History Podcasts

Why did people have so many children in Victorian times?

Why did people have so many children in Victorian times?

I'm looking into my ancestry, and I found out that my great-great-grandfather, born in 1897, was one of fourteen children!

Now I know that even for the period this is a large number of children to have, but not exceedingly so. Therefore, my question is what were the main motivations to have so many children?

Was it a lack of understanding about how conception occurs, lack of contraception (which doesn't really make a lot of sense considering that withdrawal could still be employed), or simply a desire to maintain a legacy?


There is a name in the medical community for those who rely on withdrawal as a contraception method - such people are referred to as "parents". Your average high school health textbook will give you the success rate for various types of pre-modern contraception. (Remember that artificial contraception was illegal in some countries).

Childhood mortality rate could run over 50% and the only way of ensuring a safe and healthy retirement was to have lots of children. There was no welfare state to offer you a pension. If you wanted to eat after you were too old to work, the only option was to have enough children to make it likely that one of them would survive and be wealthy enough to support you.

If your family is very poor, then the marginal cost of raising a child is small; it doesn't take that much more money to support a family of 14 than a family of 12 - and few people could save any money, so 2 children didn't create more wealth than 12. Just less love.

There are also strong psychological reasons - Cursory research on modern single motherhood in poverty suggests that the love of a child is one of the few things that is assured in a world where little can be controlled.

Two additional points based on comments - I don't have research to back this up.

  • Women had no legal right to refuse their husbands (in most countries). Men had no obligation to raise children. This creates a perverse incentive.
  • There is some evidence that women miscarried over 50% of the time, and that miscarriage is related to mother's starvation. I suspect that as a rough approximation 50% of pregnancies miscarried, 50% of births died, and 50% of those who made it to 1 year, didn't make it to five. As someone else has pointed out, it may be that Victorian's didn't decide to have larger families, they just had access to more food and more wealth and more of the children they had survived. That is a hypothesis that could be tested, by someone with better medical history skills than mine.

You are right to say that 14 children is larger than most families of the period, particularly if they all had the same mother. Death in childbirth was not uncommon at that time. One of my Victorian ancestors had 12 siblings, all with the same mother. Another ancestor was one of 11 children, but the father had re-married after his first wife died in childbirth.

In neither case did all the children survive to be adults. And that is one reason that people had large families in Victorian times. Child mortality rates were often extremely high, particularly in urban areas. Only 40 per cent of children born in the 1850's would reach their 60th birthday.

Since children would normally be expected to provide for their parents in their old age, having a large family was often the only way to provide for their own future.

Although various methods of contraception were available, actually promoting the use of these methods was illegal, as demonstrated in the famous trial of Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh. That said, discussions of the subject in the context of wider social issues do seem to have been acceptable.

Condoms, vaginal sponges and douches seem to have been the primary methods of artificial contraception in Victorian Britain, assuming that people were actually able to obtain them and find out how to use them effectively.

Of course, there were many that preached simple abstinence (or indeed the withdrawal method) as a "morally acceptable" method of family planning. This is probably also a significant factor in the prevalence of large families at that time.


One influence on families in "Victorian" times was Queen Victoria herself. She had nine children, despite having been an "only" child. This was despite the fact that she had access to any birth control that was available. She was nicknamed the "Grandmother of Europe" because of her 42 grandchildren, but that represents an average of "only" 4.7 children to each of her children. She was more prolific than her immediate ancestors or descendants.

Men's fashions, in England, are often set by the king (the practice of leaving the bottom button of your jacket unbuttoned was due to one English king), and the reigning queen helped set the "fashion" in another area. Victoria lived from 1819 to 1901 (reigned from 1837 to 1901) so her example lasted a long time.

A comparison of population growth rates in Europe showed that "England and Wales" had higher growth rates than other European countries between 1800-1900. Queen Victoria might not have affected the behavior of "other nations" but the OP is from the UK, so this answer is for the UK only.


This is a case of survivorship bias.

Your great-… -greatparents had lots of children so some survived and some of those who survived had lots of children, and of those some had children and some survived etc. It looks like everybody's grand-… -parents had a lot of children because those who did not have lots of children do not have descendants to be curious about how many children their grand-… -parents had.

There were a lot of people who did not have children at all, and a lot who did not have children who survived, else the population of England would have quintupled every 35 years instead of doubling every 35 years (and immigration from Europe and Ireland is included in this doubling).


There is a strong correlation between women's equality, specifically access to education, and the number of children they bear. See for example this article. There is a nice chart further down which displays the correlation.

There is no need for access to specific contraceptives in order to avoid having 14 children (maybe condoms are helpful, but careful cycle tracking will do the job). Newer research shows that for example the drop in children per woman which coincided with the advent of hormonal contraception in the 1960s is actually not caused by the improved contraception but instead largely a result of improving women's self-determination. The typical educated woman appears rather uninterested in having 14 children. If nothing else (like a significant chance to die in one of these births) it likely interferes with her education and career.


It was not entirely the case that couples in Victorian times had more children than their ancestors a few generations earlier (although better general health and well being perhaps did improve fertility).

However it was the case during the Victorian period that improvements in nutrition, health, sanitation etc ensured that far more children survived the critically dangerous years of infancy.

My third-great grandparents Robert and Susan Mackender, of Lakenheath, Suffolk had ten children between 1822 and 1845. I do not know how many of them survived infancy. However my great-grandparents, John Benjamin and Mary Hunt of Swanton Abbott, Norfolk had fourteen children between 1868 and 1895 all of whom survived into adulthood.


Well, I doubt any father of 10 or more kids was a Military Historian, or Genetic Biologist who take a futuristic guess and predict that in the next 100 yrs there 'will be Massive Wars', either this country's soil or somewhere else implying that at least 3 or 5 of their grandkids will die in War, or, alternatively a biological futuristic guess might forecast a massive plague, like another Black death, typhoid fever, malaria, or tuberculosis, or polio, diseases that could easily wipe out at least 10 more grandchildren or great-grandchildren. So in anticipation of all these futuristic bleak times… you simply 'have to have alot of kids'… to they make it over the Goalpost of life's obstacles.


I just have a hard time with the question of continual pregnancies when infant mortality rates were so high. In the ages before antibiotics, pasteurization and clean water, etc., EVERYONE knew the chances of a baby's survival could be 50/50. With birth control either not available or ineffective, the only recourse was abstention. Yet, people of child bearing age continued to have sex leading to multiple births, knowing some children probably would not survive. I am certain there was grief, but not enough to avoid more babies in the only way guaranteed to work. It seems to me people must have accepted infant and child death much more matter of factly than we do today. Perhaps in many homes it was a calculated decision to have as many babies as possible… to counteract the mortality rate, or, in the case of the poor, to ensure there were enough hands to work, or, in the case of rich and aristocratic families, to carry on the family name and dynasty.

Child death, when it inevitably occurred, was "God's will"… the rationale people still hang onto today. With women becoming pregnant every one to three years from the age of 22 to 42, there didn't seem to be a lot of time for grieving dead children. You simply kept getting pregnant, come what may. I cannot help but find this disturbing. I thank God for living in an age of better health care, choices and enlightenment.


Complementing other answers. Are you judging people of the past by your own modern standards?

Did a child represent a commitment, hard work or a sacrifice? Yes, but: as said above, feeding 6 is not much more expensive than feeding 5. Even today, people with 6 children say the same - expenses are not linear in many aspects - economies of scale with food, shared clothing, toys and books, help from the older children (e.g. no paid babysitter for the younger ones), more good willingness from people around. There is no reason for this to be less true in Victorian times.

Moreover, even with no children, keeping the house and cooking was a full time job without modern appliances.

I always find funny when modern feminists throw ready-to-cook chicken breast meat in the microwave and after 10 min they eat and complain "in the past women could not leave the kitchen! Patriarchy! oppression!". But my great-grandmother could not buy chicken meat, the only way to eat meat was to buy a live chicken (at least the shop boy would strangle it for you), and then pluck the feathers manually, open it to clean the viscera, and then start to cook - after the husband cut the wood for the wood oven. Sunday's pasta with chicken would require work since Thursday, as there were not ready pasta to buy, she had to buy flour, then mix, ferment, cut and dry the pasta into spaghetti format before cooking.

when the women married, they already knew "wife, housekeeper and mother" properly done was a full time job from day one - and unless they had money to hire servants to do the work, anything else was unthinkable. Every girlish dream of prince charming would involve this full time job, or what else? To starve? To find a pot of gold in the garden?

other expenses? medicine was mostly doctor visits and charity hospitals. There were not insurance plans paid per capita - no expensive antibiotics and vaccination, no Xray, MRI scans, no medical insurance premiums. And it was out of reach of many people anyway, does not matter how many children you have. Few people had money to private education, even for one child. Most depended on public, church, or charity schools, or even would go with no or little formal schooling. Today every child has a predictable price tag: (food + school + medical insurance + expensive toys ), but for most of the human story it was just another mouth and another hand - that would start to be useful quite early, not at 25 after college.

Having children was not such a hard decision as today, and many more things were clearly out of control anyway - or at least we like to think we are in control today.

one christian aspect that we lost today is the yuk-factor of contraception that was common before. When a married couple has sex while being open to conception, they are trusting each other with their lives, by accepting the live-long commitment to a new child, and trusting the other to be around to help. Sex with contraception is just mutual pleasure, expecting love to grow without every lovemaking being a repeated act of life commitment and trust. Contraception smacks of 'un-trust' - if you really loves her/him, you do not expect to be together? To raise the children together? Don't you trust her/him? Why do you have your own plans without him/her, aren't you a married man/woman? This must have a lot to do with the astronomic level of divorce today.

Obviously they knew that withdrawal was not reliable, but condoms existed. They were not so available or well known mostly because most people would not want it.

