The great British author, Charles Dickens, was a strong supporter of childrens’ rights. He commonly portrayed orphans as his main characters, and this lent a partial expression of his own childhood suffering, and painted an antithetical society within which the children, who had zero love or family, are obliged to aimlessly wander around the streets (Chien, 2012). Through his hugely popular books, people are able to get a glimpse into the immense suffering that children from poor backgrounds endured during the Victorian era. The purpose of this paper is to discuss research on some of the abuses to children in Britain during this period. My thesis statement is: during the Victorian period, poor children were subjected to abject cruelty.
While there were a number of laws that were introduced in the 1830s for the purpose of protecting childrens’ well being in the home, at school and at work, ironically, the reform that was needed took a very long time to implement. Right up to the close of the century, child labor, inadequate schooling and high infant mortality rates persisted regardless of the regulations. This indicated that a large number of Victorians were not convinced that childhood should be regarded as a secure time of development and dependence (Pitt Education, n.d.).
The Victorian population explosion was engulfed in a huge amount of urbanization and industrialization, and by the late 1890s, most children resided in towns. Affordable housing within these towns started to diminish due to their rapid growth, and this culminated in shamefully poor sanitary conditions and terrible over crowding. When these factors were: “coupled with infectious diseases and impure milk and food… [they] contributed to very high infant and child mortality rates” (Pitt Education, n.d.). If they survived infancy, the poor boys and girls were frequently made to work at a very young age. During the 1830s and 1840s, a large number of them labored in industries which turned out to be deadly. Furthermore, female children who were just five years old were forced into service to undertake domestic duties as maids or nurses for rich families. The small percentage of children who remained in rural areas were sent to work for the cottage industries or for farmers, and conversely, in the urban areas, thousands of children worked as sweepers or street hawkers. As Victorian industrialization escalated, massive numbers of stunted ragged children were found crowding out the streets of the cities. Dicken’s Oliver Twist, which was penned in 1837, was done “in response to the draconian New Poor Law of 1834… [which] relegated the needy to prison-like institutions called workhouses, splitting up families and subjecting them to repugnant living conditions and hard labor” (Pitt Education, n.d.).
Even in the early 1890s, more than a hundred thousand girls aged ten to fourteen were still working as domestic servants. In 1891 however, the government put up the minimum age from ten to eleven for part-time factory workers. In regard to education, a third of English children had no education whatsoever in 1851 (Pitt Education, n.d.).
Young children were taken on by factories to crawl under the small spaces in big machinery. Factory children would often start work prior to dawn, and still be working after sundown. The conditions were extremely hazardous, and the small boys and girls who went under the machines, frequently lost their lives. Furthermore, in the coal mines, children were used to close and open the ventilation doors, and up until the mid 1800s, small barefoot girls and boys who were as young as five, normally spent twelve hours under the ground each and every day (Victorian Children, n.d.).
In addition to small children being forced to work under intolerable conditions, it was noted that in London in 1848, close to 2,700 young girls aged eleven to sixteen were forced into hospital, and in many cases their illness was venereal disease brought on by prostitution (Guardian, 2000).
- Chien, Li-shu Chang. “Dickens’ Orphans as Figures for Justice.” WHAMPOA – An Interdisciplinary Journal 63 (2012) 193-214. Retrieved from http://www2.cma.edu.tw/u_edu/journal/63files/11._P.193-214_10089 Dickens’ ophans as
figure of justice.pdf
- Guardian (2000). ” Age of Innocence.” Retrieved from
- Pitt Education (n.d.). “The Victorian Child.” Retrieved from http://www.representingchildhood.pitt.edu/victorian.htm
- Victorian Children (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.aboutbritain.com/articles/victorian-children.asp