LONDON’S STREET CHILDREN
Dickens’s bleak portrait of life on the London streets was rooted in grim reality for many children, says Janet Sacks
Apicture of human life so wonderful, so awful… so exciting and terrible”, wrote novelist and journalist William Thackeray in Punch in 1850, describing Henry Mayhew’s accounts of the lives of the poor in Victorian London. Mayhew’s articles, published as London Labour and the London Poor (1851), were written around the same time that Dickens was
writing Dombey and Son and Bleak House. Mayhew and Dickens took their inspiration from London’s streets, each creating vivid pictures of the poor and how they lived for a receptive audience.
London grew exponentially during the 19th century. In 1800, it was already the largest city in the world with a population of over one million. By the end of the century it had reached 6.5 million. Although many of the streets remained the same, changes to the infrastructure made London into a modern city: sewers, water mains, railways, stations and millions of new houses. Friedrich Engels pointed out the price paid for this: “The more that Londoners are packed into a tiny space, the more repulsive and disgraceful becomes the brutal indifference with which they ignore their neighbours.” Perhaps nowhere is this disconnect illustrated better than in the lives of the children of the poor.
By far the worst problem was housing. Many families lived in slums that were swelled by the Irish immigrants who came to London to escape the Great Famine in the 1840s. St Giles ‘rookery’ was the worst slum. “Piles of refuse and ashes lie all over the place and the slops thrown out into the street collect in pools which emit a foul stench,” was how Engels described its narrow alleys. He went on to tell the story of two boys appearing before a magistrate for stealing a half-cooked cow heel to eat. The police explained that they lived with their mother who, when her husband died, was left to support nine children. They lived in one room in Spitalfields and slept on a pile of rags with no blankets, as everything had been sold to buy bread. The magistrate granted her money from the poor box.
In the 1850s, Mayhew visited a casual ward, a place where two nights’ stay was allowed at a time, and counted the
Both writers took their inspiration from London’s streets, creating vivid pictures of the poor and how they lived
children sleeping there. Of the 152 boys and girls he counted, half of them were without a parent and 25 were under 14 years of age, the youngest being six. In the 1870s, even after laws were passed regulating the number of people per room in lodging houses, one in 12 residents was under 14 and without a parent. Children also slept in parks. Dr Barnardo set up his first children’s home after an orphan named Jim Jarvis took him to the roof gutters where he and many other children slept at night. The conditions Barnardo witnessed persuaded him to create a refuge for destitute boys.
Many children had to turn to petty crime to survive. Mayhew wrote extensively about the corrupting effects of poverty on the young, describing how, in the capital’s “low-lodging houses”, he found several young boys engaged in daily petty thefts, including one who told of how he was regularly drunk at the age of 10.
One of Dickens’s most widely known characters is Oliver Twist, who was taught to be a pickpocket by Fagin. There were many notorious real Fagins; in 1855, The Times ran a story about Charles King’s gang of
Mayhew wrote extensively about the corrupting effects of poverty on the young
pickpockets, which included a 13-year-old boy that stole over £100’s worth of goods in one week. In 1837, the same paper published a police report that mentioned one lodging house in London in which “20 boys and 10 girls under the age of 16” were not only living together but were also “encouraged in picking pockets” by their “captain”.
The St Giles slum, unsurprisingly, was the headquarters of most of the pickpockets, but potential victims had to be wary in any crowded venue, such as a racetrack or a public lecture. It seems that silk handkerchiefs were the pickpockets’ most prized item as they were easily resold. One boy in Mayhew’s accounts took nothing but handkerchiefs. “I have got as much as 3s 6d for your real fancy ones… ‘Kingsmen’, they call the best handkerchiefs – those that have the pretty-looking flowers on them… Lord Mayor’s Day and such times is the best for us. Last Lord Mayor’s Day I got four handkerchiefs and I made 11s.”
Pickpockets had a good chance of getting away with it, but if they were caught their punishment was severe. Even as late as the end of the 19th century, children were thrown into jail with adult offenders. Oscar Wilde wrote to the editor of the Daily
Chronicle in 1897, expressing his sadness at the dismissal of one of the Reading prison warders for giving a biscuit to a child prisoner. He had seen three children enter the prison, one “a tiny little chap for whom they had evidently been unable to find clothes small enough to fit”. Wilde added that he was “utterly distressed to see these children” because “the cruelty that is practised night and day on them in prison is incredible”.