And, which standard is saner? Past or Present? Do you really believe in 200 years of peace, prosperity, and 1.5 child/woman? Aren't you living in a society that can not even keep itself in existence in the long term, and criticizing past societies which survived and grew under harsher conditions?

BTW: it may be interesting to know that the catholic church does not have a definitive opinion about contraception outside of marriage. Humane Vitae only deals with contraception in the marriage context. Obviously if one is already fornicating, it is not so relevant to discuss if there is another associated sin or not.


Victorian Children in Victorian Times

Life for Victorian Children in Victorian times (1830 to 1900) was nothing like childhood in today’s world. For the wealthy there was an overwhelming sense of boredom and the constant prodding to be proper and polite with very little parent to child communication. For the poor Victorian Children life was much different. The poor children had to work public jobs for their families to survive. Toys were nothing more than homemade dolls or wooden blocks. On the other hand their family life was tighter knit and more loving.


Find out why and listen to the podcast episode below!

These days we use electricity and gas to power and heat our homes and factories, but in Victorian times these forms of energy hadn’t been developed.

Coal was the primary fuel used, coal which was chipped from mines deep underground – and it was being used in larger quantities than ever.

One reason is that the population increased tremendously during this time, from 19 million people in 1831, to over 32 million in 1901.

More to click.

This was because improvements in health and medical treatments meant that people lived for longer, and could have larger families.

These new families needed new homes, all needing coal for the grate.

Another massive reason for the demand for coal is that factories were springing up at a phenomenal rate.

With the expansion of factories during the Victorian period, there was a growing demand for coal to power machinery, and coal has always come from underground, down dark damp dangerous tunnels.

Thanks to technology, mines could be dug deeper, with narrow tunnels running literally miles underground.

And dotted all through these tunnels were children who could fit into the tightest spaces and work for hardly any money. The jobs they did were as bad as the factories, with the added downside of those who work day shifts saw sunlight only once a week.

Entire families would work at the mine, children often as young as four. The pay was very poor and so families tried to earn as much as they could by sending all their children to work too.

It was extremely unhealthy and dangerous work and it was common for children, and adults to be injured or even killed.

In 1842 It became illegal for children and women to work in mines, but things didn’t change immediately.

There was only one inspector for the whole country, and he had to give notice that he would visit a mine, and so it was easy for mine-owners to ignore the change in the law.

It wasn’t just coal mines people used to work in…

Slate is a useful mineral because it’s both light and watertight- even the Romans used it because it was so versatile. It’s mined from deep underground, and in the UK is found in various places, but commonly in parts of Wales. It’s used to this day for bricks and for roof tiles.

There was a massive increase in the demand for slate in the Victorian era. By 1898 17,000 workers were producing over half a million tonnes of slate every year. Many of these workers were children. So what caused the demand?

One reason is the change in technology. New steam-powered boats meant that we could send our goods all over the world – and the world was keen to buy from us. We could send ships packed with our slate to America, making the mine owners very rich.

Technology such as steam-power lead to many new factories too – and these factories needed slate tiles for their roofs, as did the new housing which was being built for our increasing population which increased by a third over the 1900s.

Working in slate mines was, like all mine work, extremely dangerous for children, and explosions and collapses were commonplace.

It took time for the laws to change.

Between 1840 and 1842, government inspectors visited the Welsh coalfields and spoke to many child miners. These interviews were presented to Parliament as part of The Commission of Enquiry into the State of Children in Employment.

Although things didn’t change overnight it did at least to public attention being raised about the plight of child mine workers and by the turn of the century schooling was compulsory for the under 11s – saving them from this unpleasant work.

Mining Jobs that children did

Hurriers
• Boys and girls who worked on their hands and knees in the deepest tunnels, dragging carts of coal behind them using chains attached to their belt.
• As the mines were often dripping wet, children would spend all day in sopping wet clothes.
• Scabby knees was the least of their worries – you’d have hardly notice them when your muscles are screaming and got a crippling backache.
• Not all children pulled carts – some pushed them using their heads (giving them bald patches) and other carried coal up ladders and along passageways in baskets on their backs.

Hauliers
• Some coal mines used pit ponies to move the coal around the mines. A haulier would guide the horses from the coal face to the mine shaft. Hauliers were generally aged 14 to 17 years of age, and size was important – to big and would not fit in the mine shafts.

Trappers
• Boys and girls as young as 6 would open ‘trap doors’ in the tunnels whenever a cart needed to come past. For the rest of the time they sat on their own in the dark waiting for the next cart.
• They often did not have a candle because candles cost money. And couldn’t leave their post for a minute just in case a door needed opening.
• Whilst boring and pretty frightening, it was an important job for the safety of the mine and miners. Keeping doors shut whenever possible helped stop dangerous gases from building up.

Breaker boy
• Boys and girls who separated impurities from coal by hand in a coal breaker.
• The first function was to break coal into pieces and sort these pieces into categories of nearly uniform size, a process known as breaking.
• But coal is often mixed with impurities such as rock, slate, sulphur, ash, clay or soil, and so second function was to remove as many impurities as possible and grade the coal based on impurities remaining. This was not necessary when coal was used in cottage-industry grade production methods, but became necessary when economies of scale moved production into early factories with a larger workforce and those installations began producing glass and iron in greater quantities.
• Coal breaking was very dangerous and difficult, working an intensive 10 hours a day, 6 days a week.
• They would sit on wooden benches perched over chutes and conveyor belts. Some of the boys would work on top of the chutes. These boys would stop the coal by pushing their boots into the stream of coal flowing beneath them and try to pick out the impurities. Others would divert the coal into a horizontal chute where they sat to pick out the unwanted material before the coal would go to the clean coal bins.

Ore Washing
• If you think you can handle terrible blisters freezing cold, aching arms, long hours and not much money, you could try being a washer boy washing the lead ore that your dad has dug up down a Victorian lead mine.
• First you smash it with a hammer which means dodging the razor sharp tiny pieces that fly into the air every time you wallop it. Then you collect up all the pieces with your bare hands and put them into a sieve on the end of a pole. After that comes the chilly part. You pump the sieve up and down in a bucket of ice cold water. It’s not easy – the end of the pole is higher than you are so you have to jump to reach it. It is back breaking work and you won’t stop shivering. it might not be too bad in the summer but imagine doing this in the middle of winter.

You can find out more about coal mining and the jobs that children used to do at the National Coal Mining Museum


Quite Likely the Worst Job Ever

A tosher at work c. 1850 ,sieving raw sewage in one of the dank, dangerous and uncharted sewers beneath the streets of London. From Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor.

To live in any large city during the 19th century, at a time when the state provided little in the way of a safety net, was to witness poverty and want on a scale unimaginable in most Western countries today. In London, for example, the combination of low wages, appalling housing, a fast-rising population and miserable health care resulted in the sharp division of one city into two. An affluent minority of aristocrats and professionals lived comfortably in the good parts of town, cossetted by servants and conveyed about in carriages, while the great majority struggled desperately for existence in stinking slums where no gentleman or lady ever trod, and which most of the privileged had no idea even existed. It was a situation accurately and memorably skewered by Dickens, who in Oliver Twist introduced his horrified readers to Bill Sikes’s lair in the very real and noisome Jacob’s Island, and who has Mr. Podsnap, in Our Mutual Friend, insist: “I don’t want to know about it I don’t choose to discuss it I don’t admit it!”

Out of sight and all too often out of mind, the working people of the British capital nonetheless managed to conjure livings for themselves in extraordinary ways. Our guide to the enduring oddity of many mid-Victorian occupations is Henry Mayhew, whose monumental four-volume study of London Labour and the London Poor remains one of the classics of working-class history. Mayhew–whom we last met a year ago, describing the lives of London peddlers of this period–was a pioneering journalist-cum-sociologist who interviewed representatives of hundreds of eye-openingly odd trades, jotting down every detail of their lives in their own words to compile a vivid, panoramic overview of everyday life in the mid-Victorian city.

Among Mayhew’s more memorable meetings were encounters with the “bone grubber,” the “Hindoo tract seller,” an eight-year-old girl watercress-seller and the “pure finder,” whose surprisingly sought-after job was picking up dog mess and selling it to tanners, who then used it to cure leather. None of his subjects, though, aroused more fascination–or greater disgust–among his readers than the men who made it their living by forcing entry into London’s sewers at low tide and wandering through them, sometimes for miles, searching out and collecting the miscellaneous scraps washed down from the streets above: bones, fragments of rope, miscellaneous bits of metal, silver cutlery and–if they were lucky–coins dropped in the streets above and swept into the gutters.

A London sewer in the19th century. This one, as evidenced by the shaft of light penetrating through a grating, must be close to the surface others ran as deep as 40 feet beneath the city.

Mayhew called them “sewer hunters” or “toshers,” and the latter term has come to define the breed, though it actually had a rather wider application in Victorian times–the toshers sometimes worked the shoreline of the Thames rather than the sewers, and also waited at rubbish dumps when the contents of damaged houses were being burned and then sifted through the ashes for any items of value. They were mostly celebrated, nonetheless, for the living that the sewers gave them, which was enough to support a tribe of around 200 men–each of them known only by his nickname: Lanky Bill, Long Tom, One-eyed George, Short-armed Jack. The toshers earned a decent living according to Mayhew’s informants, an average of six shillings a day–an amount equivalent to about $50 today. It was sufficient to rank them among the aristocracy of the working class–and, as the astonished writer noted, “at this rate, the property recovered from the sewers of London would have amounted to no less than 㿀,000 per annum.”

The toshers’ work was dangerous, however, and–after 1840, when it was made illegal to enter the sewer network without express permission, and a ٣ reward was offered to anyone who informed on them–it was also secretive, done mostly at night by lantern light. “They won’t let us in to work the shores,” one sewer-hunter complained, “as there’s a little danger. They fears as how we’ll get suffocated, but they don’t care if we get starved!”

