Real hard times

23rd May 2003 at 01:00
Crispin Andrews visits the early Victorian era and looks at the differences between the children who wanted more and those who had plenty.

Children are always fascinated to hear stories of how children lived in earlier times. This interest can lead them to understand something of Victorian society, a period when social divisions were so great that Disraeli was moved to speak of "two nations".

Part of the story of that time is the battle to improve the conditions of thousands of children who were drawn by industrial development to work in mines and factories. When Britain lived by its agriculture, it was natural that whole families, including children, should work on the land, as is the case today in many parts of the world.

Only gradually did it become apparent that the same approach wasn't appropriate to the grimmer and more dangerous industrial towns and cities.

As the 19th century wore on, it became more accepted that children had a right to the protection of the state - protection, even, from the needs and wishes of their own parents. So from Victorian times on we increasingly see, on the one hand, restrictions placed on children's hours of work and, on the other, increased opportunities for education.

Any discussion of Victorian attempts to protect children raises the question of children's rights as they are today, and this project can be be used for citizenship as well as history at key stage 2. When looking at historical accounts, children should be aware that much of what survives is not impartial, but was written to influence the reader. Placing historical events in the political and social context of the time will help children understand the viewpoints of contemporary writers.

Getting started

The early Victorian period lends itself to a range of activities. School visits and plays, video, historical literature and creative writing bring the subject to life. A painting or photograph of an inner-city slum allows children to see the cramped conditions under which people were forced to live in the 1840s, where up to 40 people might be crammed into a single house.

Points for children to researchdiscuss

How did landlords cram in so many tenants? What does this tell us about the attitudes of landlords towards the rights of their tenants? Why does this not happen today?

Streets lacked drainage, sewerage and running water. Where did people get their drinking water?

Outside privies - shared by up to as many as 20 houses in some cities - were emptied by hand into open cesspits. What do you think happened to these cesspits? What was dumped in rivers?

Contagious diseases such as cholera, typhoid, tuberculosis and scarlet fever killed thousands of people as epidemics regularly swept cities. Ask children what caused these diseases and allowed them to spread so quickly.

Literacydrama activities

Ask pupils to write about or play the part of a child whose family is being shown to their new home. Do you think home owners would show tenants around themselves? Would landlords live in their own houses?

More able children might view life in the slums through the eyes of a middle-class girl whose mother has brought her to serve soup to poor people. How might her own comfortable existence affect her point of view?

In context

The population of Britain nearly doubled between 1801 and 1851, to more than 20 million. Many people came from poorly paid agricultural jobs to the cities to find work, and profound social and economic problems emerged. In Bradford, for example, the population increased eightfold after the potato famine in Ireland caused an influx of immigrants. Workers were plentiful and cheap.

Despite the parlous conditions in the city slums, the situation in the workhouses was worse. The regime was strict and families were split up in what was seen by the authorities as an attempt to deter the "workshy" and "lazy".

Suffer the children

The plight of working children is well documented. Many were killed or injured when they were caught up in machinery in the mills, suffocated as they swept chimneys or crushed as mine shafts collapsed. Long hours, and beatings if work was slow, were the norm in the 1830s. Only gradually, and partly because of fear of popular unrest, did governments curb the worst excesses of the new industrial society. Some of the major pieces of legislation were: Reform Act 1832: gave the vote to the majority of middle-class men.

Factory Act 1833: no child under nine could be employed; working day limited for older children; four factory inspectors appointed (lack of inspection had rendered previous legislation ineffective). This Act paved the way for improved conditions and further reductions in the length of the working day.

Mines and Collieries Act 1842: forbade employment of women and girls, and the employment of boys underground under the age of 10; inspectors of mines appointed.

Public Health Act 1848: empowered local authorities to set up boards of health to be supervised by the Central Board of Health.

Sanitation Act 1866: compelled local authorities to take action to improve conditions - under the 1848 act, this had been voluntary.

