independence and sexual precocity go hand-in-hand. (Dyhouse, 1981: 113)

It was feared that the involvement of young women in the labour market and, consequently, their spending power, would tempt girls away from their allotted roles of wife and mother. If young women were ‘upwardly aspiring’, then what such organizations could provide them with was an experience in the ‘womanly arts’ so that they might influence their men:

If we raise the work girl, if we can make her conscious of her own great responsibilities both towards God and man, if we can show her that there are other objects in her life besides that of her gaining her daily bread or getting as much amusement as possible out of her days, we shall then give her an influence over her sweetheart, her husband and her sons which will sensibly improve and raise her generation to be something [page19] higher than mere hewers of wood and drawers of water. (Stanley, 1890: 4—5)

However, it was important that girls did not get above their station. There were definite limits to the rite de passage: ‘we have not wished to take our girls out of their class, but we have wished to see them ennoble the class to which they belong’ (Stanley, 1890: 48). The bourgeois improvers could only ever offer a limited path between classes for both young men and women. They believed in, and operated within a system which required a particular division of labour and which would have considerable difficulties in accommodating large numbers of young people wanting significant advancement. While the rhetoric of individual achievement came easy, it had to be contained within particular class, gender, racial and age structures: a woman’s place was in the home; to be British was to be best; betters were to be honoured; and youth had to earn its advancement and wait its turn.

Bourgeois youth work

When commentators examine the development of youth work, they usually use organizations as the means of defining their field of study. Groupings that were short-lived or informal are ignored, as are political activities and approaches that led to forms not normally associated with youth work:

Youth work thus came to be the voluntary effort of groups of people outside the class and the age-group in need. Other possible solutions were rejected. . . . Those who were taking action clearly wanted to achieve something which, they believed, only they were capable of providing. (Davies and Gibson, 1967: 31)

In fact, much early work was directed at young people in the same class as the providers. However, those institutions which have subsequently become identified with youth work were largely controlled by members of the middle class. They carried with them specific themes (particularly an attack on working-class cultures), developed forms which are recognizable in present-day practice, and sought to engage the services of particular ‘types’ of adult. In this respect they have much in common with the notions of rational recreation that formed the initial development of the working men’s clubs.

We have attempted to place youth work in history, but that  [page20] history in turn needs to be set within the forms of relationship that have developed over time within society. The very middle class that has been so prominent in the accounts of the development of youth work, was itself produced within a system which has something of its own dynamic. Many of the concerns that were expressed by the early middle-class sponsors of youth work could be seen as reflecting requirements of the economic system. However, the relationship between the needs of the economic system and the provision that was the outcome of the sponsors efforts, is far from simple or straightforward (Jeffs and Smith, 1988a: 83—9). Indeed, at one level, many of the improvers’ efforts were directed at the containment and reformation of elements of the system. No doubt these early workers and philanthropists were sincere in their belief that they were acting in the best interests of the young — that the values and institutions they saw threatened were for the good of all rather than the benefit of the few. Their thinking was formed within a particular class which in turn was both the creation and beneficiary of capitalism. Similarly, the organizations that they initiated had to act within that system and inevitably took on values and ways of operating which made sense both of and within that system. In particular, because youth organizations were, and still are, in the market economy, they have to respond to its dynamics much like commercial operations (Jeffs and Smith, 1988a: 88). Those advocating rational recreation and improvement were competing with strong commercial forms, in particular the public house and its large-scale derivatives such as the music hall.

Youth work may have arisen out of bourgeois concerns about the behaviour, beliefs and fitness of working-class young people, but the philanthropists’ best efforts were often frustrated by young people themselves. Thus, youth work cannot adequately be portrayed as exhibiting a simple one-way imposition of middle-class values and behaviours upon the working-class young. Here the work of Gramsci (1971) and, in particular the notion of hegemony, is important. Hegemony is the process by which the dominant class reproduces its ascendancy through the use of ideological means. It is a moment when one concept of reality is diffused throughout society and informs ‘taste, morality, customs, religious and political principles, and all social relationships, particularly in their intellectual and moral connotations’ (Williams, quoted in Morris, 1979: 58). Although certain ways of thinking become embedded in day-to-day living, control is never complete. All that can be achieved is a temporary or moving equilibrium. Within the dominant class there will be constant movement and realignment. Similarly, he argues, [page21] the working class manifests a dual consciousness, holding two apparently contradictory or inconsistent sets of beliefs at the same time. This consciousness is in part determined by bourgeois ideology and in part is commonsense knowledge derived from people’s everyday experience of the world (Gramsci, 1971: 323—33). Thus, different social groups relate differently to the ‘dominant’ ways of thinking. As a result, subordinate classes do not acquiesce passively to the attempts by the ruling class to win consent to their authority and to exercise cultural leadership.