Quite how the members of the profession kept their work a secret is something of a puzzle, for Mayhew makes it clear that their dress was highly distinctive. “These toshers,” he wrote,

may be seen, especially on the Surrey side of the Thames, habited in long greasy velveteen coats, furnished with pockets of vast capacity, and their nether limbs encased in dirty canvas trousers, and any old slops of shoes… provide themselves, in addition, with a canvas apron, which they tie round them, and a dark lantern similar to a policeman’s this they strap before them on the right breast, in such a manner that on removing the shade, the bull’s eye throws the light straight forward when they are in an erect position… but when they stoop, it throws the light directly under them so that they can distinctly see any object at their feet. They carry a bag on their back, and in their left hand a pole about seven or eight feet long, one one end of which there is a large iron hoe.

Henry Mayhew chronicled London street life in the 1840s and 󈧶s, producing an incomparable account of desperate living in the working classes’ own words.

This hoe was the vital tool of the sewer hunters’ trade. On the river, it sometimes saved their lives, for “should they, as often happens, even to the most experienced, sink in some quagmire, they immediately throw out the long pole armed with the hoe, and with it seizing hold of any object within reach, are thereby enabled to draw themselves out.” In the sewers, the hoe was invaluable for digging into the accumulated muck in search of the buried scraps that could be cleaned and sold.

Knowing where to find the most valuable pieces of detritus was vital, and most toshers worked in gangs of three or four, led by a veteran who was frequently somewhere between 60 and 80 years old. These men knew the secret locations of the cracks that lay submerged beneath the surface of the sewer-waters, and it was there that cash frequently lodged. “Sometimes,” Mayhew wrote, “they dive their arm down to the elbow in the mud and filth and bring up shillings, sixpences, half-crowns, and occasionally half-sovereigns and sovereigns. They always find these the coins standing edge uppermost between the bricks in the bottom, where the mortar has been worn away.”

Life beneath London’s streets might have been surprisingly lucrative for the experienced sewer-hunter, but the city authorities had a point: It was also tough, and survival required detailed knowledge of its many hazards. There were, for example, sluices that were raised at low tide, releasing a tidal wave of effluent-filled water into the lower sewers, enough to drown or dash to pieces the unwary. Conversely, toshers who wandered too far into the endless maze of passages risked being trapped by a rising tide, which poured in through outlets along the shoreline and filled the main sewers to the roof twice daily.

Yet the work was not was unhealthy, or so the sewer-hunters themselves believed. The men that Mayhew met were strong, robust and even florid in complexion, often surprisingly long-lived–thanks, perhaps, to immune systems that grew used to working flat out–and adamantly convinced that the stench that they encountered in the tunnels “contributes in a variety of ways to their general health.” They were more likely, the writer thought, to catch some disease in the slums they lived in, the largest and most overcrowded of which was off Rosemary Lane, on the poorer south side of the river.

Access is gained to this court through a dark narrow entrance, scarcely wider than a doorway, running beneath the first floor of one of the houses in the adjoining street. The court itself is about 50 yards long, and not more than three yards wide, surrounded by lofty wooden houses, with jutting abutments in many upper storeys that almost exclude the light, and give them the appearance of being about to tumble down upon the heads of the intruder. The court is densely inhabited…. My informant, when the noise had ceased, explained the matter as follows: “You see, sir, there’s more than thirty houses in this here court, and there’s no less than eight rooms in every house now there’s nine or ten people in some of the rooms, I knows, but just say four in every room and calculate what that there comes to.” I did, and found it, to my surprise, to be 960. “Well,” continued my informant, chuckling and rubbing his hands in evident delight at the result, “you may as well just tack a couple of hundred on to the tail o’ them for makeweight, as we’re not werry pertikler about a hundred or two one way or the other in these here places.”

A gang of sewer-flushers–employed by the city, unlike the toshers–in a London sewer late in the 19th century.

No trace has yet been found of the sewer-hunters prior to Mayhew’s encounter with them, but there is no reason to suppose that the profession was not an ancient one. London had possessed a sewage system since Roman times, and some chaotic medieval construction work was regulated by Henry VIII’s Bill of Sewers, issued in 1531. The Bill established eight different groups of commissioners and charged them with keeping the tunnels in their district in good repair, though since each remained responsible for only one part of the city, the arrangement guaranteed that the proliferating sewer network would be built to no uniform standard and recorded on no single map.

Thus it was never possible to state with any certainty exactly how extensive the labrynth under London was. Contemporary estimates ran as high as 13,000 miles most of these tunnels, of course, were far too small for the toshers to entert, but there were at least 360 major sewers, bricked in the 17th century. Mayhew noted that these tunnels averaged a height of 3 feet 9 inches, and since 540 miles of the network was formally surveyed in the 1870s it does not seem too much to suggest that perhaps a thousand miles of tunnel was actually navigable to a determined man. The network was certainly sufficient to ensure that hundreds of miles of uncharted tunnel remained unknown to even the most experienced among the toshers.

Sewer-flushers work one of the subterranean sluices that occasionally proved fatal to unwary toshers caught downstream of the unexpected flood.

It is hardly surprising, in these circumstances, that legends proliferated among the men who made a living in the tunnels. Mayhew recorded one of the most remarkable bits of folklore common among the toshers: that a “race of wild hogs” inhabited the sewers under Hampstead, in the far north of the city. This story­–a precursor of the tales of “alligators in the sewers” heard in New York a century later–suggested that a pregnant sow

by some accident got down the sewer through an opening, and, wandering away from the spot, littered and reared her offspring in the drain feeding on the offal and garbage washed into it continually. Here, it is alleged, the breed multiplied exceedingly, and have become almost as ferocious as they are numerous.

Thankfully, the same legend explained, the black swine that proliferated under Hampstead were incapable of traversing the tunnels to emerge by the Thames the construction of the sewer network obliged them to cross Fleet Ditch–a bricked-over river–“and as it is the obstinate nature of a pig to swim against the stream, the wild hogs of the sewers invariably work their way back to their original quarters, and are thus never to be seen.”

A second myth, far more eagerly believed, told of the existence (Jacqueline Simpson and Jennifer Westwood record) “of a mysterious, luck-bringing Queen Rat”:

This was a supernatural creature whose true appearance was that of a rat she would follow the toshers about, invisibly, as they worked, and when she saw one that she fancied she would turn into a sexy-looking woman and accost him. If he gave her a night to remember, she would give him luck in his work he would be sure to find plenty of money and valuables. He would not necessarily guess who she was, for though the Queen Rat did have certain peculiarities in her human form (her eyes reflected light like an animal’s, and she had claws on her toes), he probably would not notice them while making love in some dark corner. But if he did suspect, and talked about her, his luck would change at once he might well drown, or meet with some horrible accident.

Repairing the Fleet Sewer. This was one of the main channels beneath London, and carried the waters of what had once been a substantial river–until the expansion of the city caused it to be built over and submerged.

One such tradition was handed down in the family of a tosher named Jerry Sweetly, who died in 1890, and finally published more than a century later. According to this family legend, Sweetly had encountered the Queen Rat in a pub. They drank until midnight, went to a dance, “and then the girl led him to a rag warehouse to make love.” Bitten deeply on the neck (the Queen Rat often did this to her lovers, marking them so no other rat would harm them), Sweetly lashed out, causing the girl to vanish and reappear as a gigantic rat up in the rafters. From this vantage point, she told the boy: “You’ll get your luck, tosher, but you haven’t done paying me for it yet!”

Offending the Queen Rat had serious consequences for Sweetly, the same tradition ran. His first wife died in childbirth, his second on the river, crushed between a barge and the wharf. But, as promised by legend, the tosher’s children were all lucky, and once in every generation in the Sweetly family a female child was born with mismatched eyes–one blue, the other grey, the color of the river.

Queen Rats and mythical sewer-pigs were not the only dangers confronting the toshers, of course. Many of the tunnels they worked in were crumbling and dilapidated–“the bricks of the Mayfair sewer,” Peter Ackroyd says, “were said to be as rotten as gingerbread you could have scooped them out with a spoon”–and they sometimes collapsed, entombing the unwary sewer hunters who disturbed them. Pockets of suffocating and explosive gases such as “sulphurated hydrogen” were also common, and no tosher could avoid frequent contact with all manner of human waste. The endlessly inquisitive Mayhew recorded that the “deposit” found in the sewers

has been found to comprise all the ingredients from the gas works, and several chemical and mineral manufactories dead dogs, cats, kittens, and rats offal from the slaughter houses, sometimes even including the entrails of the animals street pavement dirt of every variety vegetable refuse, stable-dung the refuse of pig-styes night-soil ashes rotten mortar and rubbish of different kinds.

Joseph Bazalgette’s new sewage system cleared the Thames of filth and saved the city from stench and worse, as well as providing London with a new landmark: The Embankment, which still runs along the Thames, was built to cover new super-sewers that carried the city’s effluent safely east toward the sea.

That the sewers of mid-19th-century London were foul is beyond question it was widely agreed, Michelle Allen says, that the tunnels were “volcanoes of filth gorged veins of putridity ready to explode at any moment in a whirlwind of foul gas, and poison all those whom they failed to smother.” Yet this, the toshers themselves insisted, did not mean that working conditions under London were entirely intolerable. The sewers, in fact, had worked fairly efficiently for many years–not least because, until 1815, they were required to do little more than carry off the rains that fell in the streets. Before that date, the city’s latrines discharged into cesspits, not the sewer network, and even when the laws were changed, it took some years for the excrement to build up.

