Australian Childhood

Rights and Representations of Australian Childhood: To 1955
 Dr Gwenda Davey

Dr Gwenda Davey was resident at the NFSA as a SAR fellow in 2011. Dr Davey is currently a visiting fellow in the Cultural Heritage Centre for Asia and the Pacific at Deakin University, Melbourne. From 2006-2010 she was a principal researcher for the Childhood, Tradition and Change project funded by the Australian Research Council. She is currently writing a book about girls’ childhood in Australia, with the working title of Girl Talk: One Hundred Years of Childhood in Australia. Dr Davey’s fellowship at the NFSA enabled her to research material from the national audiovisual collection for her book, as well as provide a valuable commentary on a neglected dimension of Australia’s social history.

Warning: This paper may contain names, images or voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.


The Melbourne Herald Newsreel(1932). Children walking in the rain on Sydney Harbour Bridge. NFSA:256088

I have chosen this extract from The Melbourne Herald Newsreel (1932) for its dramatic footage of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, shortly before its official opening, a significant moment in the Australian story. The contrast between the engineering enormity of the bridge’s construction and the lines of children walking in the rain has a powerful impact. The photography is sharp, and the sound is clear. This extract is also a striking example of what might be considered adults’ cavalier attitudes towards children at this time in our history. In the first segment, the children are walking in the rain, and only the teachers have umbrellas! The second segment is more heart-stopping, where an eight-year-old boy is posed on top of the Bridge, to say a few words about his schoolmates down below. He is without any safety harness. These children are manipulated solely for the purposes of the newsreel, with scant regard to their interests.

In 1989 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child which was ratified by Australia in 1990.(1) The Convention consists of 54 articles and is guided by four fundamental principles:

  •     Non-discrimination,
  •     The best interests of the child,
  •     Survival, development and protection, and
  •     Participation.

It might be said that the posing of the boy on the Harbour Bridge showed a considerable disregard for his best interests, not to mention his survival.

Representations of childhood, whether in literature or cinema, are widely effective in shaping a community’s attitudes and behaviours towards its children, and I believe that some representations in the 20th and 21st centuries contravene the 1989 Convention.

The right to play

One matter of concern is children’s rights to play, embedded in Article 31, in which States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.

I have just completed four years of work as a principal researcher on the Childhood, Tradition and Change project. This project was funded by the Australian Research Council, together with the universities of Melbourne, Curtin and Deakin; the National Library of Australia; and Museum Victoria. A team of fieldworkers studied the play behaviour of children in primary school playgrounds, all over Australia, and the findings have been compared with earlier research done in the 1950s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. One of the main questions people ask about the project is, ‘Do children play the way they used to?’. Our answer is usually ‘yes, and no’. It’s mostly yes, though of course television and electronic games have added new dimensions to children’s play. The final report of the Childhood, Tradition and Change project writes that, ‘Children use what they see in the outside 'mediascape’ to inform their play in the playground. Television programs such as Australian Idol, So You Think You Can Dance? and Man Versus Wild provided the inspiration for some structured activities (eg concerts) and imaginary play.’ Imaginary play was by no means stifled; fieldworkers described 75 forms of imaginary play.(2)

There have been other changes in children’s play, and one of the changes which has concerned the research team has been the growth of fear, not in children, but in adults. A worrying number of primary schools are increasingly engaging in what June Factor, my colleague and fellow principal researcher on the Childhood, Tradition and Change project, describes as ‘forbiddings’:

'As for my ‘forbiddings’, they’re plentiful, alas, and include no marbles (cause arguments), no playing in garden areas (garden is for show), no throwing balls (may hit someone), no climbing (may fall), no water play (too messy)… Then there was the Catholic primary school in Melbourne which commanded that its children not play at all before school started, so that they would be calm when they entered the school. The combination of parental fury, public ridicule (it was reported in the media), and the swift action of Susan Pascoe, then head of the Catholic Education Office, put a stop to that rule.'

