You are on page 1of 7

Children in Victorian London

The Victorian era saw huge social and political changes which affected all
aspects of children’s lives. The experiences of children growing up in London
in 1901 at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign would have been very different
from those in 1837. London expanded rapidly during this period, leading to
changes in housing, education and transport. In 1851, London was already
Britain’s largest city with a population of 2.4 million and faced major problems
with overcrowding and poverty. Disease and premature death were common
experiences for all classes. By 1901 England had changed from a rural
country to a vast manufacturing machine which employed over a third of
Britain’s population. 80% of the population lived in cities, but conditions
were improving.

Etching by George Cruikshank, Oliver amazed at the Dodgers, 1838.

© Museum of London 2010

Social reformers such as Dr Barnardo, Lord Shaftesbury, Beatrice Webb, Henry

Mayhew and Charles Booth exposed the impoverished conditions endured by many
London children. Under pressure the Government began to take responsibility for
education, health and housing, and passed acts such as the Education Act of 1870.
However, many poor children continued to work instead of going to school.
The concept of ‘the child’ as a distinct social group which needed different treatment
and protection first began to take hold during the Victorian era. Queen Victoria and
Prince Albert set an example of ideal family life with their nine children which upper
and middle class families tried to follow. 1
Why did so many children work in Victorian London?

Painting by Henry George Hine Sweep boy, 19th century.

In Victorian times, many poor children had to work instead of attending school. Many
worked with their parents at home or in workshops, making matchboxes or sewing.
Children working in dangerous conditions in factories faced long hours and little pay.
Children could earn a few pennies as chimney-sweeps, messengers or crossing
sweepers. Some sold flowers or cheap toys, others helped porters in the London food
markets. ‘Mudlarks’ scavenged along the river banks during low tide for scrap metal. With
no welfare state, many poor children and orphans were forced to turn to crime and
prostitution to survive.

In the 1850s one in nine girls over 10 worked as domestic servants for
wealthy homes.

As the 1800s progressed, the Government were pressured to take greater responsibility
for the education, health and welfare of its poorest citizens. Charities tried to help poor
street children by providing shelter, food and training, and by publicising their plight
and campaigning. John Groom’s ‘Watercress and Flower Girls’ Christian Mission
helped disabled girls earn a living. In David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and Bleak House,
Charles Dickens described children’s working conditions. London Shoe-Black Brigade
boys (1851) had uniforms, ‘pitches’, savings accounts and attended evening lessons
© Museum of London 2010

in Ragged Schools.

Bryant & May match factory girls worked with dangerous phosphorous that
caused the disease ‘phossy jaw’.

What sort of education did Victorian children get?

Group of poor boys, c.1900.

The education that Victorian children received depended on their families’ wealth.
Before the 1840s, many London children didn’t attend school. Charitable Ragged
Schools (1840s) and Board Schools (1870s), paid for by local rates, began to
provide a basic education. But despite these, and the Elementary Education Act
of 1879 and subsequent Acts (1880 and 1891), many London children still didn’t
attend school regularly.

In a letter Dickens described how ‘Ragged’ was a nickname for children who
were ‘too ragged, wretched, filthy, and forlorn, to enter any other place’ than a
Ragged School.

In Victorian schools, discipline was strictly administered with the cane. In London
Board Schools, large classes of up to 60 worked in silence for hour-long lessons on
the 3Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic), taught by inexperienced ‘monitors’ often
aged as young as 12. Inspectors checked schools were meeting standards. Working
children often attended school in the evenings after a days work.

Kingsley’s Water Babies and Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby vividly describe

uncaring schools.
© Museum of London 2010

Young children from wealthy homes were often educated at home by a private
tutor or governess. Boys then went to boarding schools including Eton, Harrow
and Charterhouse. Middle class children attended grammar schools or
private academies.

What were Victorian homes like?

Doll’s house or the Blackett Baby House, 18th century. This doll’s house was named after the family
for which it was made.

Wealthy and middle class children often had comfortable nurseries and playrooms
on the top floors of large homes. They would be looked after by a nanny and a
private teacher called a governess or tutor, perhaps only seeing their parents formally
once a day.
The new middle class white collar professionals working in banking, insurance and
education wanted to live away from the polluted, crowded centre of the city. They
could afford to build large houses with gardens in the suburbs. This new breed of
London commuters travelled on buses, railways, trams and the new steam ‘tubes’
(1863) which later became electric tubes (1890).
In contrast, in the slum tenements or back-to-back houses, whole families would live
and work in one or two rented rooms. Untreated water was collected from a pump in
the street and the outside toilet was shared between several families. Devastating
cholera epidemics led to the Public Health Act of 1848, and after ‘The Great Stink’ of
1858 Parliament was forced to close because of the effluent-filled River Thames.
1,300 miles of sewers were constructed by Joseph Bazalgette in the years that
© Museum of London 2010

During the 1850s nearly 400 Londoners died each year from lack of food.
Henry Mayhew’s social surveys and Charles Booth’s poverty maps drew
attention to the poverty in London, showing that 30% of Victorian London’s
population lived in poverty.