Most poor children tried to make a living by street-selling, usually to help the family. Some street-selling activities were organised: for instance, the Shoeblack Society was set up in 1851 and uniformed ‘shoeblacks’ were set up at fixed posts. They earned on average seven shillings a week, a third of which the shoeblack could keep. Another third was put into the boy’s savings account and the rest went to the Society.
Selling newspapers was a complex business that involved a lot more than simply hawking wares on street corners and newsagents employed newsboys to do the job. Very early in the morning a newsboy would walk to Fleet Street to collect the papers his employer had ordered. The boy would pack up the papers for country orders to catch the first morning post and then go about delivering the rest. After breakfast, he collected more papers to sell on the streets. In the afternoon, newsboys had to get ready to send the afternoon papers on the evening post. The newsboys lives were complicated by the fact that some newspapers were rented – they were given out in the morning but had to be collected and redelivered throughout the day. By the end of the day, the newsboys swapped any newspapers they had leftover to cut their losses. Then, cutting it very fine, the boys would have to rush to get the newspapers on the night mail just before six, when the main post office closed. The young interviewees quoted in Mayhew’s accounts speak directly to the reader. One nine-year-old described his experiences as a mudlark, collecting objects to sell from the banks of the Thames when the tide was out. The boy had been working for three years, as there was nothing else he knew how to do. He would mainly pick up coals but while searching through the mud, he often stepped on shards of glass or nails; he would rush home to dress the wounds but return straightaway, “for should the tide come up without my having found something, why I must starve till next low tide”. He earned between 1d and 4d a day but never 8d, “a jolly lot of money”.
Girls would often be employed as flower-sellers, with the older ones sometimes using it as an opportunity to solicit. In one account, two orphan sisters, one 15, the other 11, lived with a married Irish couple in one large room where the wife could keep an eye on them. Both could read and went to Mass every Sunday, which was unusual. The girls bought their flowers at Covent Garden, paying 1s for 12 bunches, from which
they’d create 18 bunches that they’d sell at 1d a piece, making a profit of 6d. During March and April the girls sold oranges “which keep better than flowers. We make 1s a day and 9d a day on oranges”. They lived on “bread and tea, and sometimes a fresh herring of a night”. They were proud that they never “troubled the parish” and that they were in good health.
Crossing sweeper was another job for children. As the streets of London were filthy with mud, litter and horse dung, ladies in long dresses or men in pumps would tip crossing sweepers for clearing a path through the muck with a broom. In Bleak House, Jo the crossing sweeper was one of Dickens’s many tragic portraits of children who suffered during Victorian times.
Street-sellers who sold fruit and vegetables from stalls were called costermongers and some of them employed children to help out and to cry their wares over the tumult. One coster boy in Mayhew’s account started work at the age of eight for 4d a day. After three years he and his brother started selling on their own, making “2s 6d by selling greens of a morning and going round to the publics with nuts of an evening… and by using up the stock we couldn’t sell, we used to manage pretty tidy”.
A coster girl would start young, often by carrying about a neighbour’s baby for 6d a week while the mother was working. By the age of seven, girls could be given a basket and 2s for stock and began a life as a street-seller, hawking watercress, violets, oranges or apples. One watercress girl said she had helped her mother, who was in the fur trade, sew up slits in the fur. “My mother learned me to needle-work and to knit when I was about five. I used to go to school too; but I wasn’t there long”. In the winter “…I bears the cold – you must; so I puts my hands under my shawl, though it hurts ’em to take hold of the creases, especially when we takes ’em to the pump to wash ’em”.
Mayhew, Dickens and other social observers brought the attention of the public to the hardship and squalor of the lives of London’s street children. Philanthropists such as Barnardo and Shaftesbury helped – Barnardo by founding homes and Shaftesbury by starting the ragged schools for the poor and persuading Parliament to pass anti-child labour legislation. Slowly, particularly through Parliament’s Education Acts, the plight of poor children improved.
Poverty stricken children sit on a street in Vauxhall, southwest London, in the 1860s
Homeless boys being rounded up by the London School Board following the 1870 Education Act Costermongers as young as eight were known to work on London’s streets
Mudlarks scavaging for items to sell in the muddy banks of the Thames