My own collection of forbiddings included: No play with sticks. No digging in the dirt. No holding stones in your hand (even to admire them). And in some extraordinary cases ‘no running’. As one child said, ‘they might as well try to stop us breathing’. In the United States, a considerable number of primary schools have abolished recess time, not only in the interests of academic achievement, but for fear of fighting and injury.(3)

These fears are of fairly recent origin. A different way of regarding children is presented in the superb 1927 silent film The Kid Stakes, whose highlights concern the hunt for a missing goat, and the final goat-cart race. I would like this film to be declared a national treasure for its fine camerawork and choice of locations around Sydney’s slum areas of Woolloomooloo. It is a tragedy that the director, Tal Ordell, never made another film. The Kid Stakes is based on the Fatty Finn newspaper comic strip drawn by Syd Nicholls, and is often over the top, as in the come-uppance delivered to the bombastic policeman. But the children are real kids: awful clothes, bad teeth and all. They are comfortable in their environment, and even prepared to go out of it, when they search for Fatty’s goat Hector who has wandered into the posh suburbs of Potts Point. These children are initiative plus, and represent a period in our history when children were allowed – and expected – to wander about freely. In fact, they were often told in no uncertain terms to ‘go out and play – and don’t come back till tea-time’.

The Kid Stakes (1927). Goat carting and children playing cricket by a big ship. NFSA:4748

The culture of fear

This era has long gone, and children today rarely have the freedom to wander like Fatty Finn and his mates. We have entered the age of fear, a phenomenon which has been well studied by researchers such as the sociologist Frank Furedi, whose ground-breaking book Culture of Fear (4) deals with adult ‘obsession with theoretical risks’. More recently Furedi’s article in The Australian on 7 September 2011, ‘The real danger to our children’, is subtitled ‘Sometimes the most well-intentioned initiatives to protect children end up with unexpectedly disorienting consequences for everyone concerned’. Furedi writes that, ‘The experience of the past three decades indicates that an understandable concern with the safety and wellbeing of children can swiftly mutate into a zealous crusade that often incites parents into a state of panic’.

He is referring in particular to the announcement by Queensland Premier Anna Bligh that the Daniel Morcombe Child Safety Program will become part of the school curriculum for Prep to Year 9. According to Furedi:

'The most regrettable outcome of child protection policies that target strangers is the diminishing of intergenerational encounters. It is no exaggeration to state that a growing number of adults feel awkward and confused when they are in close physical proximity to children that they do not know. Nor is this sense of unease confined to intergenerational interaction between strangers. Many teachers and nursery staff confide that they often feel self-conscious in their relationships with children in their care. They understand that frequently an unintended remark or a physical gesture can be easily misinterpreted by others and that they will be judged guilty until they can prove their innocence.' (5)

A serious omission from Furedi’s otherwise thoughtful article is the well-documented knowledge that most child abuse is carried out not by strangers but by family members or other adults well known to the child.(6)

In Australia, the 21st century is not only the century of fear, but is fast becoming the century of faceless children. In both television and print media, children’s faces are now distorted to prevent recognition. The public database for the Australian Research Council project Childhood, Tradition and Change has all images of children shown with colours inverted, for the same reason.(7)

Given that children are not consulted in this matter, it might be argued that this practice contravenes Article 12 of the 1989 Convention, which offers children the right to freely express their opinions on any matter concerning them.

How might these practices affect the National Film and Sound Archive, whose mission statement holds that the NFSA collects, preserves and aims to ensure the permanent availability of the nation’s audiovisual heritage? Is the NFSA to go for a century, or even longer, without any naturalistic representations of children in its collections?

I attribute many of the fears about children’s safety to television, which came into Australia in 1956, promoting the notions of crime, violence, kidnapping and dismemberment as ‘entertainment’, together with the commercial practices which became known as Corporate Paedophilia.

Corporate Paedophilia

In October 2006 the Australia Institute published a report by Emma Rush and Andrea La Nauze titled Corporate Paedophilia: Sexualisation of children in Australia.(8) The report attacked the use of very young children, mainly girls, in sexually provocative poses for advertising and marketing material, including by a major department store. It also detailed premature sexualisation of children in magazines aimed at young age groups.

