Dick­ens’s bleak por­trait of life on the Lon­don streets was rooted in grim re­al­ity for many chil­dren, says Janet Sacks

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - Janet Sacks is a writer spe­cial­is­ing in so­cial his­tory. Her books in­clude Vic­to­rian Child­hood and NewLives­forOld: thestory of Bri­tain’schild­mi­grants

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.

Lon­don slums

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.

Street crime

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”.

Hawk­ing wares

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.