By the late 1840s, though, London’s sewers were deteriorating sharply, and the Thames itself, which received their untreated discharges, was effectively dead. By then it was the dumping-ground for 150 million tons of waste each year, and in hot weather the stench became intolerable the city owes its present sewage network to the “Great Stink of London,” the infamous product of a lengthy summer spell of hot, still weather in 1858 that produced a miasma so oppressive that Parliament had to be evacuated. The need for a solution became so obvious that the engineer Joseph Bazalgette–soon to be Sir Joseph, a grateful nation’s thanks for his ingenious solution to the problem–was employed to modernize the sewers. Bazalgette’s idea was to build a whole new system of super-sewers that ran along the edge of the river, intercepted the existing network before it could discharge its contents, and carried them out past the eastern edge of the city to be processed in new treatment plants.

The exit of a London sewer before Bazalgette’s improvements, from Punch (1849). These outflows were the points through which the toshers entered the underground labrynth they came to know so well.

Even after the tunnels deteriorated and they became increasingly dangerous, though, what a tosher feared more than anything else was not death by suffocation or explosion, but attacks by rats. The bite of a sewer rat was a serious business, as another of Mayhew’s informants, Jack Black–the “Rat and Mole Destroyer to Her Majesty”–explained.”When the bite is a bad one,” Black said, “it festers and forms a hard core in the ulcer, which throbs very much indeed. This core is as big as a boiled fish’s eye, and as hard as stone. I generally cuts the bite out clean with a lancet and squeezes…. I’ve been bitten nearly everywhere, even where I can’t name to you, sir.”

There were many stories, Henry Mayhew concluded, of toshers’ encounters with such rats, and of them “slaying thousands… in their struggle for life,” but most ended badly. Unless he was in company, so that the rats dared not attack, the sewer-hunter was doomed. He would fight on, using his hoe, “till at last the swarms of the savage things overpowered him.” Then he would go down fighting, his body torn to pieces and the tattered remains submerged in untreated sewage, until, a few days later, it became just another example of the detritus of the tunnels, drifting toward the Thames and its inevitable discovery by another gang of toshers–who would find the remains of their late colleague “picked to the very bones.”

Peter Ackroyd. London Under. London: Vintage, 2012 Michele Allen. Cleansing the City: Sanitary Geographies in Victorian London. Athens : Ohio University Press, 2008 Thomas Boyle. Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead: Beneath the Surface of Victorian Sensationalism. London: Viking, 1989 Stephen Halliday. The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazelgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis. Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1999 ‘A London Antiquary’. A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words… London: John Camden Hotten, 859 Henry Mayhew. London Characters and Crooks. London: Folio, 1996 Liza Picard. Victorian London: The Life of a City, 1840-1870. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005  Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson. The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends, from Spring-Heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys. London: Penguin, 2005.


The Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things

The first photographic images in the late 1820s had to be exposed for hours in order to capture them on film. Improvements in the technology led to this exposure time being drastically cut down to minutes, then seconds, throughout the 19th century. But in the meantime, the long exposures gave us a few unmistakable Victorian photography conventions, such as the stiff postures and unsmiling faces of people trying to remain perfectly still while their photograph was being taken.

Seems children were just as squirmy then as they are today, because another amusing convention developed: photographs containing hidden mothers trying to keep their little ones still enough for a non-blurry picture. These fantastic portraits of children (found via Retronaut) all contain their mother, disguised as chairs or camouflaged under decorative throws behind them. Can you spot all the mothers (and one father)?

// Via Retronaut and The Hidden Mother flickr group. Thank you so much to my own lovely mother for sending me the link to these images! I promise next time we take a family photo we won’t make you hide under a blanket.

UPDATE 04/07/12: For more Hidden Mother images, check out the follow up to this post, “More hidden mothers in Victorian photography: post-mortem photographs or not?“

Share this with your weirdest friends:

Related

163 comments

What an utterly peculiar tradition, that terrifies me! They sort of look like ghosts.

Whether the totality or whether some of the photos were taken post mortem will be debatable without the provenance of the photos.

I would, however, point out that the boy on the left in photo #2 has very dark hands. It is unlikely an effect of mere shadows, but likely the effect of blood pooling (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Livor_mortis). That child had likely died earlier than the siblings. As a genealogist I am aware of about 10 siblings in my family who died IN ONE WEEK. Sometimes photographers were not available immediately upon death.

Victorians were also fastidious about cleanliness due to the knowledge of illnesses caused by germs (Pasteur 1860s). There is the possibility that some of these “hidden mothers” were, while attempting to get that “one last memory” of deceased children, also trying to protect themselves from catching that which had both killed their children and which might be passed to surviving children. This would have been especially important during epidemics of illness since it was long before antibiotics.

In the Victorian era the dead were prepared at home. Weddings and funerals were both conducted from home parlours, not usually from churches. Bodies were cleaned and prepped at home, and rural families made their own coffins and buried children on their own farms. Today we are far removed from death.

Photography of dead infants continues today but is socially unacceptable to talk about. However, ask any nurse in the obstetrics or pediatrics ward at your local hospital about photography practices of stillborn infants and deceased children. Dead children are one of the last taboos in modern culture. I know. No one wants to view the photo of my son.

In #8, you can see the body stand behind the boy….

the children in pics are not deceased as seventh from top is Clive Palmers grand dad.

Reblogged this on Memory Box and commented:
Gostavamos de restaurar algumas fotos como estas!

Love old pic’s always have, my granfoke’s had alot but when thay pasted thay was losted, well great pic’s would like to see more thank you xxx

Thanks a lot for sharing this with all people
you actually recognize what you are talking approximately!

Bookmarked. Please also discuss with my web site =). We may have a link
change arrangement among us

Images #3 and #8 above have stands behind them — does this mean they are deceased? Or was this a technique also used for live subjects, to help them keep their heads still?

Stands were primarily used on live subjects. Sometimes with a squirmy child a parent or even a photographers assistant would hold the child for reassurance. Invariably in these pictures there would be blurred fingers and toes, eyes were almost always drawn in. looking at some of these pictures I’m convinced several are post mortem most are alive one I think may have an older child in the picture with a baby sibling.

Many of the children being held by hidden mom are dead. The Victorians really were creepy . In many of the photos several children are dead as there was a high child mortality rate at the time. That is why you can see they are usually held up by stands. As for the open eyes. They were either glass or painted on. Memento Mori was very popular back then. Mom was used to prop a dead child up and covered to look like a chair. Why the need to cover moms face was needed is beyond me.

no, they are not dead. They had to sit still for many minutes in order to get a clear picture, that’s why they look so static. Check out other pictures of the era, and everybody looks like a statue, immobile and unreal.

Photographing a mother with a deceased child not only imparts some of the mothers vitality on the child but also imparts some of the feeling of death on the mother. Adults photographed in their coffins, a task I’ve had to perform several times, never had a living person in the photographs.

What about the possibility that it is not a mother under the blanket, but a nursemaid or photographer’s assistant? Also, about STANDS….I have my own family picture from 1872’s of my great grandfather (Winthrop Travell) and his brothers. They are formally dressed, posed awkwardly, with stands behind them, (3yr.old brother tied to a chair), with stiff expressions on their faces. All the brothers lived to be old men.

Nope, not dead photos at all. The only reason they made the parents look like “props” is so the photo was just of the children. My Mom had photos of her grandparents/parents that looked just like this. If was a fad–it was only done when the kids couldn’t be trusted to stand still. You have to remember, getting a photo like this taken was VERY VERY expensive back then. You only got one take–and you didn’t want the kid to move and ruin the picture. That’s why the one kid is being held by the head–he wasn’t standing still enough. These aren’t dead photos and it’s just ridiculous to believe they are. There are plenty of real victorian and more recent photos of children that passed. The reason they were photographed once they died was pretty much what was already mentioned. Photos were expensive. A child might die and never have been photographed in their entire life. Or even someone older, there might not have been but a few photos of them their whole life. This was the only way they had to try to remember that person. Even when I was young, my Mom told me once that the photos she had taken every year before I started school cost her a week’s paycheck. Early 60s. And my Mom made decent money for a woman back then. So no, these aren’t dead photos. They are just regular photos and the parents didn’t want the kids to mess up and their hard earned money to be wasted.

My brother recommended I might like this website. He was once totally right.
This submit truly made my day. You cann’t believe simply how much time I had spent for this information! Thanks!

Mourning etiquette back then was very extreme how is a pm photo any more creepy then wearing jewelry made with the deceased s hair or the restrictions on clothes and social interactions?

What an amazing collection…..and the reason I stumbled upon your fantastic website, my sister-in-law having mentioned the ‘hidden mother’ phenomenon.

This is so very interesting! I have a degree in history, write Victorian and turn of the century fiction, and write a blog that focuses on the same time periods and have never, ever heard of this. Really great stuff. I’m definitely going to share this post with my readers. Thanks for posting it!

Sincerely,
Stephanie Carroll
Author of A White Room (July 2013)
The Unhinged Historian Blog

Love these images! The first photograph, by the way was taken in 1839. Most of these images couldn’t have been earlier than 1850s with the processes used. The first photographs used for portraiture had about 10-15 minutes of exposure. Still very long and uncomfortable, but not quite hours.

I think “# 10” might be dead…because that peg on the floor behind him is an apparatus that was invented back then to prop people up in a standing position…you can see it on the floor behind his right leg

Great post, I´ve seen the pictures of the dead children, all of them so moving…

What makes you think these are mothers? These are probably, nurses, nannies, other domestic servants unworthy of being in a family portrait.

I’ve not read the comments properly – on my phone now and will read on a laptop – but the book Wisconsin Death Trip has a section on photos of dead children. It was the vogue around 1895 in America. The kids are quite clearly dead and some are in coffins.
There are some ugly kids in these photos but no obviously dead ones.

