The myth of the tyrannical dad (BBC News, UK)

October 29, 2012


Lily Barron (nee Jones), left, and family when her father was home on leave

Fathers of yesteryear tend to be portrayed as cold, detached, even callous creatures. But, says Steve Humphries, the cuddly, hands-on, sentimental dads we know today are by no means a modern-day creation.

Every night when 98-year-old Lily Barron goes to bed, she looks at the large framed photographs that line her bedroom wall and says a prayer for her father, “the most important man in my life. I loved every inch of him.”

Lily’s dad was a miner who lived with his wife and four young children in the town of Blackwood in south Wales. In his attitudes to his children, he was in some ways surprisingly modern. He never smacked them, he read bedtime stories, and he cuddled and kissed them every day. Twice-married Lily remembers him as “the loveliest and gentlest man I ever knew”.

This image of the gentle and loving Edwardian working class father is at odds with our general perception of fathers in the past. We tend to picture them as tyrannical patriarchs whose children were seen and not heard and lived in fear of father’s punishments. It is only in recent decades – or so we imagine – that dads have become approachable, caring and committed to the wellbeing of their children. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The testimonies of fathers, and of their sons and daughters during the first half of the 20th Century, reveal just how prevalent the loving and devoted dad was.

This is not to say that corporal punishment wasn’t sometimes used, or that some fathers weren’t cold and distant figures. But the popular myth of the tyrannical father has seriously distorted our view of the care and commitment shown by generations of fathers towards their children.

Lily’s father, John Jones, served as a Lewis Gunner in the South Wales Borderers during World War I. He was killed in November 1917. His body lay undiscovered for nearly six months.

Regimental diaries reveal he was shot in the thigh and left behind as his regiment retreated. A copy of a family photograph with his wife and children was found on his body. He’d had it taken just a few weeks before when he came home on leave.

He was one of something approaching a quarter of a million fathers who lost their lives and whose sacrifice is still lovingly remembered every year by their children.

Spare the rod

It is important to remember just how many dads – like John Jones – don’t conform to the cruel stereotype of the Victorian-style father. The minority of fathers who behaved like this were usually very poor, very rich or very drunk – and were made much of in early cinema films and social reform movements.

The research of academic historian Dr Julie Marie Strange, of Manchester University, reveals how the temperance movement helped demonise and create a working class folk devil father that bore little resemblance to most, who only drank in moderation, worked hard and were devoted to their children.

If schoolteachers tried to cane children who were naughty, they would often find themselves confronted by angry fathers who strongly disapproved of any physical punishment of their children – especially their daughters. Social reformers often criticised working class fathers for being too spoiling and indulging their young ones.

Many stories uncovered in the BBC’s new Century of Fatherhood series show just how close fathers were to their children during the first decades of the last Century. They helped look after their babies, they played regularly with their sons and daughters, they helped educate them and they tried to get them jobs – with sons very often following fathers in the same trade or profession.

Some even took part in the inter-war Fathercraft Movement which was influential in teaching skills to new dads like changing nappies and encouraging active involvement with childcare.


A ‘turning point’ in fatherhood

“The nappies then were made of towelling and there was a special way of pinning them on both sides. It was smelly but I was happy to do that for my lovely daughter,” recalls Tom Atkins, now 97.

In Professor Joanna Bourke’s study of 250 working class autobiographies written during the first decades of the century, she found that “for every one who said that father did not do childcare, 14 explicitly stated that he did.”

New life

The importance of fatherhood for the dads themselves is vividly illustrated in the memories of soldiers who served in World War II.

Lancashire-born Wilfred Copley, now in his 100th year, can still vividly recall how after he was seriously injured in the Normandy landings of 1944, it was the vision of being a father and seeing his newborn baby son for the first time that helped keep him alive.

“I was in hospital and covered from head to toe in plaster cast and they lowered him onto me. What a meeting. That really gave me the will to live.”

After the deprivations of war the simple pleasures of family life and fatherhood were all the sweeter.

The notion of the new father who enjoys a close bond with his children is not as new as many imagine in modern Britain. Today there is sometimes more emotional intimacy and closeness than in the past, but a tender and enduring love between fathers and their children was well established in Victorian and Edwardian times.

Steve Humphries is producer of the A Century of Fatherhood series, an author and former lecturer at the University of Essex

Below is a selection of your comments.