Why did many Victorian children experience poor
health, disease or a death in their family?
Many Victorians died from illnesses
such as cholera, measles and scarlet
fever, that are now uncommon in Britain
due to cleaner water and vaccinations.
Babies in bad housing were at particular
risk from diarrhoea and tuberculosis,
but even wealthy infants died due to
poor medical knowledge and diseases
such as typhoid. Many could not afford
medicines or a doctor, although the
Great Ormond Street Hospital for sick
children was founded in 1852. Poor children of the East End, c.1900.

In Victorian London slums more than half of all babies died before their
1st birthday.

Parents could also die at a young age, so there were many orphans in London, rich
and poor. Orphans who could not get into an orphanage had to live on the streets or in
workhouses although Lord Shaftesbury, Dr Barnardo and other charities tried to help.

What clothes did Victorian children wear?

Clothes for wealthy children changed
in shape and style as much as adult
fashions. People followed styles
started by Queen Victoria such as
boys sailor suits and tartan for both
boys and girls. Popular fashions
included crinoline petticoats for girls
and velvet ‘Fauntleroy’ suits with a
lace collar for boys. Victorian boys
wore dresses until they were ‘breeched’
(potty trained) at four to six years old,
then they started wearing knee-length
trousers. Victorians frequently wore
black clothes for a year’s mourning.
Children from poorer families wore
patched and mended clothes that had
often been bought second-hand, then Engraved illustration by Henry Mayhew, The
© Museum of London 2010

passed down through the family. Lucifer Match Girl, 1861–1864.

Boots and shoes were the most expensive items and some children were forced
to go barefoot, even in winter. They padded their clothes with newspaper to try
to keep warm.

What was leisure time like for Victorian children?
Poor children might make spinning tops
or make simple rag balls or wooden peg
dolls. Many spent any leisure time they
had on the streets, skipping or watching
organ grinders, acrobats and jugglers.
Wealthier children played with dolls
with wax or china faces, toy soldiers
and train sets, often purchased from
toy shops such as Hamley’s ‘Noah’s Ark’
Toy Warehouse. Many toys were
educational, such as jigsaw puzzles
showing a map of the world. London
also offered children many attractions.
For days out they could visit the zoo,
the park and museums or watch a Tinplate mechanical penny toy ferris
Christmas pantomime in a theatre. wheel, 1909–10.

On returning from church on Sundays, children were often expected to play

with toys connected to the Bible, such as a Noah’s Ark.

How culturally diverse was Victorian London?

As the trade centre of the British Empire,
people from many cultures came to live
and work in Victorian London. The
largest migration was from Ireland in the
1850s. Many Irish migrants worked in
London’s thriving docks. Irish and Jewish
people faced discrimination, but built
communities for their families in London
in specific areas, such as the End End.
Each community brought its own
characteristics, traditions and culture,
such as religion and food, and
contributed to the cultural diversity of a
rapidly expanding and vibrant London.
Numerous inventions, vast changes in
industry, and the explosion of trade with
the rest of British Empire were
celebrated in the multinational Great
Exhibition in Hyde Park (1851), the
© Museum of London 2010

Illustration from Henry Mayhew, London

world’s first industrial fair. Labour and the London Poor, 1851.

Thomas Mayhew’s book on London’s poor shows pictures of black and Asian
children working on the streets of London.

Key points of interest Stories, images and interviews from
working children adapted from Mayhew’s
in the Museum of London London Labour and London Poor, 1850s
The Home Life display in Expanding
City: 1660s–1850s, displays wooden
dolls dressed by Queen Victoria as a If you are looking for more in depth adult
child, with the help of her governess. books about Victorian London, then either
Recreated toy shop in the Victorian suggest some recent specialist books
Walk in People’s City: 1890s–1910. from the Museum of London shop, or
The atmospheric recreated Victorian A N Wilson, The Victorians,
street uses original shop fittings and Arrow Books, London 2003
artefacts. Experience fancy goods shops ISBN: 0 09 945186 7
and a pawnbroker’s, reflecting the Another useful web site could be
differing experiences of Victorian which studies
Londoners. Look into the toy shop with a historical campaigns such as working
selection of children’s toys. conditions, voting, slavery, and
The Improving Lives display in People’s encourages schools to create their
City: 1850s–1950s. This gallery includes own campaign.
paintings, photographs and objects
related to working children and the work See also
of charities and individuals to improve
their lives.
The Crossing Sweeper painting by entsExhibitions/Virtual/Default.htm
William Frith, 1858. William Frith hired Click on Changing Faces, then choose
street children to model for his paintings London Children and/or Londoners
and would often rip the models’ clothing
for artistic effect. He met this boy when rsity
he had tried to rob the artist of his pocket History of cultural diversity in London.
watch and chain. Also see the pictures of
working children from Henry Mayhew’s sources
book and a collection of fictional stories
Online Victorian resources for schools
about these children.
Suggested reading Explore the virtual Victorian Walk and see
Barber, Jill. Step up History: Children in typical Victorian shops
Victorian Times, Evans Brothers, London,
2006/7/8, ISBN: 9780237530426 For further information on cultural
Shuter, Jane. Victorian Family Life, diversity in Victorian London (KS2)
Heinemann, Oxford, 1997, ISBN:
0431057214 (hardback) and 0431057346
Hollyer, Belinda (ed), Coster Girls
© Museum of London 2010

and Mudlarks, Street Voices from

Victorian London, Scholastic Children’s
Books, London, 2006
ISBN: 0439960843 (hardback) and 2007
ISBN 0439960851 (paperback)