Pingback: Victorian Bizaar Infant Photography | Lexington Photography

Still amazed that they are still in focus, even if mother is there to hold them down! But they look a bit freaky! Some are not very well disguised at all!

It is still better than the Victorian photos of dead kids. Those are the creepiest.

This is so interesting. I love vintage photographs & have a teeny tiny collection. I’m not sure if any of them are deceased, but I recently came across a Pinterest board with all post mort. pictures & many of the clothing and poses were the same for non-deceased pictures, but I could definitely tell most of them were dead. Although I am sure there are pics out there of post mort. that I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
PS- this site is right up my ally- new follower here!

Put a link to this in my blog. :)

Amazing! Its in fact amazing paragraph, I have got much clear idea
concerning from this paragraph.

Is the third from the bottom a woman? They’re wearing pants. I’d assume it was the father or maybe a photographer’s assistant.

The child in the second picture is definitely deceased. You can see the stand behind him by his feet, and the mother is hold his head up. 100% deceased.

Nannies & maids would not necessarily need to be concealed — many American photos show caretakers holding or posing with their charges, see pictures taken before/during the American Civil War.

That’s in America. In England the servants were to be invisible. Governesses and nannies got no respect and it would have been inappropriate for them to be photographed with the children. They were only servants, after all.

Considering the social background of those children, I believe it is not the mother who is hidden here but most likely the nanny. These were upper class children – it would be undignified for their mothers to be reduced to furniture and camouflaged under throws and curtains. Instead, they’d pose next to their children wearing their best clothes and jewellery. However, what applied to the “mistress” obviously didn’t apply to the help. Nannies and wet nurses raised the children since birth and their presence was necessary to keep the youngest of them calm. However, they would “mar” the picture, if they appeared next to the children being photographed. That is why they had to be disguised as part of the decor (interesting implications here regarding the social status of servants in victorian times).

I wondered if it has occurred to anyone that some of the hidden ‘mothers’ may not be the mothers at all. Photography was not open to the masses – too expensive – but I have noticed that a number of the portraits of mother and child/ren groups or just children that exist in my own family have been taken around the time of the father’s or mother’s death. In our portraits the children have not been younger than six years of age, so no need for a ‘hidden mother’. With babies and toddlers I fully understand that perhaps an aunt or grandmother would ‘pose’ with the child/ren for the photograph but be concealed. However, the clothing of the children in most of the pictures shown don’t have the appearance of ‘mourning’ as ours certainly do – black from head to toe including the girl’s hair ribbons.
I have also seen a stand used for both adults and children which had a semi-circular clamp which fitted around the back of the neck to hold the head in position the most essential part of the body to keep still.
Lastly, I feel that those who consider some of the above photographs to be of deceased children have obviously (albeit thankfully) never seen a corpse – no amount of make-up or artistic arrangement can hide the fact when you are looking at what is no longer a living, breathing person.

It’s a good point that they may not actually be mothers. Plenty of people have also argued that many of the hidden figures were probably not relatives at all, but photography studio assistants. Thanks for the comment.

I know I’m late to respond, but I have to say #2 has flowers, and this line was repeated in a few of the links: “Flowers were also a common prop in post-mortem photography of all types.”

All in all, very interesting article and comments. Thanks for helping move my Friday along to 5:00!

That is hilarious! Mom’s are still doing the same thing today…sending their kids out into the world and just sweating hoping that they’ll behave themselves. God forbid someone think I had anything to do with my child being anything other that naturally perfect, or sitting still.

I am late to this post/discussion (saw it on Reddit), but just wanted to say that my cousin gave birth to a stillborn child that she carried almost full term. They cleaned and dressed him, and the family each held him and took several photographs. At the time I thought it was a little strange/creepy, but obviously their decision and part of their grieving process.
This reminds me of that perhaps it is simply human nature.

some of the children mentioned as possibly deceased, have bit blurry arms or and legs.
comes to mind also that during this time it was considered normal to give children heroin for coughs. these children might simply be drugged.

If you go to this link, http://margaretgunnng.blogspot.com/2012/01/i-see-dead-people-victorian-post-mortem.html it actually shows a drawing set up of the stands used… soooooo creepy!

Another angle to the subject of hidden parents on photographs: they have made a comeback because of passport regulations that require even newborn children to have photo passports.

Curious though: I have a dozen photos from 1930 to today with hidden adults holding kids in place. At least in my family, this is usual until today. Even my son have some pictures with someone behind a curtain or armchair when he was a baby.

I used to take infant portraits by putting a white baby blanket over my left shoulder the baby sitting in my left hand and I would support their torso with my right hand which also had the camera release. A Parent or sibling would stand close to the camera and as soon as the smile came the picture was taken. I did have a few innovations 19th century photographers didn’t have, film camera with leaf shutter and lets not forget the strobe lighting… I only needed the grin for 1/1000 sec. The way I posed the infants it looked as if they were sitting on their own.

I don’t agree that these depict deceased children. I have little experience with momento mori photographs, but two thoughts:
I’ve posed for tintype photographs (as an adult art model) and I can tell you that children would a)ABSOLUTELY benefit from a stand or prop. It is difficult to hold the pose as a well-meaning adult it would be neigh on impossible for a squirmy child. Your head and limbs quickly get tired and its hard to remain perfectly still for the 8-13 seconds the shot requires and b) Old-fashioned cameras of this type are quite strange in that when the lens is open there is a light behind it. So looking directly at the lens for the required length of time is incredibly difficult and the times I’ve tried it it is almost impossible not to blink. So looking away from the lens would have been necessary. Just some personal observations.

Thank you for sharing the personal experience. I assume these photos replicated the original methods and would clearly represent the procedures used in the 1800’s. I have had a difficult time convincing people of the exposure time. The usually refer to it in minutes, but that is inaccurate. It was much longer but by the time it became mainstream, it was down to seconds. Doesn’t sound too long, but still long enough to need some aid in holding still. In some of the above photos you can see the blurr caused by the child movement. A “dead” give away the child is alive and well. Sorry, couldn’t resist the punning. )

Please educate yourselves on photographic history before throwing dates around. There was no film as photographic base till the 1870s (setting aside isolated experiments). The earliest successful surviving permanent photograph we have is from 1826 on a PEWTER (METAL) plate by Nicéphore Niepce. The first viable photographic process which was essentially a direct positive image on a SILVER COPPERED PLATE, was announced by Louis Daguerre in 1839 in Paris. The first negative-positive process (on PAPER NEGATIVES) was introduced to the public by J. Fox Talbot round about the same time. And so on. At the very least anyone with basic general knowledge would consider 1839 (Daguerreotype) to be an important starting point for photography as we know it today (but vastly different from how we know it today). Just because it’s the 19th century doesn’t mean any decade and year would do. Where the hell did you get “late 1820s” from?!

I will concede that using the word ‘film’ in the first sentence was an oversight in editing, but as you said yourself, it was in 1826 when Niepce managed to create the first permanent photographic image…that’s where the hell I got the late 1820s from. This was not a post detailing the early experiments with photographic processes or making any claims to the most important starting points of photography as we know it today, but about a funny photographic convention that developed many years later. This is the imperfect art of writing for a broad audience and not a refereed journal, Curmudgeon Academicus: in order to give a brief context for why something developed, you might have to reduce complex concepts and epochs of history into a single sentence or word (think, for example, when people refer to the ‘Ancient World’). I appreciate your obvious passion for the history of photography and your eye for detail, but your point would be better served with a less condescending attitude. No one respects Comic Book Guy.

That date indeed is a pivotal point in the history of photography, Chelsea! It may have taken eight hours of exposure time, but it proved it could be done. Your reference to “film” didn’t bother me in the least and I’m well aware of it’s history. This is not the place to nit pick about semantics. And you’re right, had it been a vital error on the subject, politeness and tact gains more students than rudeness and arrogance.

Well, such shadows follow us for a long time afterwards!

I agree, that is ridiculously interesting (and odd)

O.M.G. This has to be one of the weirdest things I’ve seen (yes I live a quiet life). First the pictures were strange enough, with the cloaked mother/guardian but then to think they may be deceased is just plain bizarre. It’s giving me that weird feeling where I don’t like it but I keep going back to look. :o

Haha I know the feeling! I think th at the sensation of wanting to look away but then going back to it is often the essence of what makes something ridiculously interesting for me…

that is hilarious and very very very odd indeed!! Just popping by from pinterest!

These are creepy cool! I love this post Chelsea. :)

I read on another site that the photos were displayed and thus the hidden adult would be cropped out. So, hung on the wall in a frame with a mat, maybe they did not look so creepy.

Yes, I think that is a very good point to mention! I think the intention for many of these photographs was to go into family albums, so they would likewise be cropped and matted to help hide the hidden mother. Thanks for the great comment.

Look at photos 9 & 10. You can see the circular imprint left by the pen beck frame used to house these early tintypes. You can clearly imagine how it would mask the “hidden mother”. I love these and have several myself, as well as many post mortems.

Hi. Chris (Static Instincts) follows my vintage photo blog and invited me to check out this post and thread of comments. I’d like to add a few thoughts, if it’s understood that I am NOT an expert, just a hobbyist.

First of all, Chelsea, it’s wonderful! I love these photos. Not long ago the concept of the hidden adult in child portraits was completely new and weird to me. Thanks for posting some fine examples. I suppose that, as weird as it looks to us today, it must have been an accepted convention at the time.

While most post mortem photos look like pictures of corpses (which they are), there are memento mori photos that are remarkably lifelike. Typically they are posed in bed or a coffin, but sometimes they are sitting up, posed with other relatives, etc. Sometimes their eyes are open, their cheeks tinted, etc., in an effort to show them as they were in life. So while I don’t want to wager on specific images here, there is the possibility that one or two of these might be post mortem.