What an interesting, thought provoking article showing the loving nature of fathers years ago: not so much a patriarchal, stern, starch collared approach, more a tender, hands on, helpful approach – exactly what my dad was like. He was born in 1924 and was the most loving, kind, sometimes strict yet ultimately caring dad. He had been brought up as the youngest of 8 children, without his own father present (we never really knew where he disappeared to after having each of the 8 children), so was brought up by his Baptist, chapel-going, very strict mother, plus his older brothers and sisters.
Emma, Haverfordwest

My father-in-law, who is in his sixties, will readily admit that he is not a child person and changed not one nappy of either of his children. He is similarly distant with his grandchildren. This has been of little benefit to his son who has relationship issues with his parents and his wife, to the extent that our marriage has failed and is currently being wound up like a business that has hit the rocks due to the current recession.
Anon, Shrewsbury, England

he opposing story needs to be told, that of tyrannical mothers.
Zeilig, London, UK

Abraham Lincoln was a very indulgent father and he died in 1865. He doted on his boys and let them run rampant in the White House.
Robert Turner, Crossford, Fife

My father was 46 when I was born in 1949. A schoolmaster, he was a constant presence, rarely angry and invariably encouraging. He imbued in me a love of music, literature and art which have been with me all my life. I owe him a tremendous debt for which I was never able to thank him before his too early death.
Richard Allen, Orpington, UK

This article appears to be attempting to re-write history; my extended family’s experience seems to be more in line with the general perception of parenthood of the past; my relatives will often talk of the harsh physical punishments they got at home and school in the 1930s-1950s and how their parents were distant towards them, parents were usually feared; it’s only in the last 30 years or so that most parents have become closer and warmer towards their children.
Quin MacLeod, Watford

Interesting article. We must be wary of distorting history to suit our modern thinking where in fact we have many things to learn from our forefathers as they in turn learned from theirs. To assume that all discipline of children was evil and carried out with aggression is wrong, and this article seems to imply that many dads disagreed with corporal punishment. What it doesn’t mention is that there were many dads who did approve of corporal punishment, but not from a basis of aggression, bullying, or anger, but because it was the accepted method based upon thousands of years of parenting.
James, Bristol

I think a lot of these people look through rose tinted spectacles. Even in the 60’s and 70’s, fathers were distant, seen as there to support the family and administer punishment, and this is from all of my peers. I think the difference is, that some fathers coupled this with love and encouragement, which could be the perfect balance really. Without painting too bleak a story, my father didn’t partake in parenting unless he was forced to through situation e.g. my mother being taken ill to hospital. I come from a family of 7 and still feel to this day, he resented every single one us taking my mothers attention. Ironically, he adored his father, who didn’t treat him very well at all, and still says he treated us better than he was treated, which he believes is progressive.
Peter Pepper, Melksham WIlts

Being a dad is one of the great joys in life, but you only get out of it what you put into it. I think the image of some dads as being cold and distant probably stems from the fact that there was pressure on the fathers not only to provide but to dish out discipline – “the wait till your father gets home attitude”. This was unfair on them as it made it more difficult for them to be seen as soft. Those men missed out a huge amount and thank god such attitudes are consigned to history. I have two sons and four grandsons and would not trade them for all the money in the world.
Peter, falkirk

My father did lots for my sister and I he would cook dinner was and dress us ready for bed. My mother worked as a silver service waitress in the evening at a posh hotel – to bring extra money. I always sat on my dads knee watching TV. My son was also look after by my dad while I worked and he loved his grampy to bits. We both miss him greatly there is not a day goes by that he in our thoughts to me he was the greatest. That is not saying that my mum wasn’t great as well. Mt sister and I had a wonderful childhood. I miss both my parents they were lovely,
Mags, Leicester

My little girl is 4 months old and it breaks my heart everyday that the gap between me getting home from work and her bedtime is a tiny 30-minute oasis together after a day at the office. The reality is that due to the need to work, most dads can’t spend the time they would like with their kids and don’t have the chance to be close to them like their mums are.
Kevin, Hampshire

It is lovely to read this article and just goes to show how important dads are in their childrens’ lives and for their wellbeing.
dympna, london

I grew up not knowing my father, he left my mother when he found out she was pregnant with me, which was quite unheard of in the late seventies. It makes me sad and envious reading other’s accounts of their wonderful dads, and I often wonder if my father ever regrets his decision, if he ever wonders what I’m doing with my life, and if he is a grandparent yet. I really hope the people who have good relationships with their dads treasure that special bond, some of us are less fortunate.
G Smith, Norwich, UK

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