The Children Of England

"From the folding of its robe, it brought two children; wretched,

abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. . . . They were a boy and a

girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too,

in their humility. . . . 'They are Man's,' said the Spirit, looking

down upon them. 'And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers.

This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all

of their degree
but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow

I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.'"[8]

[Footnote 8: Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.]

In surveying the long reign of Queen Victoria nothing strikes one

more than the gradual growth of interest in children, and the many

changes in the nation's ideas of their upbringing and education. At

the beginning of her reign the little children of the poor were for

the most part slaves, and were often punished more cruelly by their

taskmasters than the slaves one reads of in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

When Disraeli, afterward Lord Beaconsfield and Prime Minister, wrote

Sybil, he drew, in that book, a terrible picture of the life of

children in the manufacturing districts and in the country villages.

The following extract speaks for itself:

"There are many in this town who are ignorant of their very names;

very few who can spell them. It is rare that you meet with a young

person who knows his own age; rarer to find the boy who has seen a

book, or the girl who has seen a flower. Ask them the name of their

sovereign and they will laugh; who rules them on earth or who can

save them in heaven are alike mysteries to them."

In such a town as Disraeli describes there were no schools of any

kind, and the masters treated their apprentices "as the Mamelouks

treated the Egyptians." The author declares that "there is more

serfdom now in England than at any time since the Conquest. . . .

The people were better clothed, better fed, and better lodged just

before the Wars of the Roses than they are at this moment. The average

term of life among the working classes is seventeen."

One of the first results of machinery taking the place of human labour

was that an enormous number of women and young children of both sexes

were employed in the factories in place of grown men, who were no

longer needed. Especially in the spinning mills thousands of men were

thrown out of work, and lower wages were paid to those who took their

place. This led directly to the breaking up of the home and home-life.

The wives were often obliged to spend twelve to thirteen hours a day

in the mills; the very young children, left to themselves, grew up

like wild weeds and were often put out to nurse at a shilling or

eighteenpence a day.

One reads of tired children driven to their work with blows; of

children who, "too tired to go home, hide away in the wool in the

drying-room to sleep there, and could only be driven out of the

factory with straps; how many hundreds came home so tired every night

that they could eat no supper for sleepiness and want of appetite,

that their parents found them kneeling by the bedside where they had

fallen asleep during their prayers."

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, one of the greatest poets of Victoria's

reign, pleads for mercy and human kindness in her "Cry of the


Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers,

Ere the sorrow comes with years?

They are leaning their young heads against their mothers,

And that cannot stop their tears.

The young lambs are bleating in the meadows,

The young birds are chirping in the nest,

The young fawns are playing with the shadows,

The young flowers are blowing toward the west--

But the young, young children, O my brothers,

They are weeping bitterly!

They are weeping in the playtime of the others,

In the country of the free.

"For oh," say the children, "we are weary,

And we cannot run or leap;

If we cared for any meadows, it were merely

To drop down in them and sleep.

Our knees tremble sorely in the stooping,

We fall upon our faces, trying to go;

And, underneath our heavy eyelids drooping

The reddest flower would look as pale as snow;

For, all day, we drag our burden tiring

Through the coal-dark underground--

Or, all day, we drive the wheels of iron

In the factories, round and round."

In the country the state of affairs was no better. New systems of

industrial production threw large numbers of farm hands out of work,

the rate of wages fell, and machinery, steam, and the work of women

and children took the place of the labourer.

The children found a champion in Lord Ashley, afterward Lord

Shaftesbury, who succeeded in the face of much opposition in his

efforts to pass laws which should do away with such shameful wrong

and injustice.

The increased amount of coal used (15-1/2 million tons at the

beginning of the century, 64-1/2 million tons in 1854) naturally led

to the demand for more workers, and it was owing to this that the

proposals of Lord Shaftesbury met with such opposition from the

mine-owners, who feared that if child labour were made illegal they

would not have sufficient 'hands' to work the mines and that they

would have to pay higher wages.

The Act of 1842 forbade altogether the employment of women and girls

in the mines, and allowed only boys of the age of ten or more to do

such work. The Poor Law Guardians of the time used to send children

into the mines at the age of seven as a means of finding employment

for them. The hours of work were limited to ten daily and fifty-eight

each week.

Little or no attempt was made in the Bill to give children the means

of obtaining a good education, although considerably more than half

the children in the country never went to school at all, and many

large towns were without a proper school.

By a previous Factory Act of 1834 all children under fourteen years

of age were compelled to attend school for two hours daily. The

employer was allowed to deduct one penny a week from the child's wages

to pay the teacher. This proved absolutely useless, as the masters

employed worn-out workers as teachers, and in consequence the

children learnt nothing at all.

It was not until the year 1870 that a Bill was passed in Parliament

to create an adequate number of public elementary schools for every

district in the kingdom. To show the increase in the number of schools

built, there were in the year 1854, 3825, and in the year 1885,


But the children of England owe almost as much to Charles Dickens

as they do to Lord Shaftesbury. He was almost the first, and certainly

the greatest, writer who, with a heart overflowing with sympathy for

little children, has left us in his books a gallery of portraits which

no one can ever forget.

