Hi! I’m Ben, a PhD student and one of the volunteer researchers for the upcoming exhibit on childhood. As part of this research, I examined the Cambridgeshire Archives for evidence of children in any of the documents there, such as work contracts and jail records, to see what stories these might reveal. Unfortunately, whilst there were plentiful examples of children as visible figures in the landscape of historic Cambridgeshire, one of the places where they occurred most frequently was in Coroner’s reports.
Looking through these reports acted as a stark reminder that the childhood of today, in which we think of a time of leisure, play and innocence, is an all-too modern construction. I was taken aback by both the frequency of child deaths—we all know that high infant mortality was a fact of life in the past, but it was sobering to be confronted with it quite so consistently—but also their manner.
Among the causes listed, many were expected, such as consumption or malnourishment, but others were unusual and, occasionally, horrifying. I saw the story of a young boy crushed by a cart while playing in Trumpington street; more than one child was killed through household accidents involving boiling water or fires; but perhaps the saddest were the reports of nameless newborns found drowned or in boxes ‘with head injuries’, abandoned and possibly even killed by parents who could not afford or bear to look after them.
Whilst a very interesting experience, my time researching the county archives could not help but make me realise just how different an experience childhood was not even two centuries ago.
Ben Hinson, PhD Candidate, University of Cambridge