BEHIND THE HEADLINES
1889: the Children’s Charter
Until 1889 children could be abused, forced into work and neglected, and had less legal protection than animals. But new legislation this year changed this sad state of affairs.
The ‘Prevention of Cruelty to, and Protection of Children Act’, widely known as the ‘Children’s Charter’, was largely the result of campaigning by a small number of vigorous individuals. The London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children had been inaugurated in 1884 by veteran social campaigner Lord Shaftesbury along with Rev Benjamin Waugh, the writer Sarah Smith (better known by her pen name, Hesba Stretton) and other reformers. It was modelled on a society set up in Liverpool the previous year: this was an idea whose time had come.
Waugh was the editor of an evangelical journal called The Sunday Magazine. He was a Congregationalist, but he made sure that his organisation would be ecumenical by persuading an Anglican bishop, the Catholic Cardinal Manning and the chief rabbi to support the charity.
One hurdle they faced was convincing the public that child cruelty was sufficiently widespread to require legislation. So Waugh launched the society’s magazine the Child’s
Guardian with the aim of spreading the message. He also wrote about the issue in publications such as the Contemporary Review, a forum for intellectual discussion of weighty subjects, while in a letter to The Times Smith lamented, “We see young children exposed to bitter weather in the streets for begging purposes, or find them covered with sores or eaten up by vermin, dragging out a
miserable life or dying a lingering death through cruel neglect.”
However, it was not merely the poor or beggars who mistreated children. One of the insights that the reformers passed on was that child cruelty existed at every level of society. Lord Shaftesbury came from a wealthy, titled family, but was sent at the age of seven to a boarding school that he said was “bad, wicked, filthy, and the treatment was starvation and cruelty”. Society simply did not care enough about the rights of children – or perhaps didn’t believe that they even had rights; this had to change for legislation to be effective.
Like many campaigners, Benjamin Waugh was sometimes an overenthusiastic advocate for the cause; for example, he assured a House of Lords select committee that 1,000 children were murdered every winter for the insurance policies on their lives – a statement with no factual basis.
A boy was defined under the Act as being under 14, and a girl under 16. The Act criminalised anyone who “wilfully ill-treats, neglects, [or] abandons” a child, causing “unnecessary suffering, or injury to its health”. The punishment was a fine of up to £100 (or £200 in the case of death), and up to two years in prison.
The sections about activities that were forbidden give an idea of the ways children had been used. Children could not now be taken to beg in the street or into licensed premises “for the purpose of singing, playing, or performing for profit, or offering anything for sale”. This was in part to prevent the importation of Italian children who were given musical instruments and ordered to perform. Children who were even more wretched followed passers-by with a single box of matches or a bunch of lavender, asking for coins. However, Parliament was at pains to maintain what were considered acceptable children’s jobs such as “the respectable occupation of the shoeblack and the unimpeachable trade of the milkman’s boy”, who were allowed to continue their labours. This was the first Act where the state claimed a right to interfere in the relationship between parents and their offspring, and it gave the police permission to enter a home if they suspected a child was being ill-treated. This encroachment into the family’s private life disconcerted some legislators, while The Times sniffily noted that the Act was “embodying principles which are novel to the English law, although it must be confessed that they are supported by a large body of public opinion”. In 1889 the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children became the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), with Waugh as its director. The society had royal patronage but did not use the title ‘Royal’ in its name, to avoid confusion with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Waugh also wanted to avoid breaking up families, if at all possible, and saw to it that parents received a warning from one of the NSPCC’s inspectors or ‘cruelty men’ before being prosecuted. The Children’s Charter was one of a series of measures affecting children this decade, including education being made compulsory to the age of 10 in 1880 and a rise in the age of consent for girls from 13 to 16 in 1885.
The story of Edna, one of Benjamin Waugh’s eight offspring, illuminates the way your ancestors saw children, and particularly girls. A young barrister called William Clarke Hall who elected to work with the NSPCC became its leading counsel and the national expert on the law relating to children. He was 26 when he first visited Waugh’s home in St Albans and then came many times, attracted by his love for Edna, who was 13. He would sit her on his knee, “lovingly tease and talk to her,
THIS ENCROACHMENT INTO PRIVATE LIFE DISCONCERTED SOME LEGISLATORS
listen to her also” according to Edna’s own account, in which she referred to herself in the third person. She used to sign her letters to him “ever your loving child”.
Hall’s behaviour might fit the modern definition of grooming, but to the Victorians this was a perfectly reasonable introduction to married life. A middle-class bride was expected to be innocent and have no knowledge except that of household matters; a man was not supposed to marry until he was able to provide a home for a wife and children. It was therefore usual for a groom to be established in business, and older than his bride.
William and Edna married when she was 19 and he 33. He was later knighted for his work with children, while Edna became a successful artist.
The Victorian ideal of marriage was to face assault for the rest of the century. Arguments about the position of women were stimulated by a London production this year of a translation of A Doll’s House by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. In the play the wife, Nora, walks out on her husband and children. She has been condescended to and infantilised by her husband, who has treated her as a “doll wife”. Audiences at the Novelty Theatre gasped or hissed at Nora’s actions, and arguments broke out between couples. Other playgoers were invigorated – one woman wrote, “A few of us collected outside the theatre breathless with excitement… We were restive and almost savage in our arguments. What did it mean? Was it life or death for women? Was it joy or sorrow for men?”
In a lighter vein, a book was published this
year that was destined to be known as one of the funniest ever written. Three Men in a
Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) is a fictional account of a two-week boating holiday on the Thames, undertaken by Jerome K Jerome and two friends, together with the independently minded fox terrier Montmorency. It was intended to be a serious travel guide, but Jerome’s humour got the better of him.
The novel was deemed vulgar by critics, but the public loved it. The book’s success was responsible for increasing the number of boats on the Thames by 50 per cent in the year following its publication, contributing to the river becoming a tourist attraction.
In 1889 football was becoming firmly entrenched as the national game with the inaugural season of the Football League. Preston North End were the first league champions, also winning the FA Cup this year. Another sporting milestone came with the arrival of the first professional black football player on the field in 1889: Arthur Wharton, signed to Rotherham Town. Born in Jamestown on what was then the Gold Coast (now Ghana), he arrived in Britain to train as a missionary, but abandoned that in favour of athletics. A true all-rounder, he was a sprinter, cyclist and cricketer as well as a footballer.
A girl in rags sells watercress on a street corner watched by a man warm and dry indoors, c1880
Lord Shaftesbury ( inset) campaigned against the mistreatment of children, such as the flogging of these two boys who were accused of stealing pigeons Rev Benjamin Waugh (1839–1908) co-founded the NSPCC Ibsen rewrote A Doll’s House for a German...
‘J’, George and Harris take a welcome break from the trials of boating – and Montmorency