Guest Post: Simon Sleight on Thomas Kennington’s Homeless

Recently we asked SHCY member Dr Simon Sleight (King’s College London) to reflect on a source that he had found especially compelling in the writing of his new book, Young People and the Shaping of Public Space in Melbourne, 1870–1914 (Ashgate). Here Simon offers his thoughts on a painting, which you can see either here or on the walls of Bendigo Art Gallery in Australia.

Thomas Kennington, Homeless, 1890
Thomas Kennington, Homeless, 1890

Homeless, helpless, a passive victim of the urban environment—this is a dominant image of youth at large in the late-Victorian city. Raised up from wet paving stones by a compassionate passer-by, this fallen child appears feeble, an object for pity and necessary rescue. The portrait’s tone is elegiac: the female figure is dressed in “widow’s weeds,” the garments of mourning, and the child’s limp posture and vacant gaze suggest that death may be near at hand. In the distance the grey gasworks, belching chimney and diagonal crane frame the location as industrial. Nature is a sparse commodity here; even the solitary tree in the painting is leafless, its lower branch snapped, its stone casing restricting room for future development. Nothing, we are invited to infer, can grow normally in this setting. No visual clue is given by the artist regarding the precise whereabouts of these characters. It could be any street in any industrial city of the Victorian era.

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New Book: Young People and the Shaping of Public Space in Melbourne, 1870-1914

From SHCY member Simon Sleight (King’s College London): Young People and the Shaping of Public Space in Melbourne, 1870-1914. Ashgate Studies in Childhood, 2013.

From the publisher:
Baby booms have a long history. In 1870, colonial Melbourne was “perspiring juvenile humanity” with an astonishing 42 per cent of the city’s inhabitants aged 14 and under—a demographic anomaly resulting from the gold rushes of the 1850s. Within this context, Simon Sleight enters the heated debate concerning the future prospects of “Young Australia” and the place of the colonial child within the incipient Australian nation. Looking beyond those institutional sites so often assessed by historians of childhood, he ranges across the outdoor city to chart the relationship between a discourse about youth, youthful experience and the shaping of new urban spaces. Play, street work, consumerism, courtship, gang-related activities and public parades are examined using a plethora of historical sources to reveal a hitherto hidden layer of city life. Capturing the voices of young people as well as those of their parents, Sleight alerts us to the ways in which young people shaped the emergent metropolis by appropriating space and attempting to impress upon the city their own desires. Here a dynamic youth culture flourished well before the discovery of the “teenager” in the mid-twentieth century; here young people and the city grew up together.

Review:
“‘Marvellous Melbourne’, a precocious new world city of the late nineteenth century, is the site for this rich and acute study of how young people carved out their own spaces in the urban outdoors. Simon Sleight draws on a remarkable range of sources to illuminate the subversive perspectives of Melbourne’s youth. The book contributes to the burgeoning international scholarship on young people’s historical experiences, and is recommended reading for historians, geographers and sociologists alike.”—Stuart Macintyre, University of Melbourne, Australia

For more information, see the Ashgate website: http://www.ashgate.com/default.aspx?page=637&title_id=&edition_id=11456&calcTitle=1.