There were two significant classes within the Victorian era. Either you had money or you didn’t. There really was no one in between. Unfortunately, there were very few wealthy people who lived in the Victorian era.
Those who were rich were typically business owners who were prospering off of thriving mass production of this time. Their children probably would have gone to school if they were boys. Girls, though, likely would have stayed home and learned how to become good wives.
As for the poor kids, they were not so lucky. Since urbanization was a huge issue in the Victorian era, assuming they were not thrown out on the streets by their parents, they would live in small rooms with sometimes eight or nine people. Do not worry though; they typically did not spend much time at their homes even if they had a place to rest to their heads.
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Victorian child labour
Child labor wasn’t merely prevalent; it was an integral part of the British industrial revolution. Many industries, such as textiles, were heavily reliant on the nimble fingers of young children. These children worked in perilous conditions, with minimal breaks, and poor ventilation, and were prone to accidents. It wasn’t uncommon for them to work 2-16 hours a day, and punishments were harsh if they faltered or were found dozing.
Instead, they were frequently forced to work in factories that had terrible working conditions. Their typical work day would probably start at sunrise and go well late into the evening frequently giving them 16-hour work days every day of the week. There was no time off. These children could be as young as three years old. It was not until later in the Victorian era that laws were created to only allow them to work 12 hours per day. Still, this was too much for children this young.
The conditions in which they worked were not much better. The factories were causing a lot of pollution and there was no sanitation. It would be worth noting that there was no clean running water like we have today.
There were no flushing toilets either. The sanitation within an urban area where young children would work would frequently reek of sewage and the harmful pollution that the factory would produce. These sometimes harmful chemicals would cause many of the children to become ill. Many would die before they reached an adult age.
Legislation and Reforms
Public outrage and a growing reform movement led to significant changes. Acts passed during the Victorian era didn’t merely restrict child labor; they sought to regulate conditions, provide inspectors, and ensure some basic rights for these young workers. The Factory Act of 1833, for instance, stipulated that children under nine could not work in textile factories.
The Victorian era saw a significant transformation in children’s education. Before the Elementary Education Act of 1870, education was a privilege of the elite. After its passage, schools became widespread, curriculum standardized, and regular inspections were mandated. This didn’t just promote literacy; it fostered a sense of discipline and punctuality among the young.
Family and Domestic Life
While the family was the central unit, the Victorian home was distinctly hierarchical. Parents, especially fathers, held authoritative roles. It was commonly believed that sparing the rod would spoil the child. However, as the era progressed, there was a gradual shift towards a more compassionate and understanding approach to child-rearing.
Parental Roles and Expectations The family unit was hierarchical, with the father typically seen as the breadwinner and the ultimate authority figure. He was the disciplinarian, while mothers, epitomizing the “angel in the house” ideal, were expected to provide emotional support and oversee the household. This meant that children, especially boys, were often closer to their mothers, turning to fathers mainly for guidance on moral and vocational matters.
Siblings and Birth Order Large families were common in the Victorian era, particularly among the working classes. The role of elder siblings was vital, as they often took care of the younger ones, especially in families where both parents worked. Birth order was also significant, with the eldest son in more affluent families often being the primary heir, receiving the lion’s share of education and resources.
Discipline and Upbringing Victorian children were often heard but not seen. The expectation was for them to be obedient and respectful. Discipline was strict, and physical punishment was not uncommon. The adage “spare the rod and spoil the child” encapsulated prevailing attitudes. However, over time, there was a gradual shift towards more understanding and compassionate child-rearing methods.
Education and Home Life While more affluent children might have had tutors or attended private schools, many children from working-class backgrounds were educated at home or in Sunday schools until the advent of public education. Children were taught moral values and practical skills alike, with girls often learning sewing, cooking, and other domestic skills from their mothers.
Play and Leisure at Home Although Victorian children had responsibilities, they also had time for play. Toys varied based on the family’s socioeconomic status: while richer children might play with dolls, train sets, or intricately designed toys, poorer children often made do with simpler, homemade toys. The nursery or children’s playroom became a standard in middle and upper-class homes.
Religious Upbringing Religion played a pivotal role in Victorian households. Families would read the Bible together, and Sunday was reserved for church and religious reflection. This religious upbringing deeply influenced children’s morals and values.
Chores and Responsibilities Victorian children, especially those from working-class backgrounds, had chores and responsibilities around the house. These might include helping with cooking, cleaning, taking care of younger siblings, or even assisting with a family business or farm.
Health and Mortality Sadly, the Victorian era had high child mortality rates, especially in urban areas with poor sanitation. This meant that children often grew up witnessing the deaths of siblings, which profoundly affected their psychological makeup and their family dynamics.
Street Children and Orphans
The dark underbelly of Victorian society was the plight of street children. Workhouses, institutions designed to house the poor, were bleak and often brutal. Orphanages, while a refuge for some, were overcrowded and underfunded. The Band of Hope, established in 1847, aimed to educate children about the perils of alcohol, reflecting society’s concerns about juvenile delinquency.
