Friday, September 6, 2013

The Plight of Victorian Children and Dr. Barnado's Homes

by Maggi Andersen

Hell is a city much like London

A populous and a smoky city.

--Peter Bell the Third, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1819

The Victorians were becoming more aware of the poor during Queen Victoria’s long reign from 1837 to 1901, but poor children still worked.

Matchbox making was the lowest paid home work. Women and children spent 12 hours a day pasting together strips of paper and wood to form lids and trays and paying for their own paste and fire to dry the boxes.

From the beginning of the century, there were huge changes in technology in England and the growth of an Empire abroad. Britain went from being an agricultural nation to an industrialized one with an emerging wealthy middle class of industrialists and businessmen as well as a poor underclass who had moved from laboring on the land to laboring in the factories. By the end of Victoria’s reign, four-fifths of her people lived in towns and the population had doubled in nearly half a century. A third of that population was aged under fifteen.

London had the biggest increase in population: by 1901, the city contained a fifth of the population of England and Wales. Housing had to be built to accommodate the influx, and was constructed quickly and badly.

Most were terraced houses, sometimes back to back, where the rear and side walls were shared, giving very little light and circulating air. Each house was small and invariable overcrowded, with two families in one house. The privy was shared by several other families and water for drinking was drawn from a standpipe. There were few drains and no sewers, and this led to several outbreaks of cholera mid-century.

Working families were large and the elder children, especially the girls, were expected to look after the younger ones and do household tasks including the washing and cooking. The family diet consisted mainly of bread, potatoes, soup and a little bacon. Milk was diluted with water, or tea with charcoal.

Poor diets and bug infestations were detrimental to children’s health, and overcrowding meant that epidemics spread quickly. In the Victorian era, 40 percent of annual deaths in England and Wales were children under the age of five.

Children made homeless by the death of a parent or the inability of parents to care for them were taken into the workhouses. When it came time to leave the workhouse, children were found employment by the guardians. Boys went into the army, navy, or were apprenticed as shoemakers, tailors or fishermen. The girls went into service, where they were sometimes badly mistreated.

Some destitute children that the Poor Law missed were taken in by charitable institutions established by individual philanthropists, such as Annie Macpherson and Dr. Barnado, or by the Church, such as the Anglican Waifs and Strays Society.

Women had few ways of earning a living and were frequently evicted. Many ended up in the workhouse.

Thomas John Barnardo, born in Dublin on the 4 July 1845, was the founder and director of homes for poor children. The first of the ‘Dr Barnardo’s Homes’ was opened in 1870 at 18 Stepney Causeway, London. From then on the workload of his humanitarian venture steadily increased until, at the time of his death in 1905, he had established 112 district homes, besides mission branches, throughout the United Kingdom. From the foundation of the first  Barnado's home in 1870 to the date of Barnardo’s death, nearly 100,000 children had been rescued, trained and given a better life.

At first, Dr. Barnado limited himself to the numbers he could afford to support, but when a boy was found dead from cold and starvation a few days after Dr. Barnado had turned him away, a notice went up outside his Stepney Home saying ‘No destitute child is ever refused admittance’.

Dr. Barnado was ingenious at raising funds. He founded brigades of boys to deliver messages or chop wood; he wrote human-interest stories, asking for donations, and he sold ‘before and after’ photos to show how pauper children had benefited from his care.
This boy was rescued from the streets by Barnado. 'Before and after' pictures were used by Barnado to show how his homes helped children and thereby raised funds.

When the number of needy children became too great, he did what Annie Macpherson had done and sent children to Canada. He believed that ‘what was needed in order to give them the opportunity they had missed … was, in a very real sense, a new heaven and new earth – the fresh conditions of a colonial life.’

He set up a system of emigration sending children by boat to homes in western Canada, where they went to help the farmers on isolated farms throughout Ontario and Quebec. It was impossible to check up on so many children. Some were treated as overworked servants and lacked affection, but others found families in which they were loved and cared for. In fact, out of the one hundred thousand British children who were sent to Canada, most of them made their lives there.

From the foundation of the homes in 1867 to the date of Barnardo's death, nearly 60,000 children had been rescued, trained and placed out in life. At the time of his death, his charity was caring for over 8,500 children in 96 homes.

Changing attitudes led to the recognition at the end of Victoria’s reign that children had a right to childhood.

Victorian Childhood by Janet Sacks, Shire Library.
Wikipedia Commons

Maggi Andersen writes romantic mysteries set in the 1900s. Her latest work is The Folly at Falconbridge Hall.


  1. Maggie,

    This is thought-provoking entry. I will share it with English friends active in the Salvation Army because we discussed similar topics earlier this year.

    Thank you for the contribution!

  2. Maggie, Your article touched close to home. My grandmother was one of the "Home Children" sent to Canada from England when she was 8 years old to work on a farm in Eastern Canada. It was a very sad scenario. She was born in 1889 in Liverpool England and was sent to Canada with two of her brothers in 1897. The children were all placed on different farms to work. She told me many amazing stories which I am writing. Such a life at 8 years old. We cannot imagine what real stress is.


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