Historians from the University of Leeds and the University of Manchester examined fatherhood in Britain during the 19th and 20th centuries and found strong evidence that dads were much more involved in their children’s lives than previously recognised.
The research quashes the widely-held belief that there has been a generational shift in attitudes to fatherhood and that the ‘New Man’ is more at ease with his parenting role and more engaged with his children – a departure from previous generations.
Previously some historians have considered men's roles in their studies of gender, home and family life more generally; very few have examined fathers as crucial family members and as emotional individuals.
Dr Laura King, from the School of History at the University of Leeds, studied fatherhood across the last century.
“The history of fatherhood is extremely significant to contemporary debate: assumptions about fatherhood in the past are constantly used to support arguments about the state of fatherhood today and the need for change in the future.
“And yet fathers are often neglected in histories of family life in Britain. Fathers were more involved with their children in the past than we recognised.”
According to Dr Julie-Marie Strange who looked at Victorian-era working-class fathers. the notion that fathers are redefined by the modern new man just isn’t true.
“Since the Victorian era men seem to have been just as hands-on as they are today and equally as open and affectionate with their off-spring.”
Dr Strange disproved the validity of the negative stereotypes closely linked with the Victorian working-class father like being absent, tyrannical, distant, drunk, violent and resentful of his children.
Dr Strange’s research gleaned from the voices of working-class men and their children reveals that men were incredibly affectionate with their children, very involved and injected laughter and fun into the home.
“The term ‘Victorian father’ has become shorthand for a man that is strict, distant and unaffectionate with his children. This shows how firmly the stereotype is imprinted in our culture. But I found little evidence of this austere, absent man in my research.”
Drawing on music hall songs, visual culture and fiction, Dr Strange’s research followed the Victorian working man through the front door of his home to observe him at rest and at play with his children.
“I’ve discovered how important comedy is for dads from the Victorian era and how much it was used as a way for men to informally bond with their children. Comedy could be a kind of masculine ‘baby talk’ too,” she said.
Using a wide range of sources, Dr King shed light on the role of fathers in the period from the First World War to the start of the 1960s from newspapers, letters and autobiographies to individual testimonies gleaned through interviews.
By the 1940s and 1950s there was a new understanding emerging of the significance of the father-child relationship.
“The generalisation that fathers in the past were distant figures – as well as the idea that men have suddenly become much more involved in fatherhood in the last 10 or 20 years – don’t really match up,” said Dr King.
“Why does the ‘new man’ keep returning?”
She argues that looking back to the past only through the lens of our present values means fathers in previous generations have been seen as distant. Because they worked a lot, they were seen as uninvolved, and because kisses and cuddles were not as common or frequent, their relationships with their children were not seen as affectionate.
“Lots of men talked about how they worked hard and long hours specifically to give their family what they didn’t have as children, and the love and affection between parents and children were simply taken for granted rather than constantly displayed,” she said.
The 1940s and 1950s also saw the birth of the modern celebrity dad, as newspapers regularly featured stories about famous fathers such as actors Errol Flynn and Burt Lancaster, as well as footballers and other sports stars.
“This flourishing of the celebrity father in the mid-20th century represents a new understanding of fatherhood,” Dr King said. “I've also found quizzes asking readers how good a husband/father they were, as well as some very open emotional exchanges in letters between dads and their children during both world wars.”