The Victorian era, despite its grandeur and cultural progression, also bore witness to stark contrasts in living conditions, particularly for the destitute and vulnerable sections of society. Among these, street children and orphans stand out as poignant symbols of the hardships faced by many during the period. Here’s a closer look:
Proliferation of Street Children
The Victorian streets, especially in bustling cities like London, were teeming with children who had no homes to go to. Driven by various factors – the death of parents, abandonment, or simply the result of dire economic conditions – these children formed a sort of subculture within the city, living by their wits and surviving as best they could.
To address the problem of homelessness and destitution, workhouses were established. These were institutions where the poor, including children, were provided with food and shelter in return for work. However, life in a workhouse was bleak and regimented, with long hours of labor, minimal education, and often brutal discipline.
Orphanages: A Ray of Hope?
Orphanages, or ‘asylums’ as they were sometimes called, were institutions specifically designed to house orphaned children. While they did offer shelter and basic education, they were often overcrowded and underfunded. Life in these establishments could be strict, with an emphasis on discipline and moral education.
To survive, many street children took up a variety of jobs. They became shoe-shiners, matchstick sellers, chimney sweeps, and pickpockets. Some worked as “mudlarks,” scavenging the banks of the Thames for anything valuable. Others sold flowers or worked as messengers. These jobs, while providing some income, exposed the children to the rougher aspects of urban life, and many were exploited or abused by adults.
Public Perception and Literature
The public had mixed feelings about street children. While many viewed them as a nuisance or as budding criminals, others sympathized with their plight. Their stories became the subject of popular literature, with Charles Dickens‘ works such as “Oliver Twist” bringing attention to their struggles and challenging societal perceptions.
As awareness grew about the hardships faced by street children and orphans, reform movements began to take shape. Philanthropists, social reformers, and some religious groups started initiatives to help these children. Dr. Barnardo’s homes, founded by Thomas John Barnardo, are a notable example, aiming to provide care, education, and a better future for destitute children.
To tackle the issue of overcrowded orphanages and workhouses, and to give the children a chance at a better life, emigration schemes were set up. These involved sending children to British colonies, primarily Canada and Australia, where they were expected to work on farms or in households. While the intention was to offer a fresh start, many children faced hardships in their new homes too.
In summary, street children and orphans during the Victorian era faced significant challenges. From the grim realities of workhouses to the hazards of street life, they navigated a world that was often indifferent or hostile to their plight. However, their stories also spurred societal change, prompting reforms and evoking compassion from many quarters.
Leisure and Play
The late Victorian era recognized the importance of play in a child’s development. Public parks became more common, providing open spaces for children to play. The YMCA, founded in 1844, provided organized sports and activities. Children’s magazines, like “The Boy’s Own Paper,” offered stories, puzzles, and games.
Views on Childhood
The Victorians oscillated between viewing children as innately sinful, requiring strict discipline, to cherishing them as emblems of purity. The latter view, popularized by the Romantics, gained traction as the era progressed. This shift can also be seen in the burgeoning genre of children’s literature.
The Victorian era marked a significant transformation in societal perceptions of childhood. Prior to this period, childhood was not always distinctly recognized as a separate phase of life, but the Victorians began to redefine and reshape the concept. Here’s a closer look at their evolving views:
Innocence and Purity Victorian society increasingly came to view children as symbols of innocence and purity. This was a stark shift from earlier times when children were often seen as smaller versions of adults, expected to take on adult roles from a young age. The Romantic writers, such as Wordsworth, played a pivotal role in popularizing the notion of the child as a pure, innocent being.
Childhood as a Unique Phase The Victorians recognized childhood as a distinct and valuable stage of human development. This was reflected in the establishment of age-specific institutions, such as schools and juvenile courts. Children were no longer simply ‘miniature adults’ but had unique needs and rights.
Moral and Religious Upbringing The emphasis on a child’s innocence made their moral and religious upbringing paramount. The family and the church bore the responsibility of guiding children’s moral compasses. Sunday schools, which provided religious education to children, became widespread during this period.
Education and Development The Elementary Education Act of 1870 marked a turning point, making education mandatory for children. This act reflected the broader Victorian belief in the importance of childhood development, both intellectually and morally. Education was seen as a tool to mold the next generation of responsible citizens.
Health and Mortality
Improvements in sanitation, nutrition, and medicine towards the end of the era began to reduce child mortality rates. However, infant mortality remained high, with infectious diseases taking a grim toll. The establishment of Great Ormond Street Hospital in 1852, specifically for children, was a testament to the era’s growing focus on child health.
Clothing and Fashion
Victorian children’s fashion, especially for the upper classes, emphasized formality. Ruffles, laces, and detailed embroidery were common. As children grew older, their clothing became less restrictive, allowing for greater movement and play.
Toys and Games
While wealthier children had access to beautifully crafted toys, poorer children often made do with homemade playthings. Common toys included wooden soldiers, dolls, and toy trains. Outdoor games like hopscotch, marbles, and kite flying were popular among children of all classes.
Literature and Moral Lessons
Books for children during this period often carried moral lessons. Authors like Lewis Carroll, Beatrix Potter, and Edward Lear, however, introduced a whimsical element to children’s literature, paving the way for the fantastical tales that are popular today.