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Victorian Periodicals Review 39.1 (2006) 1-20
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The NSPCC and the Use of Photography in the Construction of Cruelty to Children
2005 VanArsdel Prize Essay
In 1983, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) launched its centenary appeal in Britain. The aim of this appeal was to "establish 60 child protection teams across the country" at a time when the NSPCC was suffering a decline in its revenues from a lack of public support and insufficient government funds.1 A poster publicizing this appeal featured the faces of two abused children, one ostensibly from 1884, the other from 1984. The caption reads: "The faces change. The bruises don't." The message produced by these images is clear: child abuse is timeless, unchanging, immediately and visually recognizable, and continually urgent. And if the faces of these children speak to the continuous, unchanging nature of child abuse, so too do they speak to the necessity of the NSPCC's work, as the caption beneath the poster indicates: "In the last 100 years, the NSPCC has come to the aid of more than 9 million children ... In this, our centenary year, we'd like to tell you that things are getting better. They're not." While the ungenerous reader could take this statement as a sign of the NSPCC's ineffectiveness as an organization, the assurance that "the faces change, the bruises don't" instead encourages the viewer to recognize the ahistorical nature of child abuse: that while interventions on behalf of abused and endangered children have been and continue to be carried out by this organization, the abuse itself remains unchanged and unchanging.
In this essay, I would like to challenge the timeless, ahistorical concept of child abuse presented by the NSPCC in this particular campaign. Child abuse does have a history, and the emergence and conceptualization of child abuse as a subject of social and legal concern is intricately tied to its representation in the NSPCC's discourse at the time of that organization's [End Page 1] emergence in 1884. In its efforts to "create" the crime of cruelty to children, the NSPCC first had to make the newly developed concept of child abuse recognizable to the English public, and it did so through the publication of case studies, narratives of abuse, and photography. Cruelty to children, as a new form of criminality, was therefore invented through representation before it became enshrined within legal discourse, and the NSPCC was largely responsible for both phenomena. An examination of the ways in which the NSPCC constructed this new crime, through a focus on the society's use of photographs between 1884 and 1890, reveals the extent to which child abuse is not simply an unchanging, ahistorical fact, but also a representation subject to reigning ideological constructions of the home, the family, and the child.2 Therefore, while the NSPCC defined child abuse as a pathology, a timeless, classless crime that could happen anywhere at any time, and while it presented its work on behalf of abused children as new and revolutionary, its reliance on preexisting modes of representation which equated cruelty with poverty suggests that the Society was also engaged in a project undertaken by many previous organizations: that of policing the lower orders.
The importance of the NSPCC in the emergence and development of the legal concept of child abuse cannot be overstated. In his 1897 text, The Queen's Reign for Children, William Clarke Hall notes that before the passing of the "Children's Charter" in 1889, "[t]here was no offence known to English Law as the mere ill-treatment, no such offence as the mere neglect of a child. The Society resolved to create these offences."3 While certain offences against children committed before the passage of this law could be tried under the same laws that protected adults from assault and injury, there were no specific sanctions against child abuse. Too often, violence against children committed by the parent was perceived...