He himself, "a very small and not over-particularly-taken-care-of

boy," passed through a time of bitter poverty, and his stay at school,

short as it was, was not a period of his life upon which he looked

back with any pleasure.

The material for his books was drawn from life--from his own and from

the lives of those around him--and for this reason all that he wrote

will always be of great value, as it gives us a good idea of the Early

and Mid Victorian days.

His ambition was to strike a blow for the poor, "to leave one's hand

upon the time, lastingly upon the time, with one tender touch for

the mass of toiling people."

Who can ever forget in the Christmas Carol the crippled Tiny Tim,

"who behaved as good as gold and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful,

sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever

heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in

the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to

them to remember upon Christmas Day who made lame beggars walk, and

blind men see."

Other pictures of suffering childhood are 'Little Nell' and 'The

Marchioness' in The Old Curiosity Shop, 'Jo' and 'Charley' in

Bleak House, and 'Smike,' the victim of the inhuman schoolmaster


The cruelty of the times is shown in the case of an unfortunate

sempstress who tried to earn a living by making shirts for

three-halfpence each. Once, when she had been robbed of her earnings,

she tried to drown herself. The inhuman magistrate before whom she

was brought told her that she had "no hope of mercy in this world."

It was after hearing of this from Charles Dickens that Thomas Hood

wrote the well-known "Song of the Shirt":


From weary chime to chime,


As prisoners work for crime!

Band, and gusset, and seam,

Seam, and gusset, and band,

Till the heart is sick, and the brain benumbed,

As well as the weary hand.

The age might well take to heart the lesson taught by the great-souled

writer--that the two chief enemies of the times were Ignorance and


The lot of the unfortunate children in the Union Workhouses was no

better. They were treated rather worse than animals, with no sympathy

or kindness, owing to the ignorance of those who were set in authority

over them. Any one who reads Oliver Twist may learn the nature of

the life led by the 'pauper' children in those 'good old days.'

"The members of this board were very sage, deep, philosophical men;

and when they came to turn their attention to the workhouse, they

found out at once, what ordinary folks would never have

discovered--the poor people liked it! It was a regular place of

public entertainment for the poorer classes; a tavern where there

was nothing to pay; a public breakfast, dinner, tea, and supper all

the year round; a brick and mortar elysium, where it was all play

and no work. 'Oho!' said the board, looking very knowing, 'we are

the fellows to set this to rights; we'll stop it all, in no time.'

So, they established the rule, that all poor people should have the

alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they) of being starved

by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it. With

this view, they contracted with the waterworks to lay on an unlimited

supply of water; and with a corn-factor to supply periodically small

quantities of oatmeal; and issued three meals of thin gruel a day,

with an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Sundays. . . . Relief

was inseparable from the workhouse and the gruel; and that frightened


A movement which helped, possibly far more than any other, to better

the lot of the children of the Poor commenced with the foundation

of the Ragged School Union, of which the Queen became the patroness.

Out of this sprang a small army of agencies for well-doing.

Commencing only with evening schools, which soon proved insufficient,

the founders established day schools, with classes for exercise and

industrial training: children were sent to our colonies where they

would have a better chance of making a fair start in life; training

ships, cripples' homes, penny banks, holiday homes followed, and

from these again the numerous Homes and Orphanages which entitle us

to call the Victorian Age the Age of Kindness to Children.

Charles Dickens took the keenest interest in the work of the Ragged

Schools. A letter from Lord Shaftesbury quoted in his Life gives a

clear idea of the marvellous work they had accomplished up to the

year 1871:

"After a period of 27 years, from a single school of five small

infants, the work has grown into a cluster of some 300 schools, an

aggregate of nearly 30,000 children, and a body of 3000 voluntary

teachers, most of them the sons and daughters of toil. . . . Of more

than 300,000 children, which, on the most moderate calculation, we

have a right to conclude have passed through these schools since

their commencement, I venture to affirm that more than 100,000 of

both sexes have been placed out in various ways--in emigration, in

the marine, in trades and in domestic service. For many consecutive

years I have contributed prizes to thousands of the scholars; and

let no one omit to call to mind what these children were, whence they

came, and whither they were going without this merciful intervention.

They would have been added to the perilous swarm of the wild, the

lawless, the wretched, and the ignorant, instead of being, as by

God's blessing they are, decent and comfortable, earning an honest

livelihood, and adorning the community to which they belong."

Dickens believed, first of all, in teaching children cleanliness and

decency before attempting anything in the form of education. "Give

him, and his," he said, "a glimpse of heaven through a little of its

light and air; give them water; help them to be clean; lighten the

heavy atmosphere in which their spirits flag and which makes them

the callous things they are . . . and then, but not before, they will

be brought willingly to hear of Him whose thoughts were so much with

the wretched, and who had compassion for all human sorrow."