Title: Spinning Tops & Gum Drops: A Portrait of Colonial Childhood
Author: Edwin Barnard
Genre: Australian History
Publisher: NLA Publishing
Published: 1st March 2018
Synopsis: Spinning Tops and Gumdrops’ takes us back to childhood in colonial Australia. The delight of children at play is universal, but the pleasure these children experience as depicted through the book’s photographs is through their ‘imagination, skill and daring’ rather than through possessions. Children play quoits and jacks, hide and seek, cricket with a kerosene tin for a wicket, dress ups and charades. They climb trees, run races, and build rafts to sail on the local waterhole. The photographs show children happily absorbed in the play of their own making.
Being a child in colonial Australia was also tough. It was a time when school yard disagreements were sorted out with fists and ‘the loss of a little claret’. A time when children could view public hangings and premature death was frequent, especially taking the very young and vulnerable though dysentery, whooping cough or diphtheria.
The lasting impression left by the contemporary accounts, photographs, etchings and paintings of colonial children in ‘Spinning Tops and Gumdrops’ is their possession of qualities of resilience, self-sufficiency and acceptance of their lot. Perhaps it was through lack of choice, or of knowing no other. Nevertheless, these were qualities that put them in good stead for the challenges many faced in their adulthood. Interestingly, these are qualities on which contemporary society still places a high value, but which today seem a little more elusive.
What was it like to be a child during colonial times? The first 212 years of Australia after colonisation was a tough time to be a child in the nation. Dangers abounded, and the presence of convicts and bushrangers was interesting and fraught with danger on the outside, should a child survive the many illnesses that have since been eradicated, or had treatments found, such as diphtheria, whooping cough and dysentery, which often robbed young children, and babies of their lives. It was also a time when children worked just as hard as adults on family farms or as domestic servants or apprentices. It was a hard life – no labour laws like we have today, and compulsory education only lasted until early teens. It would appear that they all had the chance to learn the same core subjects, but with extra emphasis on domestically geared tasks such as needlework, and home making for girls.
The pictorial history shows children at work, at play, and at home or school, interspersed with prose about the lives they led, and the disparity of class, and testimonials from children in factories illustrate the neglect, and awful working conditions they endured, and at times, the lack of education, nutrition and familial expectations of these young children – some no more than eight – to contribute financially to the family. It was a vastly different time then, compared to now where children go to school, and there are laws in place to protect them from neglect. The stark difference shows the differing attitudes towards childhood, and the different expectations for the time.
With over 260 images, many of unidentified children, this book gives an aspect of Australian history not often explored, a voice and pictures. It shows a reality that the current younger generations have never had to face and hopefully, will never have to face. It is a social history, that positions ideas of childhood within a society that differs vastly from our own, and where things we see as disagreeable today were accepted. As someone with an interest in history. this opened up the colonial Australia I learnt about at school, and put some humanity, and feeling into the facts that came in text books. A great addition to any history collection.