It was indeed common for fidgety children to have to be restrained for the long exposure times that were required by the photographic technology of the day. Poses would have to be held for up to a minute or so, depending on the available lighting. So measures such as the hidden people shown above would be taken. Head clamps and other bracing devices were also used. I’ve even read that children were sometimes simply tied to a chair. (Photos of animals presented similar problems.) And Chris, I’m sorry to contradict, but such measures were commonly taken with adults, too. Holding even a simple pose and facial expression perfectly still for that long can be harder than it sounds. Incidentally, if you look at the floor behind the child in Photo #2, you’ll see the feet of a head clamp stand (though it appears he is getting some human help from behind the drape as well).


19th Century Childbirth

When men and women married in the 1830s they generally assumed that children would follow promptly and regularly. The prevailing sense was that children just ‘came’ and that there was little to be done about it. Women were encouraged to see motherhood as both destiny and duty, and letters and diaries from the time suggest that many tried earnestly to do so. Families were large, with an average of six to eight children, but averages can be misleading. Families with many more children were common. The main determinants of family size at this time were age at marriage and age at menopause. Women who married in their early to mid-twenties in other words, could expect to bear children continuously into their early to middle forties, and while the intervals between children varied between women, most could expect to have a new baby every two to three years throughout these years. The first child commonly arrived within one, or at most two years of marriage.

In the 1830s childbirth was both painful and dangerous. The only pain relief available was opium, usually sold as a sleeping draught known as laudanum, but this was almost never used. It was widely believed that women were destined to suffer during childbirth, as the Bible had decreed. Almost all babies were born at home, usually with the assistance of family and friends. There were also women who practised as midwives, although there was no formal training, and most midwives were experienced women who had borne several children themselves. Doctors were generally only called when births were prolonged and it was feared that the mother might die, but their intervention brought grave risks. There were instruments for use in childbirth, but no anaesthetics or understanding of antisepsis, which meant that the danger of infection from medical intervention was very high. Training in obstetrics was rudimentary at best and was not compulsory for doctors until much later. In fact doctors were often the unwitting sources of infection for women in childbed, transmitting contagion from previous patients. Hospitals were places of last resort, sought only by the very poor and the desperate. The death rates in hospitals were known to be extremely high.

The main dangers for women in childbirth were prolonged birth, excessive bleeding and infection. Prolonged births often followed when labour began with infants in the breech (feet first), or far worse, transverse (sideways) position. Desperate and agonising attempts would be made to ‘turn’ these babies, rarely successfully. Another common problem at this time was a narrow or deformed pelvis, caused by childhood rickets – a disease especially prevalent in poorer women and resulting from inadequate diet and exposure to sunlight (vitamin D deficiency). In extreme cases, where it became clear after two or more days in labour that a child could not be born, a doctor might attempt to use instruments, either to pull the child free, or to crush the child and remove it. Often the baby was already dead at this stage and there was a strong chance that the mother would also die, either from shock or from infection. These were decisions made in desperate circumstances, when there was no other hope, and the success rate was low. Excessive bleeding was another common problem and is still a risk in childbirth, but modern obstetrics has recourse to drugs which help to control it. In the nineteenth century there was almost nothing a midwife or doctor could do to stop a post-birth haemorrhage and many women literally bled to death.

Infection was the other great scourge of childbirth. Women are very susceptible to infection during and immediately after the process of childbirth, and puerperal or childbed fever was both common and much-feared in the nineteenth century. Even an otherwise trouble-free delivery was no guarantee of a safe recovery from childbirth, but prolonged birth, retention of the placenta (or part of it), or any form of surgical intervention, increased the risk significantly. Childbed fever generally set in two or three days after birth, but once established had an almost inevitable outcome. The actual cause of death was blood poisoning or septicaemia, generally between a week and ten days after delivery. Maternal mortality rates remained high in Australia until the twentieth century.

Women in particular, but also their men, approached each birth with trepidation. Many women routinely prepared themselves for death and the terms they used to describe their approaching ‘lying-in’ reflected this. Childbirth was often described as a woman’s ’time of trial’. One ship’s captain, travelling to South Australia in 1836 and leaving his very pregnant wife behind in Britain, referred in his diary to his wife’s ‘trying hour’, or on one occasion, to her ‘trying hour of naturs sorrow [sic]‘. Children were often sent to stay with friends or family as a birth approached, so that they would be spared the sound of their mother crying out in pain. Sometimes they would be unaware that another baby was even expected until they returned home again. The Church of England provided a special rite of thanksgiving for women who survived childbirth, rather quaintly entitled The Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth, commonly called the Churching of Women. There was also a persistence of the belief that women were ‘unclean’ after childbirth, a continuation of the older bar on menstruating women receiving the sacrament, and it was common to return to the communion rail only after post-childbirth bleeding ended and after the woman had been ‘churched’.

The use of pain relief in childbirth increased only gradually towards the end of the century. Queen Victoria famously pioneered the use of chloroform for her eighth confinement in 1854 and this helped to popularise the practice, but many doctors still opposed its use. Similarly, better understanding of infection and the gradual acceptance of principles of antisepsis in surgery and childbirth from the middle decades of the century, helped to reduce infection rates. Towards the end of the century there was a growing sense that many women’s lives might be saved if women could be delivered under medical supervision in hospitals. The first private maternity hospital, the Queen’s Home, opened in 1902 in Rose Park. Until this point the only other maternity hospital was the Lying-in Hospital contained within the Destitute Asylum on Kintore Avenue. This was available only to impoverished women or single mothers with no other recourse. The Queen’s Home was renamed the Queen Victoria Hospital in 1939 and was declared a public hospital in 1946. By then it was more common for babies to be born in hospitals than at home.

However the greatest change in the childbearing lives of South Australian women was a significant reduction in the number of births per woman, evident from the mid-late 1870s. What is known as the ‘fertility transition’– a transition from high levels of natural fertility, to low levels of ‘controlled’ fertility- was well underway in South Australia from the 1880s. This was a phenomenon that spread throughout the western world from the later decades of the nineteenth century, but it is evident that South Australian women were amongst the earliest participants in the fertility transition. In the absence of any significant advance in the technology of birth control at this time, historians now suggest that this phenomenon represented generalised cultural change: couples increasingly saw smaller families as the desired norm and modified their sexual practices accordingly. Women’s increasing emancipation in these decades is argued to be an important contributing factor in what is often called the ‘quiet revolution’. There were still many families that were large by modern standards, but these began to be seen as anachronistic. By 1900 the ‘average’ married woman could expect to bear four children– about half the number her mother and grandmother might have anticipated – and the numbers continued to fall in the first few decades of the twentieth century


Life on a Victorian Farm

Farming was an integral part of life in Victorian times. In 1837 when Queen Victoria came to the throne, more than half the population of Great Britain worked in the countryside.


Each village had a hierarchy with the squire being the local landowner. The tenant farmer was socially somewhere between a labourer and a landowner.


Victorian Farmers from Yorkshire

At the lower end of the social and economic ladder were the farm labourers.

Living conditions

Living conditions for Victorian farm workers were often cramped and basic. They had their own small vegetable garden and kept a pig to feed the family.


Farming Village at Twilight by Van Gogh

Gleanings of corn were collected after the harvest and used to make flour and bread and they would make their own cider, ale and wine from fruit such as elderberries.

Even children worked hard on the farm from as young as six years old.


Boys would be employed to scare the birds from the crops, guard the livestock from straying, pick hops, sow potatoes and beans, gather mushrooms and herd animals to market.


They would also collect firewood, fill sacks with grain and shred turnips.

With age, they would progress to ploughing and other hard physical tasks.

At harvest time everyone lent a hand making hay or harvesting crops.

In the 1850s a Dorset farm labourer earned six shillings a week (30 pence!) Breakfast was a poor porridge of flour, butter and water.


At midday, they would eat bread and occasionally a piece of cheese. Supper was bread or potatoes and sometimes a piece of bacon.

At harvest time he was given a jug of beer by his master.


Craftsmen on the Farm

Craftsmen such as carpenters, tanners and blacksmiths all had useful trades which were needed on Victorian farms and would usually be hired in locally.

The blacksmith would forge bars, hooks and metalwork as well as making horseshoes and tools. The wheelwright made cart wheels and wagons.


Woodworkers made furniture, fence posts, gates, pegs, wooden bowls and wooden clogs to which the blacksmith added metal tips.

Saddlers, coachmen and coopers (barrel-makers) all played their part in Victorian farm life.


Advances in Technology

Victorian farmers saw a great deal of change during the 19th century.

Tools went from being primitive wooden implements to sturdy iron tools and mechanization dramatically reduced the workforce.


Howard&aposs Patent Lever Horse Rake

Improved strains of seeds increased the harvest.

The enclosure of land led to bigger fields and crop rotation was used to increase the yields.

The use of steam power led to the introduction of farm machinery which was far more efficient and easier to use than horses and hand tools.


Portable Steam Engine used on Farms

This led to less manual farm labour being required, although large estates hired additional seasonal labour in addition to the workers who lived on the estate.

Victorian farmers were considered an essential part of the economy and workforce, particularly in rural communities.


The farmers paid rent to the landlord, paid tithes and employed many labourers who otherwise would have been unemployed.


Woman Working With Scutcher Machine

They, in turn, kept local shops and tradesmen in business.

Victorian farms prospered until the early 1880s and then came a series of bad harvests and outbreaks of disease in their animals.


Many farms that had been in business for generations went bankrupt and it was not until the end of the 1880s that farming began to prosper again.


Raising Children in the Victorian Times

Childhood barely existed for most British children at the end of the eighteenth century, since they began a lifetime of hard labour as soon as they were capable of simple tasks. By contrast, the fortunate children of the wealthy generally were spoiled and enjoyed special provisions for the need of a lengthy childhood, yet who in a way may have endured the same pain of those who were not as fortunate.