Needless to say, many of the targets of Emma Rush’s report were outraged by the label ‘paedophilia’, and the arguments and research continue.(9) Children are bombarded on television with sexy images in advertising (and some programming), and in music video clips which feature artists such as Beyonce and Lady Gaga performing in titillating costumes. I believe this exploitation of children contravenes Article 34 of the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, in which States Parties undertake to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, and I have written on this subject before today.(10)

Controversy about representations of children continued into 2008, hitting a high with the so-called ‘Bill Henson controversy’. On 22 May 2008, the opening night of Bill Henson’s 2007-08 exhibition at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Paddington, Sydney, was cancelled after eight individual complaints were made to the NSW Police about Henson’s photographs of adolescent children. Later in that year, a new furore arose after Henson was allowed into a Victorian primary school to pick out suitable subjects for his photographs. In both cases, no legal action was taken against Henson. I have argued that Henson’s photographs contravene Article 16 of the Convention, which protects a child’s right to privacy, though the photos can probably not be considered ‘arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy’, as noted by the Convention.

Girl Talk: One hundred years of Australian Girls’ Childhood

At the NFSA I am researching material for a book, Girl Talk: One hundred years of Australian Girls’ Childhood, and I’m defining childhood as up to 13 years of age. More than 20 years ago I carried out 14 interviews for the National Library of Australia with older Australian-born women about their childhood. With the addition of some newer interviews, I could span one hundred years, from 1910 to 2010. My oldest interviewee, now deceased, was born in 1904. Most of my newer interviews have also been supported by the National Library of Australia, to whom I express my sincere gratitude. Since most of my earlier interviewees were Anglo-Australians, I’m trying to introduce more diversity into the half-dozen newer ones. They are all Australian-born, and I have women of Italian and Iranian parentage, two of Aboriginal heritage, and a great interview with Sue Broadway, one of the founders of Circus OZ, who comes from at least four generations of Australian show business practitioners.

The bulk of the text in my book comes from the oral histories themselves, and since they are just random snapshots, I’m making some commentary about the social history of the times, and about issues which stand out from the interviews. Each one has something which gave me a special sense of the time and of the childhood experiences of the women talking to me. My oldest interviewee, Ethel Carroll, like most working-class girls left primary school at 13 and it was never considered by her family or school or herself that she might have gone on to high school. Her grandmother, who also left school at 13, had a certificate to say that she was ‘sufficiently educated’. Ethel was not the only person I interviewed who talked about the stifling of ambition and initiative in working-class girls. And even though this intelligent woman was dux of Stott’s Business College and got a good job in a lawyer’s office, she didn’t have enough initiative to ask for a cushion for her chair, which was too low, and spent her entire working life in that office until she was married, sitting on a telephone book. She spoke about these aspects of her life:

'I lost six months at school, but it didn’t hold me back. When I finished school I was the youngest. I won a half-scholarship to Stott’s. I suppose if I had a chance I could have gone places, but you didn’t think about it, you knew you couldn’t go to high school. You didn’t moan about it. I really think if somebody had taken a bit of interest in us, say the headmaster, or a teacher, there might have been some scholarships one could have got to go on further. We didn’t know anything about it...I got a job when [I was] nearly 16, and stayed there for seven years. I only ever had the one job. My job was in a patent attorney’s office in Martin Place. I was the only girl. I had to do everything: shorthand, typing, filing, entering dates on cards, doing the banking, making appointments, everything pertaining to a small office. I had a very good man I worked for. He was very kind. But the conditions I worked for – I only worked from nine to five and nine to twelve on Saturdays. There were no amenities. No facilities to make a cup of tea. I had to sit on a telephone book, and the window looked on to an alley which ran into Pitt Street. Also it was very, very lonely. I wished I’d gone into a bigger office with other girls. I started at a pound a week, which was considered pretty good. I didn’t have any initiative to leave. I got another job in Martin Place with a firm of solicitors. It had more money, but when I told my boss, he offered me the same money. I think I didn’t like to hurt his feelings! My mother might have said he was a good man, and I might get into bad company.' (11)

Lord of the Flies

One of my current interests is William Golding’s book Lord of the Flies, first published in 1954. Lord of the Flies has sold about 14.5 million copies worldwide, in many translations. It has been made into four films (the last in 1990), is still in print and on reading lists for many schools today, where both the book and one of the films are usually studied. It is still widely read by the general public, despite its dystopian picture of children behaving worse than animals.

Can Lord of the Flies be described as ‘influential’? How might adults’ views of childhood be influenced by this novel’s representations of children engaging in cruelty, murder and untrustworthiness? Having spent most of my working life involved with children, as a school counsellor, lecturer in child development and children’s folklorist, I believe that children are cooperators more than antagonists. Of course there is fighting and bullying. But where children’s traditional play flourishes, so does collaboration. You can’t build a cubby house, or play marbles, or play skippy, elastics or hand-clapping games, without negotiation and sharing knowledge with younger or less expert players. Children will bend the rules of a game to accommodate younger players, and ensure that everyone has a good game.

