Facts and Their Meaning: Child Protection, Intervention, and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in Late Nineteenth-Century England
- Victorian Review
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 33, Number 1, 2007
- pp. 87-101
- View Citation
- Additional Information
87 “Facts andTheir Meaning”: Child Protection, Intervention, and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in Late Nineteenth-Century England Mon ica Flegel • In The Queen’s Reign for Children (1897),William Clarke Hall writes that prior to the passage of the“Children’s Charter” in 1889,“there was no such 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” (159–60). Hall refers here to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).1 Founded in 1884, this organization succeeded in “creating” such an offence through the publication of “facts”—details elicited by the NSPCC inspectors’ casework and then disclosed to the public through pamphlets and the Society’s monthly publication, The Child’s Guardian. Such dissemination was necessary, the NSPCC argued, because“The public know next to nothing about the nature and extent of cruelty to children” (Waugh, “Notes” [April 1887]: 30). The English public did, of course, know a great deal about child suffering in the nineteenth century, that subject being central to innumerable novels, social tracts, and charitable organizations throughout the period. By constructing child abuse as a hidden evil, however, one that only the NSPCC’s own inspectors could detect and address, the Society succeeded in simultaneously “creating” an offence and promoting the means of its amelioration: a trained, professionalized inspectorate. The NSPCC’s earliest narratives did not, however, construct child abuse as unknown and unseen; instead, the opening editorial of The Child’s Guardian in January 1887 claimed that its purpose was to reach “such persons as are already interested in the condition of little victims of cruel treatment, wrongful neglect, and improper employment” (Waugh, Untitled 1) and instruct them as to “what they can and cannot do about these evils” (1). But by the end of the century, the role of the NSPCC in relation to the public, at least in terms of the Society’s own discourse, had seemingly changed: what was required of the reader of The Child’s Guardian was not “interest” but support; not a desire to be given authority but to respect that of the Society. I would argue that this shift in the representation of social problems and their resolution, in which the role of the public changes from being involved, invested, and, with the proper victorian review • Volume 33 Number 1 88 knowledge, empowered to one of simply supporting those with the proper expertise, speaks to an important consequence of the emergence of professional disciplines such as child protection. In examining the ways in which the NSPCC understood“facts and their meaning” (“Inspector’s Directory” 32), I will argue that professionalized casework must be understood not solely as a disciplined form of intervention but, perhaps more interestingly, as giving rise to a highly constructed form of representing intervention, one that safeguards the singular expertise of the trained professional. R epr esen ting So cia l Ills The dilemma of how to represent social ills so as to provide an accurate depiction of a particular problem and of its solution plagued social reformers, writers, and the English government throughout the nineteenth century. In States of Inquiry: Social Investigations and Print Culture in Nineteenth-Century Britain and the United States, Oz Frankel notes,“The social enters public consciousness in times of crisis: war, riot, major accident, epidemic, or natural disaster” (6). InVictorian England, the“two nations” debate constituted just such a crisis; the perception that “distinct social blocks lived completely ignorant of each other” and that “the social sphere, spatially conceived, had grown thoroughly divided between segments that were known and familiar and those that were designated hidden” (6) inspired numerous discursive mediations, from the literary to the socialscientific . Organizations such as the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science and key documents such as James Phillips Kay’s The Moral and Physical Conditions of the Labouring Classes (1832) and Edwin Chadwick’s Report on the Sanitary Conditions in England (1842) drew upon statistics as a means of providing what was felt to be a comprehensive depiction of social problems in England. Such...