Relationships between Parents and Children in the World Wars

By Alice Violett

As my research focuses on only children born between c. 1845 and 1945, I have come across a number of accounts of how World Wars I and II affected relationships between parents and children. Despite the autobiographers and oral history interviewees having only-childness in common, their experiences varied widely, and as one might expect, people from my ‘control group’ of life writers and interviewees with various numbers of siblings also reported that war affected their relationships with their parents. All individuals mentioned in this post are only children unless indicated otherwise.

For some people, their fathers being away at war during their formative years caused an irreparable rift. Broadcaster John Drummond’s (b. 1934) father was away for most of the Second World War, while Drummond and his mother lived together in Bournemouth. During this time, Drummond’s mother, as well as relatives and family friends, were clearly influential and important to him, while his father paled into insignificance: ‘my father, who had been away since the spring of 1939, suddenly returned in late 1943. I hardly recognised him, nor he me … he and my mother found themselves increasingly estranged.’ [1] His father did little to bridge the gap, instead choosing to find innumerable faults in Drummond: ‘everything about me was offensive to him, whether it was my love of music and books or my critical attitude to authority which was beginning to show itself.’ [2] Similarly, due to the war, lawyer John Phipson (b. 1940, eldest of two sons) did not even meet his father until he was three-and-a-half. According to Phipson, consequently the pair never had any rapport, and his father never played with him. Phipson did not explicitly say whether his younger brother had a similar relationship with their father, but implied that his father was ‘ganged up on’ by himself, his brother and his mother. In adulthood, both Phipson and his mother became estranged from his father. [3]

Children’s evacuation could also create distance between them and their parents. Photographer John Blakemore, (b. 1936, had one, much younger, brother) was evacuated from Coventry to relatives in Oxfordshire, and this set him apart from his parents, whom he barely saw between 1940 and 1944 (his father was also away during the war). Consequently, he regarded his grandfather as a bigger influence than his parents, and came home to find he had nothing in common with his father, who did not share his interest in books and nature. Their relationship appeared not to improve over time; Blakemore would lecture his parents’ friends on animal rights if they turned up wearing feathered hats, and fantasised about being kidnapped by some gypsies he befriended, unknown to his parents, when he was twelve. [4] large

British Second World War poster, urging mothers not to take their evacuated children back home. Ministry of Health. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 3095)

 Separation from a parent during the war did not always lead to lifelong difficulties in relations. While retired RAF pilot David Lomas regretted not seeing his father for six years during the Second World War and only having a limited amount of time with him afterwards (his father died in 1960), they clearly had an outstanding relationship once they were reunited: ‘we were very, very close … my dad was a gentleman in the real sense of the word. He wouldn’t say a rotten thing about anyone, he was always prepared to see the better side of everybody.’ [5]

For some children, war was even an opportunity to become closer to one’s parents. This happened in the case of lawyer Christopher Clarke (b. 1907, fourth of six children). His family enjoyed a typically middle-class lifestyle for the time, including a succession of nannies, a litany of servants, and a parlourmaid the children confided in – they spent most of their time in the nursery and only saw their parents at appointed times. This changed with the coming of the First World War; as many of the servants left to join the war effort, Clarke and his siblings began to eat meals (cooked by their mother – another novelty) with their parents rather than in the nursery, and generally got to know their parents better as they saw more of them in the servants’ absence. [6] There were also several life writers and interviewees, with or without siblings, whose parents were already too attached to them to even contemplate having them evacuated, in spite of the dangers this presented.

For some children, war could have an emotionally isolating effect. Art historian Michael Levey (b. 1927) was at boarding school when the ministry his father worked at was evacuated to Harrogate during the Second World War. Levey did not look forward to staying there during the holidays, partly because there was nothing for him to do there, and partly because the family was billeted in too-small houses shared with other families, causing stress for his parents: ‘an extra bedroom had to be sought for me, but fitting me in emotionally was even harder. I was increasingly discontented at school and ill at ease in what passed for home.’ [7] Wartime attitudes influenced feminist Jo Robinson’s (b. 1942) life from the outset, as people spoke in clichés or were secretive to cover up illegal market activities and information of interest to the Germans: ‘it really affected freedom of expression and so I grew up in I think quite an odd world in that parents, no-one was affectionate in my world, but when I see films now of those times people were really held in and always speaking in these dreadful clichés. It’s quite sad really.’ [8]

War caused some parents to value their children more. While this was not necessarily a bad thing, it could make the child feel frustrated as they battled against restrictions. For poet Norman Nicholson (b. 1914), being born into the ‘privations and hazards’ of the First World War was part of the reason he was ‘coddled’ by over-anxious relatives as a child; further reasons for this were the loss of a sibling before he was born, his mother’s death and his own suffering from the Spanish flu. He did not regret ‘growing up pale, timid, dependent, self-absorbed and rather girlish’, as opposed to ‘rough, tough, noisy and untidy like an ordinary boy’, however. [9] Conservative councillor Patricia Webster (b. 1923) ultimately understood why her parents, only having the one child, were stricter than her friends’ parents about staying out late during the blackout. She nonetheless found it ‘quite tiring’ when, aged nineteen, she was walked home by a member of the Youth Guild at 10:45pm, and her father gave her a lecture about her 9:30pm curfew. [10] Teacher Dorothy Manning (b. 1936) implied that such protection was applied to all of the (admittedly younger) children on her street; they were not allowed to go anywhere unaccompanied during the Second World War, and her father would pick her up from school on his bike. [11]

We have seen, then, how war had a whole range of implications for parent-child relationships. These depended on factors such as the child’s age, the attitudes and interests of both parent and child, what the family had to do during the war, and whether it was the adult, child, or both who went away. The type of war could also have an effect; while parents seemed especially concerned about their children’s health during the First World War, the Second World War brought the threat of violent death, in the form of air raids, much closer to home. Although, due to the nature of the sample, many of the people featured in this post were only children, it does not seem as though family size made any particular difference to the ways that war affected parent-child relationships.

1. John Drummond, Tainted By Experience, (London, 2000), pp. 13-15, 33, 34. 2. Ibid., p. 44. 3. Interview with John Phipson by Judy Slinn, December 1991-June 1992, NLSC: City Lives, C409/104, parts 1, 2, 3, © The British Library. 4. Interview with John Blakemore by Shirley Read, December 2001, Oral History of British Photography, C459/146, part 1, © The British Library. 5. Interview with David Lomas by Dylan Roys, January 1999, Millennium Memory Bank, C900/09596, track 1, © BBC. 6. Interview with Christopher Clarke by David Phillips, September-November 1991, NLSC: City Lives, C409/059, part 1, © The British Library. 7. Michael Levey, The Chapel Is On Fire: Recollections of Growing Up, (London, 2001), pp. 6-7. 8. Jo Robinson interviewed by Polly Russell, November 2011-April 2012, Sisterhood and After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project, C1420/43, track 2, © The British Library. 9. Norman Nicholson, Wednesday Early Closing, (London, 1975), pp. 11, 17. 10. Interview with Patricia Webster by James Dearling, September 1998, Mass Conservatism: An Oral History of the Conservative Party, C895/07/01-03, tape 1, © The British Library. 11. Interview with Dorothy Manning by Simon Evans, December 1999, Millennium Memory Bank, C900/07551, track 3, © BBC.


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