Lord of the Flies (1954) is often said to be an allegory for the Second World War (1939-1945), when the world engaged in some of the worst savagery in human history. At the end of the book, the schoolboys, who have descended into bestiality, are finally rescued by the British navy. The officer who finds them, filthy and starving, asks them how many of them there are. They don’t know, but admit to two dead. The dead boys were actually murdered by their fellows, and there are probably more than two. What distresses me about this famous novel, allegory or not, is that Golding has used children as his avatars for adults in a chilling study of human evil.

How influential might the film Jedda (1955), produced by Charles and Elsa Chauvel, have been in shaping white Australians’ views of Indigenous people? The opening credits tell us that ‘to cast this picture the producer went to the primitive Aborigine race of Australia’, and it tells the story of an Aboriginal girl, brought up from infancy as white but whose ‘primitive mind’, so described, leads her, when she becomes a young woman, to follow the rogue Aboriginal Marbuk, with tragic consequences. The film has some magnificent scenery of northern Australia. It claims to have been made with anthropological advisers, but still seems to me to encapsulate all the racism which underpinned the Stolen Generations policies and actions, which flourished in the time when this film was made, and continued into the 1970s.

Childhood on film

For my research at the NFSA, I looked at about 130 pieces of film, to study representations of childhood. I had to stop my researches in 1955, mainly because of the sheer enormity of the NFSA’s collection, but I also believe that life in Australia changed radically after 1956, with the advent of television, and other social changes.

Against my expectations, I was disappointed by the representation of children in home movies. First, only prosperous people could make home movies, in early days, so in terms of social class, they are very much the same. Second, most of the proud fathers wielding the cameras (and they were always fathers) were poor cinematographers. There’s a limit to the number of times you can watch Betty digging a hole on the beach, or Johnny hitting a cricket bat. One very interesting exception, however, is Bryce Higgins’ Family and holiday scenes: 1909-1924. The 1909 scenes – at a family picnic in Hobart – are striking because of the extremely elaborate and constricting late Victorian clothing worn by the women and children, clothing which was to change very quickly into the 20th century. I consider this home movie to be of considerable historical importance as one of the earliest pieces of Australian documentary filmmaking.

Bryce Higgins Home Movies. Picnic at Mt Wellington, Hobart, 1901. NFSA title: 278572

Apart from this wonderful piece of footage, I found the most insightful representations of childhood were from feature films, and the most revealing, in terms of children’s actual lives, came from newsreels.

I was interested to look at the earliest pieces of Australian film that I could, but unfortunately the Kelly Gang films don’t seem to include any children. However, the marvelous Romantic Story of Margaret Catchpole does. Sadly, we’ve only got the first half of this 1911 film made by the great Raymond Longford, and starring Lottie Lyell. The story is based on a novel and stage play, said to be true, about a young woman of spirit who flouts convention and the law and steals a horse to help her lover, a smuggler. She is caught, and eventually transported to Australia, where I’m happy to say, she ‘makes good’. During the horse-stealing episode Margaret is helped by a young girl, Little Kitty, also a girl of spirit and courage. Unfortunately part of the film is red in colour during the actual race to the smuggler’s aid, but this flaw does not stop the excitement of Margaret’s race on the stolen horse.

The Romantic Story of Margaret Catchpole (1911). Arrest of Margaret for horse-stealing: Little Kitty aids Margaret NFSA:6453

Perhaps nothing could be a greater contrast to the independence and rebelliousness of Little Kitty than a group of children, filmed in 1916, re-enacting trench warfare – practising to be cannon fodder, perhaps? As you might expect, the only girl depicted is cast as a nurse. There is very little information about this disturbing footage, in which, as in Lord of the Flies (1954), children are cast to imitate adult behaviour.

My book is not a history of childhood in Australia, although the hundred-year span of the book, and the rich and diverse experiences of the girls’ childhoods, does give a strong sense of history. Children have had a lot to contend with in this period, not least disease and death and callous attitudes to suffering. Diphtheria, scarlet fever and infantile paralysis, which we now know as polio, were truly Grim Reapers: Alan Marshall’s classic I Can Jump Puddles includes heart-wrenching descriptions of children’s suffering with infantile paralysis.

