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L0024915Credit: Wellcome Library, London  E.3/2,  Scholars of Snowsfield School, Bermondsey, girls at the Orange Street School, 1894. From: Health Visitors Association  Collection: Archives & Manuscripts  Library reference no.: CMAC SA/HVA/E.3/2

Wellcome Images L0024915 E.3/2, Scholars of Snowsfield School, Bermondsey, girls at the Orange Street School, 1894.
From: Health Visitors Association
Library reference no.: CMAC SA/HVA/E.3/2

One might suppose that interest in child study must have been a twentieth century development, probably arising between the wars with the development of psychology as a discipline. In fact, a number of child study organisations, whose records are now among the archives of the British Psychological Society in the Wellcome Library, were set up during the 1890s arising out of concerns evoked in the wake of the introduction of universal free elementary education.
This spread of education to all children had revealed that many were ‘incapable of benefiting by the ordinary education’ and thus remained ‘practically untrained’ within a system designed for ‘average or normal children’. There was need of an investigation to establish the dimensions of the problem and propose actions. This led to the establishment of a Childhood Society for the Scientific Study of the Mental and Physical Conditions of Children, with the aim of promoting the study of educational methods and the school environment best suited to mental and physical development, both of the normal and ‘those whose conditions are abnormal, or who are feebly gifted mentally’.

They were not the only organisation interested in developing a systematic approach to the study of children and childhood. In 1894 a British Child-Study Association was established, by teachers, rather than doctors, a federation of a number of small local societies with similar aims:

[T]o interest parents, teachers and others in the systematic observation of children and young people, with a view to gaining greater insight into child-nature and securing more sympathetic and scientific methods of training the young

It may be noted that this body was more interested in the ‘normal’ child, rather than exercised about the ‘feeble-minded’ or otherwise disabled, and was primarily concerned about the implications for education of their findings, although a number of doctors joined the Association. By 1901 it had 8 branches, and was producing a journal, The Paidologist.The degree of common interest between these two bodies led to their amalgamation in 1907 to form the Child Study Society, later Association. Their records reflect the fascinating intersection of educational and medical concerns about children at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Britain, a time of considerable anxiety about national fitness. They also reflect the development of child psychology: in 1948 the Child Study Society transferred its membership and its assets to the British Psychological Society Education Section.Further collections on issues of health and welfare of children and adolescents in Archives and Manuscripts are the subject of a thematic sources guide: many of these bear on education and the school environment. A number of collections also deal with infant and child observation from a psychoanalytic perspective.


Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall, FRHistS, PhD, DipAA, has been an archivist at the Wellcome since 1979. She has published extensively on the history of sexuality and gender in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, given many talks and conference presentations, and featured on radio and television. Further details can be found at her website.

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