Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



Histories of Everyday Life

The Making of Popular Social History in Britain, 1918-1979


Laura Carter


The Past and Present Book Series

Oxford: University Press, 2021

Hardcover. xii +274 p. ISBN 978-0198868330. £75


Reviewed by Pat Thane

Birkbeck College London




Laura Carter explores the emergence and development of ‘histories of everyday life’ in British culture in the context of the democratisation of education as it became compulsory and free to the age of 14, and the partial democratisation of politics as all men over 21 and most women over 30 gained the vote in 1918. Votes were equalised between men and women at 21 in 1928. The two developments were linked because governments, through the Board of Education, saw education, particularly History education, as the key to developing ‘responsible citizenship’. This began in the 1880s and became stronger in the years preceding World War 1, but was directed at encouraging teaching mainly of British and Imperial political history to ‘more able’ schoolchildren. History was relatively little taught in state schools at this time, but after the war the Board pressed for History teaching to poorer, ‘less able’ pupils who would now grow up to be voters, instilling in them a sense of commitment to the nation and their local community, not least ( as Carter does not discuss) to discourage them from socialism following the Russian revolution of 1917 and the growth of the Labour Party since 1900.

The ‘history of everyday life’ was adopted in the 1920s for teaching these ‘ordinary’ pupils in the lower forms of state elementary schools who were not thought capable of mastering the more academic history taught to pupils deemed more able. This popular history first emerged outside the educational system and was very different from the academic history developing in universities. It was produced both for children and for the many adults who had received limited education and had limited knowledge of history, and it built upon technological advances enabling the presentation of history in a variety of new, relatively cheap, accessible forms. Publishers were keen to publish popular histories, sometimes written by academics, often by ‘amateurs’, as cheap, illustrated, increasingly often paper-backed books. Batsford from 1918-34 published the four volume History of Everyday Things in England, 1066-1934 by Charles and Marjorie Quennell, who were not academics. It was very popular including in schools. They also published histories of buildings, travels, archaeology. The distinguished economic historian Eileen Power published with her sister Rhoda Power, who played a major role in developing educational broadcasting for the BBC, Boys and Girls of History (1926) with chapters on the lives of children in different historical contexts. The Historical Association, founded in 1906 by teachers and academics to ensure that everyone learned History ‘to develop, intelligence, patriotism and citizenship’, worked with publishers to produce accessible material for schools. Diaries and memoirs of ordinary lives of working-class men and women were published, including Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford (1939) about growing up in a poor rural community in Oxfordshire. They were used in schools though they were often too expensive for under-funded state schools. Teachers took children to view notable local sites of historical significance. Finer maps and illustrations could now be produced for classroom walls. Documentary films developed, some with historical themes.

So teachers gained more resources for teaching ‘histories of everyday life’. At the same time History became increasingly prominent in national and international politics. In Britain there were vigorous debates about the relative importance of teaching national or imperial history, of the need to develop ‘imperial citizenship’ and a sense of unity in what became the Commonwealth. Meanwhile the League of Nations sought to encourage the teaching of international history to promote world unity and greater understanding of other countries to prevent future wars. But many teachers were suspicious of such politically motivated history and preferred to focus upon describing past lives and experiences of ’ordinary men and women like ourselves’, though this was not wholly without political motivation. As Carter describes, it was ‘history from below’ often and increasingly focussing on the pupils’ own locality, things familiar in their everyday lives and features of the local economy, including describing the machinery of industrialisation or agriculture, designed to increase their knowledge of and commitment to their community, to encourage feelings of self-worth by emphasising the achievements of ‘ordinary people’. It encouraged imagination about the past without implying criticism, including of the domestic role routinely ascribed to women. It was education supporting the political and social status quo, training pupils in their place within it. The book is mainly about England but with references to the different, rather more democratic, educational system in Scotland and the role of history education in the development through the 20th century of strong national identities in Scotland and Wales.

Teaching popular, localised history to less privileged pupils in elementary schools was assisted by the devolution of education to local authorities who encouraged local history, and the independence of teachers who were not bound by prescribed textbooks or syllabuses as examination-level classes were. History was not compulsory in state schools until curricula became nationally regulated in the 1980s, but it appears to have been increasingly taught between the wars and after, though teachers were rarely trained in history and the hours of history teaching were often few – perhaps two hours each week – though Carter does not discuss this. She was unable to discover just how much popular history of what kind was taught, how it was received by the students and whether it had the intended effects.

