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Research shows the hands-on dad isn’t a new phenomenon

22 Jan 2015

The 21st Century dad – as defined by celebrity fathers such as David Beckham, Brad Pitt and Jamie Oliver – isn’t a new phenomenon according to research from the universities of Manchester and Leeds

Historians 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 Julie-Marie Strange from The University of Manchester examined Victorian working-class fathers in her book 'Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1865-1914'.

She says: “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 Laura King from The University of Leeds studied fatherhood across the last century in her book 'Family Men: Fatherhood and Masculinity in Britain, 1914-1960'.

She says: “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.”

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. Her 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. 

She adds: “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 says. 

  • Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1865-1914 by Dr Julie-Marie Strange is published by Cambridge University Press (ISBN 9781107084872)
  • Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1865-1914 by Dr Laura King is published by Cambridge University Press (ISBN 9781107084872)