My reference to the young actors’ awful teeth in The Kid Stakes film reminds me of the terrible experience undergone by one of my oral history interviewees; another example of adult callousness towards children. At six years of age, in 1923, Daphne Matthews was marched with her class from school in South Melbourne to the Dental Hospital, then in St Kilda Road. Her mother had given permission for one tooth to be extracted, but she had 13 taken out, with laughing gas, then marched back to school and home. She describes the event, in her own words:

'We shifted to South Melbourne, and I went to City Road State School. I must have been there in the second and third grade, maybe the first, and I had a whole lot of teeth taken out at the Dental Hospital in St Kilda Road opposite Prince Henry’s Hospital. My mother had to give consent, and they took 13 teeth, and I walked to school and home. My mother nearly flipped, because she didn’t expect them to take 13 out. They used laughing gas in those days. A whole lot of children walked there from the school, and we were given laughing gas, and I was violently ill afterwards, and then walked back to the school. My mother was up in arms, but we did it, we were expected to do it, we didn’t think anything of it, it was the times. There were no taxis or anything at that time. The Dental Hospital was in St Kilda Road, opposite the Prince Henry’s Hospital. My mother really only gave her signature for one [extraction]. I remember all of it. You don’t forget. The school was at a junction, Moray and City Road, right at the back of the Glaciarium. It’s a fair walk for anyone who was six.' (13)

I mentioned earlier that the project I was working on for the last four years was called Childhood, Tradition and Change, and I might say that my current researches, both here at the NFSA and for my book, are concerned with mainly childhood and change. And the changes for children have been enormous over the hundred-year span. I look at the stifling of ambition, the scourge of illnesses before immunisation, the prejudice and racism of earlier times, and compare it with some of the achievements of the present day. One of the most joyous interviews for my book Girl Talk was with a 13-year-old Aboriginal girl, my youngest interviewee. She was born in Broome, and her family is now in Kununurra in remote north-western Australia. I interviewed her at Geelong Grammar School, possibly Australia’s poshest private school, where she is one of 17 Indigenous children on scholarships. She’s a top-ranking scholar, and at this stage of her life, thinks she will become a surgeon – because, as she says, ‘I like maths and science and I’m not afraid of blood and guts’. She says that when she goes into the bush with family and friends, she’s always the first one to cut up a bush turkey or skin a goanna. She has the best of both worlds.

It was my interests in representations of childhood which led me to apply to the National Film and Sound Archive for a Fellowship in the Scholars and Artists in Residence Program for 2011, and I offer my sincere thanks to the Archive: to the CEO Michael Loebenstein, to the Research Team (Vincent Plush, Jenny Gall, Christine Eccles and Graham Shirley) and to the team at the NFSA Video Lab who produced the compilations of film clips for my presentation at the Archive on 21 November 2011 and for this paper.



2 Childhood, Tradition and Change, Final Report 2011 pages 26 and 23.

3 Eg Patte, Michael ’Is it still ok to play?’, Journal of Student Wellbeing, Hawker Research Institute, University of South Australia, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2010.

4 Furedi, F (1997) Culture of Fear, updated edition published by Continuum, 2002.

5 Furedi, F ‘The real danger to our children’, The Australian, 9 September 2011.

6 What is child abuse? Department of Human Services, Victoria, Australia, 23 May 2011

7 Childhood, Tradition and Change, Public Data Base, 2011

8 Rush, Emma and Andrea La Nauze, 'Corporate Paedophilia: Sexualisation of children in Australia', The Australia Institute, Discussion Paper No 90, October 2006.

9 For example Rush, E ‘What are the risks of premature sexualisation for children?’ In M Tankard Reist (ed.), Getting real: Challenging the sexualisation of girls, Melbourne, Spinifex Press, 2009, pp.41-54.

10 Davey, Gwenda Beed ‘Lollies or Lolita? The perils of modern childhood research’, National Library News November 2008, National Library of Australia.

11 National Library of Australia, Oral History and Folklore Collection, TRC 2295

12 Marshall, Alan (1955) I Can Jump Puddles, reprinted numerous times, including Penguin 2004.

13 National Library of Australia, Oral History and Folklore Collection, TRC 2295/4