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Victorian childhood



The Sick Child

The Sick Child

Being a child in the 19th century was hazardous, particularly if you were born into a poor family.  Many young children were left unattended while their parents went out to work, while others as young as eight had to undertake dangerous jobs in factories and mines.

In the 1830s, two-thirds of families in Wolverhampton lived in houses with no sewers or drains. Babies were particularly vulnerable to the diseases caused by these conditions – of all children who died before the age of 18, over 40% died before their third birthday.

Those who survived these hazards were often in poor health. In 1843, Mr Horne examined a number of working class children for his report on ‘The Iron Trades and other manufacturers’ and concluded that “in stature they are stunted, nearly all of them, to a degree”.

He also found that the pressures of long working hours led mothers to placate their babies in harmful ways:

“There is a quack or patent medicine called Godfrey’s Cordial, of which great quantities are sold in Wolverhampton. It is a mixture of boiled treacle and water, with the addition of a certain portion of opium. Mothers purchase it for the purpose of keeping their children quiet, or of ‘sleeping them’, during the time the mother goes to work. Many children are killed by it. Some waste away to skeletons, and their sufferings are prolonged; others die more easily… …Since infants are continually left in charge of children of eight or nine year’s old, during the whole day, it is not too much to suppose that in many cases this child knows where to find ‘the Godfrey’.”


Only the wealthiest of Victorian families could afford a formal education for their children, either by hiring a governess or tutor or by sending their children to boarding school.

Some poorer children were lucky to attend schools run by the church or charities, but many more didn’t receive any schooling.  In 1861 only around 10 per cent of poorer children attended primary school, often for less than a year and rarely beyond the age of ten. 

In 1870, the Government passed an Education Act, which made elementary education compulsory for all.  Elected school boards were set up throughout the country in order to oversee local schools, to build and run new schools and pay the school fees for poorer children.  All children were taught to read and write, but boys also studied practical subjects such as woodwork and mathematics.  Classes of up to 80 were common and strict discipline was maintained.


In the 1840s most working class children over the age of eight worked full time. Children provided cheap labour and were often used to do the jobs that adults could not do, such as crawling underneath machines in factories or staying underground in mines to open and close the ventilation doors.  It was normal for children to work up to 13 hours a day.

Thomas Parker, who grew up to become a renowned inventor, described his childhood work in an iron foundry:

“In those days lads had to go to the foundry at half-past five in the morning to light the fires, and so prepare for the men. Sixty hours or more was the week’s work… If a boy did not quickly do what was ordered, he would often receive a kicking from his superior. I well remember working for a man at 5d. a day who would dig me in the ribs until they were black as coal, if my celerity did not keep pace with his requirements.”

The more fortunate children became apprentices in a trade such a japanning that would help them earn a decent wage for life.  Others were destined for a life of drudgery and poverty, unable to better themselves because they were so few opportunities for education.


Simple toys

Simple toys

Because they worked up to 13 hours a day, six days a week, working class children didn’t have much time for play. But on Sundays, their day off, after going to church and Sunday School, they would have had time to play with their friends.  Children in the same street would play together, sharing marbles and hoops or playing simple games like hopscotch and tag.  Ball games were also popular, and they would fashion balls out of old rags to play catch and make bats out of old pieces of wood. 

Poor families couldn’t afford the toys like rocking horses, dolls’ houses, tin soldiers or clockwork models that wealthy children played with, instead, their toys were homemade or simple objects like beads or tiny dolls bought from the penny bazaar.

In contrast, rich children would have special nurseries filled with toys. Their nanny or governess would ensure that they had plenty of time to play.  When wealthy boys were older and sent away to boarding school, their education would include games like rugby and cricket, while their sisters left at home might enjoy riding bicycles and playing tennis.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 01/12/2010 3:03 pm

    Very interesting! I really enjoyed your piece!

    I’ll never give up a good opportunity to learn more about Victorian times!

    I’m certainly going to keep an eye on your further posting.

  2. 01/12/2010 3:11 pm

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post. It’s interesting the contrast between the lives of rich Victorians and those from the poorest families.

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