Child-rearing in Victorian times was not at all similar to child-rearing today. There were of course two different categories on how the child was brought up. They went from one extreme to the other. They were the difference between the classes.

The life of an upper-class child during the Victorian era, was as one may put it, stuffy, conventional and routine, not to mention quite lonely at certain times. Yet others argue Victorian children should have been quite content, given the fact that they were treated to only the best of toys, clothes and education and it was absurd to even consider the child being neglected.

Mothers and Fathers were seen as special, glamorous guests, due to the fact that they were never around and rarely seen by their children. This was because the child and the parent led totally separate existences they were only summoned to appear before their parents at a certain set hour of the day.

Many Victorian children like Winston Churchill and Harriet Marden recall such cold relations between their selves and their mothers that they would be able to count how many times in their life they had been hugged. Family life was formal, although, during that time child-rearing manuals urged bonding and maternal ties, mothers remained cool and distant. Children were a convenience to their parents they obeyed them as they would an army officer. Sir Osbert Sitwell once argued,

Parents were aware that the child would be a nuisance and a whole bevy of servants, in addition to the complex guardianship of nursery and school rooms was necessary not so much to aid the infant as to screen him from his father or mother, except on some occasions as he could be used by them as adjuncts, toys or decorations.

Although this only describes a minority of parents it was always in the best interests for the child not to be heard or in the way, it was rarely taken to the extent of screening the child.

It was the era of nurses and nannies, the child was not raised by the woman who gave birth to him, but by the hired help. This assured the parents of a good upbringing, considering they inform the nanny to instill their beliefs and morals onto the children. It also assured constant care and a watchful eye.

The child’s life operated with clockwork regularity, they seldom ventured out of the nursery, unless it was to take a walk in the park or to attend dance class with the nanny. The child ate breakfast at eight o’clock, dinner at 12 o’clock, and tea at six o’clock. When the children reached a certain age they were permitted to join their mother for a luncheon at 10 o’clock, and were able to spend one hour prior to dinner in their mother’s dressing room.

Other than meals, occasional visits with mother, and short walks in the park, the child had nothing to do except play with lavish toys, such as the toy theatre, the steam-driven train, jack-in-the-boxes, and beautiful dolls.

It was quite important to select a conscientious, attentive type of nurse given she will raise the children until the latter years in which they will be reared by the school.

Therefore, parents screened them before hiring them. Many nannies, contrary to the Mary Poppins stereotype were usually unmarried old maids who were strict to the point of being sadistic.

Although on the other hand, some were warm and caring, providing the only love and companionship in the child’s life. Even with the austere aspects of the nursery, caring nannies could brighten everything up right down to the meals, which were monotonous unlike those of their parents who would feast on a thirteen-course meal while they would force down boiled potatoes and mutton.

They were not permitted to indulge in any confectionery, fresh fruit, puffed pastries, or sugared candy for it was thought rich foods of that sort were bad for the child’s digestive system along with his morals.

Children who were raised in the wealthy families of this period had lives that were very protective, very suffocating they were unable to show any emotion to the people responsible for bringing them into this world.

They were always to act prim and proper, and to speak only when spoken to. In our day in age, we would probably consider that mental abuse, and even though they were the educated ones, the families in the lower classes were more attached, more bonded as a family.

The regime for the upbringing of the poorer families was not at all as extravagant and ludicrous as those of aristocracy. They were usually tightly bonded, living in such small quarters, sharing everything, and being unable to afford any hired help to raise the children. The lower class children did not enjoy the expensive toys, the attentions of the nursemaid, nor the comforts of a wholesome diet.

The gap between these children diminished as we entered the twentieth century, albeit during the Victorian era they came to share the same pastimes, educational facilities, and welfare.

The strict upbringing of prominent Victorian children left its mark on society. Even though it has almost been 100 years since the end of this era, it took a very long time for the child to escape the meticulous and rigid manners of such a contrast time and finally be free to express a feeling, thought, and opinion without being punished.

It leaves one to question the morality and sense in the minds of these parents, who in a way had children that they did not take care of, yet provided for them throughout their lives. Parents wanted perfection instead of devotion. And it seems all preposterous, but it appeared theirs was less violence, more respect, and virtually a better society.

It would appear the Victorians had the right idea in the strictness and the demonstration of respect, but they lacked love and feeling in the realm of child-rearing.

Works Cited

Evans, Hillary & Mary. The Victorians. New York: Arco, 1973.

Greenleaf, Barbara Kaye. Children Through The Ages. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978, pp. 78-83.

Kennedy, David. Children. London: Batsford, 1971, pp. 59-67.

Help Us Fix his Smile with Your Old Essays, It Takes Seconds!

-We are looking for previous essays, labs and assignments that you aced!

Author: William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)

Tutor and Freelance Writer. Science Teacher and Lover of Essays. Article last reviewed: 2020 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2021 | Creative Commons 4.0


Nannies Were Substitute Parents

There were very different situations for Victorian children based on whether your family was poor or rich, and neither was in any way fun for the kids. Victorian children were often raised by nannies who functioned as substitute parents. I suppose this does happen nowadays still, although in theory the nannies modern day moms employ for their children are expected to be a little nicer than Victorian nannies.

Victorian nannies were typically older women who never had children, and they did not have a reputation for being in any way warm. Instead, they were tough and crotchety and the opposite of what you'd put on a job advertisement for a nanny today.


Why did people have so many children in Victorian times? - History


Figure 2
Used by permission of the World Publishing Company


Figure 3
Used by permission of Corbis Images for Education

The idea that children have rights that the state should protect may have seemed silly at dawn of the nineteenth century, but by the time Queen Victoria died in 1901, it had gained significant support. Beginning in the 1830s, the Victorians passed a variety of laws aimed at protecting the wellbeing of children at work, at school, or in the home. This activism was motivated in part by a growing acceptance of the Romantic idea that children are innocent creatures who should be shielded from the adult world and allowed to enjoy their childhood. As the century wore on, writers and artists began to produce increasingly sentimentalized images of children, emphasizing their angelic, adorable qualities. Yet despite such rhetoric, real reform did not come quickly. High infant mortality rates, inadequate schooling, and child labor persisted right to the end of the century, suggesting that many Victorians remained unconvinced that childhood should be marked off as a protected period of dependence and development.

A Nation of Children
Victoria&rsquos England was a child-dominated society. Throughout her long reign, one out of every three of her subjects was under the age of fifteen. The population explosion that occurred during this period was accompanied by a tremendous amount of industrialization and urbanization by the end of the century, a vast majority of children lived in towns rather than rural communities. Families tended to be large, although the birth rate declined a bit over the course of the century as more information on contraception became available. The rapid growth of towns quickly outstripped affordable housing, leading to overcrowding and shockingly poor sanitary conditions. Coupled with infectious diseases and impure milk and food, these factors contributed to very high infant and child mortality rates.

Poor children who survived infancy were often put to work at an early age. In the 1830s and 40s, many children labored in textile mills and coal mines, where working conditions often proved deadly. Girls as young as five went into domestic service as nurses or maids to wealthy families. Rural children worked on farms or in cottage industries, while thousands of urban children worked as street hawkers, selling matches or sweeping crossings (see figure 1). Child labor was not new, but as industrialization continued it became more visible, as masses of ragged, stunted children crowded the city streets.

Calls for Reform
Philanthropists, religious leaders, doctors, journalists, and artists all campaigned to improve the lives of poor children. In 1840, Lord Ashley (later the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury) helped set up the Children&rsquos Employment Commission, which published parliamentary reports on conditions in mines and collieries. The shocking testimony contained in these reports inspired Elizabeth Barrett Browning&rsquos famous protest poem &ldquoThe Cry of the Children&rdquo (1844). Shaftesbury went on to become president of Ragged School Union, an evangelical organization which established hundreds of schools for the poor. Famous child-savers like Mary Carpenter and Dr. Thomas Barnardo taught in Ragged Schools before opening their own institutions for destitute youths. Dr. Barnardo described some of his missionary efforts in the Children&rsquos Treasury (see figure 2), while investigative reporters like Henry Mayhew tirelessly documented the dire conditions endured by many working-class families.

The novels of Charles Dickens, the most popular author of the Victorian era, also reveal an intense concern about the vulnerability of children. When Dickens was twelve, his father was imprisoned for debt and he was sent to work in a blacking factory, an incident that haunted him his whole life. His novels are full of neglected, exploited, or abused children: the orphaned Oliver Twist, the crippled Tiny Tim, the stunted Smike, and doomed tykes like Paul Dombey and Little Nell. Like Barrett Browning, Dickens was galvanized by revelations of real-life horrors facing the poor. Oliver Twist (1837) was written in response to the draconian New Poor Law of 1834, which had been inspired by the theories of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. This law relegated the needy to prison-like institutions called workhouses, splitting up families and subjecting them to repugnant living conditions and hard labor.

Similarly, in creating the pathetic character of Jo the street-sweeper in Bleak House (1852-3), Dickens was inspired by the testimony of a real child laborer interviewed in an 1850 law report. Both boys admit, under questioning, that no one has ever bothered to teach them anything, not even the shortest prayer. Jo&rsquos dramatic death scene enables Dickens to fulminate on the fate of such forlorn waifs:

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day. (Chapter XLVII)

Baby Steps
It is easy to interpret the outraged activism of writers like Dickens as indicative of a transformation in public sentiment about children. But such protests were fuelled by the fact that many people still believed that children did not need to be shielded by the state from adult responsibilities. Queen Victoria&rsquos husband Prince Albert spoke for many when he argued that the working man&rsquos children were &ldquopart of his productive power,&rdquo an indispensable source of family income (Horn, Town Child 100).