Ideology is presented here as a relatively autonomous set of ideas and practices which cannot simply be reduced to an expression of class interests or economic structure. The ideological terrain is, thus, a complex of discourses. In that complex, the balance of forces are ‘always in flux and the site of contestation over meanings’ (Thompson, 1986: 48). As such ideology both limits and enables. We are constrained by the ideas that we have — they allow us a particular view of the world, one that is inevitably partial. On the other hand, ideology does provide us with ideas and the possibility for developing a view of the world that allows us to act:

Within this perspective, ideology refers to the production, consumption, and representation of ideas and behaviour, which can either distort or illuminate the nature of reality. As a set of meanings and ideas, ideologies can either be coherent or contradictory; they can function within the spheres of both consciousness and unconsciousness; and finally, they can exist at the level of critical discourse as well as within the sphere of taken-for-granted lived experience and practical behaviour. (Giroux, 1983: 143)

Giroux goes on to say that ideology is something that we all participate in; yet we rarely understand the historical constraints that produce and limit the nature of that participation. Nor do we appreciate ‘what the possibilities are for going beyond existing parameters of action to be able to think and act toward a qualitatively better existence’ (Giroux, 1983: 145).

It has been argued that ‘the dominated classes do not hold the dominant ideology, the dominant classes do’ (Abercrombie and Turner, 1982: 406). To the extent that there is a dominant ideology, ‘it is best seen as securing the coherence of the dominant class’ (Abercrombie and Turner, 1982: 411). In this way the attempts by early youth workers to reshape working-class cultures in the image of bourgeois norms and values can be understood as acting to confirm and consolidate the beliefs of both those workers and their  [page22] sponsors. Yet we should not pursue this line too far. It may be that subordinated groups do not take on a cohesive, dominant ideology which subjects them totally to the domination of the ruling class, but ‘the ideologies of nationalism and individual achievement may inhibit and confuse the development of the counter ideology of the subordinate class’ (Thompson, 1986: 48). These confusing bourgeois ideologies were central to many early youth workers’ efforts. ‘Getting on’ and the chance to ‘serve Queen and Country’ also figured strongly in the motives of a substantial number of their young adherents.

The extent to which the development of any counter-ideology is arrested is dependent, in part, upon the ability of the subordinate class to resist encroachment. Resistance may occur through the development of divergent sub-cultures such as that of the street (Roberts, 1973) or the pub (Foster, 1977: 223) (see Chapter 2). It may be helped further by those elements of capital whose interests are not served by the dominant ideology, in this case publicans and the entrepreneurs involved in many of the ‘hated’ popular leisure forms. Thus, ‘all social actors, no matter how lowly, have some degree of penetration of the social forms which oppress them’ (Giddens, 1979: 72). Not only do people exhibit a dual consciousness and to some extent ‘see-through’ potentially oppressive forms, they may also distance themselves from them:

Where partially closed, localized cultures become largely unavailable, as is increasingly the case within advanced capitalism, scepticism about ‘official’ views of society often is expressed in various forms of ‘distancing’ - and in humour. Wit is deflationary. Humour is used both socially to attack and to defend against the influence of outside forces that cannot otherwise be coped with. (Giddens, 1979: 72)

The resistance of working-class young people to the emerging forms of youth provision displays the power of divergent subcultures, a level of awareness or seeing-through the social forms that sought to oppress them, and the use of distancing mechanisms such as larking about, humour and ridicule. At one level the forms and means of resistance may have seemed trivial or childish, but they did act to restrict bourgeois penetration of working-class cultures. Young people’s resistance and reinterpretations played an important role in the defining of youth work. However, there was a limit to this resistance. In the end working-class young people basically complied with the economic and political system. Later, they joined youth organizations on a massive scale. Such acquiescence did not  [page23] finally occur because young people had been consciously manipulated and incorporated into some dominant way of thinking. As Marx asserted: ‘the advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by education, tradition, habit, looks upon the conditions of that mode of production as self-evident laws of nature. . . . The dull compulsion of economic relations completes the subjection of the labourer to the capitalist (Marx, 1887: 737). In other words, people’s convictions flow from the requirements of everyday living. They want to survive and enjoy themselves, but this entails money within a capitalist system — ‘the cash nexus remains, therefore, a major means of social, economic and political control’ (Bocock, 1986: 32).

In this way bourgeois youth work was formed. It aimed to assist with the maintenance and development of the social and economic order envisaged by key members of the middle class. Secondly, it adopted and confirmed distinctively bourgeois forms and values. These were often drawn from the experience of public schooling and military service or represented paradigms of middle-class leisure. The ‘club’, particular notions of service and leadership, organized games and esprit de corps, and ideas about suitable activities and behaviours for ‘ladies’, are examples of this. Indeed, the notion of adolescence as it was articulated can be seen to be largely a bourgeois construction. Thirdly, it acted to salve middle-class consciences by enabling them to feel they were doing something about the worst excesses of capitalism. The very fact that they were providing help, and others were defined as not, also allowed them to justify their preeminent position. It was both a way of confirming superiority and status and of receiving thanks and gratitude (Fraser, 1973). Lastly, this work provided a range of opportunities for ‘meaningful’ endeavour for those members of the middle class who were denied entry or were unable to enter both the labour market and the representative political arena. A new form of welfare provision had arrived, but it was not to have the field to itself.


To check references go to the bibliography.

©Mark Smith 1988
reproduced from Developing Youth Work. Informal education, mutual aid and popular practice, Milton Keynes: Open University Press
First published on the informal education homepage: April 2001