The BBC provided further resources and played an important role in developing mass education from its foundation in 1922. As Carter describes, it sought to make academic subjects relevant and interesting to the mass audience via radio, including schoolchildren and women at home, popularising history by bringing it to life with voices and sounds. John Reith, the first Director, saw the role of the BBC as ‘to inform, educate and entertain…the educationally underserved citizens of the mass democracy’, as a 1928 report put it. It produced accessible talks by eminent historians, including Eileen Power. In 1927 it ran a series ‘Europe through the Ages’ to emphasise historic unity in Europe. It promoted listening groups in Women’s Institutes, YMCAs and other organisations, and published ‘Aids to Study’ booklets to maximise the impact of the many talks about aspects of ‘everyday life’, some of which were printed in its weekly magazine, the Listener. Some local museums held exhibitions illustrating BBC talks. Its influence was wide and it did much to extend popular interest in history.

It aimed to democratise history, presenting it as domestic and personal rather than academic, representing ‘social realities and everyday life’, seeking to make educational broadcasts ‘dynamic and entertaining’, ‘palatable to our consuming public’. It is not clear that it shared the aspiration to develop collective, ‘responsible’ citizenship. Indeed the historian Arthur Bryant complained that the BBC did not promote a patriotic, national unity, but was too left-wing, which would have surprised Reith. In 1934 it introduced historical dramatisation, including a Famous Trials series, beginning with that of Charles I. It was a big success, using professional actors and the actual words of the trials. This was followed by a ‘Historic Occasions’ series reconstructing recent events, followed by a ’BBC Scrapbooks’ series, each on a chosen year of history. Aired at peak time it won an audience of 32 million and continued to 1970. The BBC always sought to make history ‘relevant’, not to contentious political issues but to local places and feelings. Eileen Power fell out of favour when she used broadcasts to promote her favoured internationalist causes, such as the League of Nations.  

BBC Schools broadcasting began in 1924, opening with the series ‘Men who have made history’. Poorly funded elementary schools rarely had the equipment to receive broadcasts and teachers were initially sceptical of their value, but by 1926 between 1500 and 2000 London schools were listening, 70% of them elementary schools. The numbers rose nationally through the 1930s. Carter could not discover how teachers integrated programmes into their teaching, but children were asked their opinions: ‘daily life’ was most popular; they least enjoyed programmes outside their experience. Programmes focussed upon World History for 9-11 year olds, British history from 11-14. Rhoda Power who led the World History series, was committed to ‘humanising’ history: ’it must give one an intimate knowledge of human beings, not an outline of facts’. She believed this was important for understanding economic, political and all forms of history for ‘events are really always the outcome or accompaniment of human passion’. She used sound effects and music, increasingly as technology improved. Each 20-minute programme included three ‘dramatic interludes’ placed in the context of ‘everyday life’ and one and a half minutes of sound effects. ‘Ordinary’ voices described the effects of social change on the masses.

During the Second World War popular history became even more pervasive. The Ministry of Education produced historical films for less able pupils. BBC broadcasting recognised a broader, more diverse, ’casual’ audience’. In 1945 it institutionalised this diversity into separate ‘Light’, ‘Home’ and ‘Third’ programmes. The ‘history of everyday life’, including talks on ’The Victorian Family’ and ‘Victorian Ideas of Sex’, plus lectures on current world affairs by A.J.P. Taylor and others, on new books by academic historians and historiographical debates, were presented in formal programmes to small audiences on the intellectual Third programme. In an attempt to be more popular the Third ran ‘1851 week’ trying to recreate the atmosphere of 1851 at the time of the 1951 Festival of Britain, including ‘news bulletins from the past’. More popular approaches were more commonplace on the ‘middlebrow’ Home Service and continued pre-war practices at a time when paperback histories of everyday life were best sellers. Some of these were serialised, including Lark Rise to Candleford, presented as history for leisure not education. The BBC, especially the Home Service, became more political, aiming to help build a democracy of informed citizens, engaged with their communities and the nation, about which they learned from history broadcast in multiple forms through drama, dialogue, ‘time travel’ and sound effects. The changes in BBC programming reflected contemporary changes in education following the reform of state secondary education under the 1944 Education Act. ‘Academic’ pupils in grammar schools were encouraged to listen to the Third Programme, the ‘less able’ in Secondary Modern schools to popular histories of ‘everyday life’ on the Home Service

Another source of popular education through histories of everyday life between the wars and after was local museums, which grew in number throughout the UK. They reinvented themselves to justify increased local funding, seeking to appeal to a wider audience as the educated public grew by popularising accessible local, social and economic history. They tapped into local knowledge, including displaying the evolution of trades in the context of everyday life. In Wales and Scotland they presented the national distinctiveness of objects and beliefs. As Carter describes them, museums sought to strengthen the cohesion of local communities and the place of individuals within them as the basis for stable national politics, which became especially important during the Second World War. Museums connected with local schools, holding classes where pupils could handle objects, including farming and industrial tools and domestic cooking equipment, clothes including workers’ outfits, and learn about local history. Curators collected items from the lofts of local people and gathered information from which they constructed local histories.