Thus, although legislation aimed at regulating and reducing child labor was passed throughout the century, there was no attempt to outlaw it completely. Loopholes in laws like the 1833 Factory Act and the 1867 Workshops Act, coupled with a lack of local enforcement, meant that many children continued to work. As late as 1891, over 100,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 14 were still employed as domestic servants in England and Wales. That same year, the British government dragged its feet at raising the minimum age for part-time factory work from 10 to 11, even though they had promised to extend it to 12 at an 1890 European congress on child labor.

Education reform also proceeded at a slow pace. In the early 1860s, the Royal Commission on Popular Education declared that compulsory schooling for all children was &ldquoneither obtainable nor desirable.&rdquo If the child&rsquos wages are crucial to the family economy, they wrote, &ldquoit is far better that it should go to work at the earliest age at which it can bear the physical exertion than that it should remain at school&rdquo (Horn, Town Child 74). Another powerful impediment to the creation of a public school system was religious dissent between the Church of England and nonconformists over the content and amount of religious instruction stalled legislative efforts until 1870, when the Elementary Education Act finally created a national network of primary schools. A similarly provision for secondary education was not passed until 1902. Middle- and upper-class families could employ tutors, or send their children to private schools, but these were unregulated and varied widely in quality. Girls were worse off than boys, since many people believed that domestic skills and basic literacy were all they needed to learn.

What explains the sluggish pace of reform? The rise of industrial capitalism created a huge demand for cheap labor, which children certainly were. Responding to this boom, Victorian economists and politicians embraced a laissez-faire approach which involved keeping state interference to a minimum. Forced to fend for themselves, many families endured such extreme poverty that their children&rsquos wages were indeed crucial to their survival. And although the Romantic belief in childhood innocence was spreading, many clung to the Calvinist notion of original sin, which held that work was good for children, since &ldquoSatan finds mischief for idle hands to do.&rdquo

The Innocent Ideal
Nevertheless, as the century wore on, more and more people began to accept the idea that childhood should be a protected period of education and enjoyment. However slow education reform was in coming, it did come: in 1851, fully one third of English children received no education at all, whereas by the end of the century, nearly ninety percent went to school for seven to eight years. At the same time, there was an explosion of books, magazines, toys, and games aimed at entertaining children. Indeed, children&rsquos literature blossomed into what critics call its &ldquoGolden Age.&rdquo

With its rollicking depiction of nursery life, Catherine Sinclair&rsquos Holiday House (1839) is often regarded as a landmark text that shifted the focus of children&rsquos fiction from instruction to delight. Classics like Edward Lear&rsquos A Book of Nonsense (1846) and Lewis Carroll&rsquos Alice&rsquos Adventures in Wonderland (1865) carried on this tradition. Mixing fantasy and realism, authors like Juliana Ewing, Mary Louisa Molesworth, and E. Nesbit painted a vivid picture of the middle-class nursery as a hotbed of hobbies: private theatricals, elaborate games, gardening, the composition of family magazines, and so on.

Like Dickens, children&rsquos authors often voiced their belief in the perfect purity of the young, as when Carroll enthused, &ldquoTheir innocent unconsciousness is very beautiful, and gives one a feeling of reverence, as at the presence of something sacred&rdquo (Letters 381) Such sentiments became increasingly common in sermons, poetry, and periodicals from this period the Victorians often quoted Wordsworth&rsquos claim in the Immortality Ode that &ldquoHeaven lies about us in our infancy!&rdquo Artists like Charles West Cope and John Everett Millais produced dozens of domestic genre paintings with titles like The First Music Lesson (1863) and My First Sermon (1862-3), which portray the child as a bastion of simplicity, innocence, and playfulness. Women were also praised for embodying these qualities, and together with children they were urged to inhabit a separate sphere: to withdraw from the workforce, embrace their status as dependents, and provide the male breadwinner with a refuge from the dog-eat-dog capitalist world outside the family.

Consuming Childhood
Ironically, though, even as the Victorians represented children as opposed by nature to the materialistic world of trade and profit, the figure of the child was commodified and put on display as never before. For example, the Pears Soap Company bought reproduction rights to Millais&rsquo paintings Cherry Ripe (1879) and Bubbles (1886), and placed the images in advertisements and calendars (see figure 3). When Cherry Ripe was featured as a color centerfold in a Christmas annual, the magazine quickly sold 500,000 copies. Kate Greenaway also took advantage of the increased public appetite for images of childhood her watercolors of children playing appeared not just in her wildly popular books but on tea towels, wallpaper, stationary, soaps, and clothes.

Actual young people were paraded before the public as well. New presentation furniture like the bassinet and the perambulator allowed infants to be displayed to an admiring world. Child actors appeared on stage in record numbers, performing in pantomimes, ballets, operettas, straight dramas, minstrel shows, music halls, and circus acts. By the 1880s, Drury Lane Theatre was hiring 150-200 children per pantomime. Child prodigies like Jean Davenport and Lydia Howard astonished audiences by playing multiple roles in the same evening, while numerous companies routinely ran all-child productions. For example, the famous D&rsquoOyly Carte Opera Company had a children&rsquos troupe which put on Gilbert and Sullivan operettas without the help of a single adult performer.

The Cult of the Child
As children became more visible on the stage, the question naturally arose: did such work constitute labor? Considerable controversy arose over this issue in the 1880s. Educational activists like Millicent Garrett Fawcett insisted that children under ten should be banned from full-time theatre work as they had been from factories and workshops. Theatre people and other artists, including Carroll and the poet Ernest Dowson, strongly disagreed. Acting was not a labor but an art, they maintained, and children benefited from and enjoyed doing it.

Dowson develops this argument in his 1889 article &ldquoThe Cult of the Child.&rdquo As his title indicates, however, the insistence that children &ldquodelight in&rdquo performing quickly gives way to the admission that adults delight in watching children perform. &ldquoDisillusioned&rdquo grown-ups, tired of facing the complexities of contemporary life, find relief by turning their attention to children: &ldquo[T]here are an ever increasing number of people who receive from the beauty of childhood, in art as in life, an exquisite pleasure.&rdquo Dowson and other members of the &ldquocult&rdquo insisted that contemplating the innocent simplicity of children served as a healthy corrective to the tawdriness and skepticism of modern life. Religious doubt was on the rise, particularly after the publication of Charles Darwin&rsquos findings about evolution. Some commentators have suggested that the child gradually replaced God as an object of worship.

But although adherents to the cult of the child described their appreciation in religious and/or aesthetic terms, the art they produced reveals a disturbing tendency to conceive of the child as the ideal romantic partner. In novels like Carroll&rsquos Sylvie and Bruno (1889) and J. M. Barrie&rsquos The Little White Bird (1902), besotted bachelors pursue children rather than women, while Dowson wrote a sonnet sequence celebrating the charms &ldquoOf a Little Girl.&rdquo Dowson also fell in love with an eleven-year-old named Adelaide Foltinowicz, proposing to her when she was fourteen. He was not alone eminent Victorians like John Ruskin and the Archbishop of Canterbury also wooed young girls, and child prostitution was an accepted if deplored fact of London life.

Strange Inconsistencies
To our eyes, the Victorians seem very inconsistent in terms of their attitudes toward children. Child-worshippers who waxed rhapsodic about the perfect purity of children simultaneously eroticized them. Even as sentimentality about childhood reached new heights, the notion that all children are savages likewise gained widespread support many Victorians accepted the &ldquoLaw of Recapitulation,&rdquo which stipulated that as a child develops, he or she repeats the stages of development of the human race. This belief in &ldquothe savagery of all children and the childishness of all savages&rdquo served a justification for subjecting children to harsh discipline, and natives of other countries to the rule of the expanding British Empire (Cunningham 98).

These contradictory impulses of cruelty and concern informed the actions of individual Victorians. Journalist W. T. Stead provides a perfect example. In 1885, he launched a campaign to raise awareness about child prostitution and prod the government to raise the age of consent. But his method of pursuing these admirable goals landed him in jail. To prove that virgins were being sold on the street in record numbers, he abducted a thirteen-year-old girl without telling her parents what he planned to do with her. After subjecting the unwitting girl to a medical exam to prove her purity, he drugged her, pretended to accost her, and sent her off to Paris. The lurid account he wrote of these events featured headings like &ldquoThe Violation of Virgins&rdquo and &ldquoStrapping Girls Down.&rdquo It reads like pornography, yet it helped assure the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which raised the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen. This bizarre event encapsulates some of the conflicting discourses circulating around the Victorian child.

Recommended reading
Boone, Troy. Youth of Darkest England: Working-Class Children at the Heart of Victorian Empire. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Bristow, Joseph. Empire Boys: Adventures in a Man&rsquos World. London: HarperCollins, 1991.

Coveney, Peter. The Image of Childhood: The Individual and Society: A Study of the Theme in English Literature. Rev. Ed. Baltimore: Penguin books, 1967.

Cunningham, Hugh. The Children of the Poor: Representations of Childhood Since the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1991.

Davidoff, Leonore and Catherine Hall. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1897.

Garlitz, Barbara. &ldquoThe Immortality Ode: Its Cultural Progeny.&rdquo Studies in English Literature 6 (1966): 639-649.

Higonnet, Anne. Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood. London: Thames and Hudson, 1998.

Horn, Pamela. The Victorian Country Child. Thrupp, Stroud, UK: Sutton, 1997.
---. The Victorian Town Child. New York: NYUP, 1997.

Kincaid, James. Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Robson, Catherine. Men in Wonderland: The Lost Girlhood of the Victorian Gentleman. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001.

Steedman, Carolyn. Strange Dislocations: Childhood and the Idea of Human Interiority, 1780-1930. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995.

Walvin, James. A Child&rsquos World: A Social History of English Childhood 1800-1914. New York: Penguin, 1982.