What were you doing when you were five or six years old?

Life can challenge at the best of times, but life for children in the Victorian era was hard. Imagine being on your own, scared and hungry and fighting for a space to sleep in the dirty, noisy streets of a big city like London.

Always cold, always tired. Not knowing who to talk to, who to trust. No toys, no clean clothes, no Mum or Dad to tuck you into a warm bed at night, to kiss you and tell you, you are loved and safe. Not being able to read or write or go to school and having nobody to hug you or talk to or ask for advice. There was no future for these street children, and many had to go into prostitution or criminal activities.

Incredibly, The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was created in 1824, which was 67 years before the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, was created in 1891. Victorian London was a child-dominated society. A tremendous amount of industrialisation accompanied the population explosion that occurred during this period. By the end of the century, the vast majority of children lived in towns rather than rural communities.

Children’s most carefree years were those between the ages of two and three, from which they could walk and play, and about six, at which point they were expected to do chores and to care for younger siblings. The whole living-environment of these children differed from that of their wealthier fellows: urban working-class families lived in unsanitary, overcrowded, cramped flats or rows of houses which were often notorious breeding grounds for diseases. The cold, grey force of poverty was the main reason children were sent to work as soon as possible. While the middle-class home was a haven of peace and tranquillity, the working-class lodgings remained places of work that provided little space and even less comfort.

As industrialisation continued, it became more visible, as masses of ragged children crowded the London streets. In Ireland, the Great Potato Famine resulted in over 100,000 Irish coming over the sea to England, and many settled in London. This added to the already over-crowded streets and unemployment.

The rapid growth quickly outstripped affordable housing, leading to overcrowding and terrible sanitary conditions. Combined with infectious diseases and contaminated milk and food, these factors contributed to very high infant and child mortality rates. Underprivileged children who survived infancy were frequently put to work at an early age. Girls as young as six went into domestic service as nurses or maids to wealthy families.

Because of lousy housing and unsanitary conditions, there was an outbreak of the disease cholera, which put a significant dent into the East End of London population. Thousands of people lost their lives, and it left many children destitute. Orphans who could not find a place in an orphanage sometimes lived on the streets or in workhouses. Workhouses provided food and shelter in return for hard, unpleasant work. Conditions were very harsh, and people would only go to workhouses as a last resort.

Faced with living in these conditions or living on the street, some children chose the street and were found in alleys and side streets. Many were orphans, but many children were from neglectful, alcoholic families where abuse was the norm. Many of these children fell prey to prostitution – at a time when the age of consent was just 12 – and begging to support themselves.

Young people’s rights were almost non-existent at the dawn of the nineteenth century. However, in 1885 the government raised the age of consent to 16 to tackle child prostitution following a mass campaign by the press.

Luckily for some of these children, along came a wonderful man, Thomas Barnardo. There were many other campaigners for the child’s rights, and Charles Dickens was one of them. Through his stories–most notably Oliver Twist–Dickens brought these children’s plight to the attention of the well-heeled literate aristocrats and business people of the country and reforms were made. In 1870 they passed a law to make education for children between five and twelve compulsory.

Children were no longer required to do such work as chimney sweeping and were free at last to enjoy some of what childhood offered, and a chance to have a future through their education.

London Crime Thriller Books by Paul:

I share a special love for London, both new and old. If you like London crime books, you will love these gritty thrillers.


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  1. Nice work. Thanks for sharing. My father ( DOB 1927 )came to Canada in 1965. He lived as a coalminer and made sure his kids had a better life.


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