During and after the war the British State pursued a centralised, national cultural policy, nurturing the arts in wartime by establishing the Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), after the war through the Arts Council. Local authorities were still funded to develop local cultural activities, including theatre and music as well as museums, but were increasingly influenced by this national, ‘high cultural’ remit. As their numbers continued to grow they professionalised, focussing more upon linking the local with national history, until they were hard hit in the 1980s with cuts to local funding and the introduction of fees to enter museums.

Carter illustrates the role of local museums in promoting popular knowledge of local social history with the interesting, well-documented example of the establishment and development of the Geffrye Museum in East London by the progressive London County Council (LCC) as part of its policy of advancing local citizenship though cultural activities, including preservation of ancient buildings. When the Geffrye almshouses were declared unfit for habitation in the poor district of Shoreditch before World War I, the LCC reopened them as a craft museum of local trades central to the local economy. Between the wars it displayed also classic items rescued from the demolition of local ‘slum’ dwellings, including fireplaces, mouldings, staircases. The museum became increasingly focussed upon a local social history accessible to children, themed around the London home, encouraging visits and providing lectures. Children helped salvage items from demolished buildings which furnished ten rooms showing the development over time of ‘the ordinary London house’. The museum became popular with schools and other visitors.

This continued through the war, providing ‘a little island of culture’ in a deprived, much-bombed area. Exhibitions and activities illustrated everyday life across the centuries, presented clearly and visually and linked to local interests, aimed at a wide audience by age, class, ethnicity, including children and ‘the quite untrained man in the street’. This community engagement continued after the war with Sunday discussion groups, evening lectures and recitals of ‘old music with old instruments’, lectures on domestic history including ‘The English Child at Home’, aiming to expand knowledge, culture and taste among the masses. But by the 1950s the local masses were changing. Immigration created a local population that was not well served by the history of white everyday life, and the Geffrye became less central to local life.

By the 1960s the history of everyday life was established as a mainstream form of popular history, but society was changing, ethnically and in other ways. The BBC had to adapt to the development of TV, commercial competition and a more educated, self-aware audience. There were new challenges of making history appear relevant to a generation of ‘pop-oriented’ teenagers. The 1960s and 70s saw the emergence of comprehensive schools. More ’ordinary’ boys and girls now mostly studied history in ability, gender and increasingly racially mixed classes. It was taught to all children in the first three years, then became optional as they prepared for examinations. Teachers still had considerable freedom to decide the content of courses below the level of exam preparation, for which there were fixed syllabuses in conventional academic topics. Histories of ‘everyday life’, of family, work, the physical environment, were still taught in junior classes. Locally based histories of everyday life were judged suitable for mixed-ability teaching to lower forms to help them understand social change, including the impact of immigration. There were now more surveys of students’ responses and Carter also carried out ten interviews with teachers in 1970s comprehensives. Students appear to have enjoyed history at all levels. There were few relevant textbooks and teachers used techniques developed from experience, encouraging students’ imaginative reconstruction of the past. This approach was adopted for the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) introduced in 1965 as a school-leaving exam for ‘low ability’ students, but not for the established ‘high ability’ General Certificate of Education (GCE).

Increasingly students also studied related topics in social studies which by the 1980s became dominant as a means of understanding contemporary life, and histories of everyday life faded from schools. More conventional, global academic history took over. One influence upon the change, Carter concludes, was mass immigration and the failure to find a means to include race in the history curriculum in areas of mass immigration in the context of the national policy of ‘assimilation’ and rising racial tensions, especially after 1968. It was hard to integrate race into histories of everyday life since immigrants came from such diverse backgrounds. At their best, LEAs and schools developed local responses according to the needs and ethnic backgrounds of their pupils. At their worst they marginalised ethnic minority students. Insofar as schools tried to develop courses in Black and Asian history they were aimed at lower ability children and not included in exam courses. In 1977 the BBC broadcast the first TV history series produced from a Black perspective: ’The Black Man in Britain, 1550- 1950’. It was explicitly anti-racist. Only 1% of the potential viewing audience watched it.

Carter concludes that ‘histories of everyday life’ were ill-equipped to cope with all the deep inequalities of life in Britain at this time and they faded away. Traditional approaches to history and other subjects became more dominant as more students went to university and demanded courses they believed would assist their careers. New forms of social history emerged which were explicitly political as histories of everyday life sought not to be and they challenged courses reinforcing the status quo. Feminist history particularly challenged deep-rooted patriarchy as histories of everyday domestic life had not, and feminists campaigned for the inclusion of women’s history in school courses.

Laura Carter opens up a previously hidden phase in the history of History in Britain which is revealing and fascinating about many facets of twentieth century British culture. Unfortunately it is not well-written and the arguments are sometimes hard to follow, but it is worth the effort.



Cercles © 2021

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.