Education Act 1870: accepted the principle of state responsibility for elementary education, but attendance was not fully compulsory until 1880 and free education for five to 10-year-olds did not come until 1891.

Points for children to researchdiscuss

What rights were early Victorian employers concerned with? What stops children from being exploited in the same way today? Is this a good thing? Are children in other parts of the world treated the same as here?

Look at for information about human rights today and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Do today's children have rights that those in the 1830s and 1840s did not?

How long does it take for laws to come into being? Who might protest against legislation and why?

Two nations

The contrast of the lives of poor children with those from the upper class could not have been greater. Photographs, paintings and dramas set in Victorian times portray luxuriously decorated, spacious homes and stable, secure families.

Ask pupils to research areas of contrast between rich and poor children, such as living conditions, food, clothing, education or play.

Education for the rich

To prepare them for life as a gentleman, boys studied classics, mathematics and French. This would often begin at home, under the guidance of a tutor, continue at public school and finish at university. Suitable careers were in politics, the military or the law. Many sons would run the family estate.

Girls would be prepared for life as a wife and mother. They were taught at home, usually by a governess, about how to be a good hostess, how to sing, play the piano and do embroidery. Dealing with servants and keeping household accounts were also important in girls' education. It was considered both unsuitable and unnecessary for girls to be educated in "the ways of the world".

Education for the poor

Most working-class families couldn't afford to send their children to school. Some received a few years of elementary education in voluntary schools run by religious and other charitable organisations.

Ragged schools started to appear once children under the age of nine were stopped from working. By 1844 there were almost 100 ragged schools, and within 25 years this had almost doubled.

The government also began funding Church schools in the early part of the 19th century. Older children were used as monitors to teach the younger ones.

In 1861, less than half Britain's 3.5m children went to school regularly.

Is it fair?

Although rich Victorian children lived in luxury, they were still governed by rules and conventions about how they should conduct themselves. Discuss the following with your class: Meals were set for certain times of the day.

Sunday was God's day, and families were required to attend church and rest.

Children had to have good manners and display proper respect to their elders and betters. They were to be "seen, but not heard".

Boys' and girls' interests were different; activities such as sport were deemed suitable for boys while others, such as knitting and playing the piano, were thought suitable for girls.

Then ask pupils to consider: Do any of these values still influence children today? Why do they exist? Is it good that they do?

How many of them would you consider to be an infringement of your own rights, or boring or unfair?

At your school, which of the following are rules and which are conventions? What is the difference between the two? Can conventions sometimes be the basis for rules?

a) Lunch is eaten in the dining room.

b) Boys have short hair and girls long.

c) In games lessons, boys play football and girls play netball.

d) You must put your hand up before answering a question in class.

e) On Friday you go to school, but on Saturday you don't.

What are these rules and conventions supposed to achieve? Are they fair?

Make a tableau of a wealthy family sitting down to Sunday lunch. Think about the positions and facial expressions of the family and servants. Why might one child be standing in the corner?

Ask pupils to pick a character in the tableau and write about their thoughts, feelings and daily life.

The urge to conform

The fact that we now question the fairness and suitability of rules and conventions, rather than just accepting them, shows how society has changed since the 1840s.

The 1830s and 1840s saw the rise of a middle class, people who had become wealthy as a result of the Industrial Revolution. They tended to adopt upper-class rules and conventions as a demonstration of their new-found status. In Victorian society improper etiquette could mark a person as "uncivilised", so the drive to conform was strong.

Useful resources

For a look inside a workhouse go

First-hand accounts by Edwin Chadwick on sanitary conditions, and Friedrich Engels on Britain's industrial cities can be found at: http: and www.fordham.eduhalsallmod1844engels.html

Curriculum links

This project can support the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority schemes of work: citizenship unit 7 ("That's not fair!"); history unit 11 ("What was it like for children living in Victorian Britain?").

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