Victorian Childhood

Photograph of boys in tailor's shop, c.1902. SHC ref 2271/41/41

Photograph of boys in tailor’s shop, c.1902. SHC ref 2271/41/41.

Childhood could be very different depending on whether you were from a rich or poor family. Children from wealthy families were raised by nurses. They would often only see their parents once a day and had to call their fathers ‘Sir’. These children played with expensive toys like clockwork trains or elaborate dolls houses. Girls from poor families played with dolls made out of wooden clothes pegs.

Rich Victorians were very religious and children weren’t allowed to play with their toys on Sundays. Rich children would be given lessons at home like painting, counting or playing the piano. They also wore more expensive clothes that made them look like miniature adults. Girls weren’t encouraged to go to school and were usually educated at home by a governess.

Life for children from poor families was much worse. Children from poor families wore cast off clothes and shoes till they wore out. They were at risk of catching diseases from their filthy living conditions. Almost one in three babies didn’t survive into adulthood.

Some children from poorer families simply lived on the streets. These children were known as ‘urchins’ and were usually orphans or children neglected by their parents. They would earn money by selling matches or flowers.

Some Victorians were opposed to sending poor people to school. They said poor people might start a revolution.

Many parents couldn’t afford to send their children to school so sent them to work instead.

Would you like to have done any of these jobs?

Children’s jobs and their risks.

Chimney sweeping: Children were used because they were small enough to climb up crooked chimneys. They would choke on the dust and be left covered in soot. Several boys died after getting trapped in chimneys.

Manual labour work: Children could be left crippled for life by using their weak muscles to lift heavy tools and work long hours.

Working in factories: Children often risked being killed or injured by the dangerous machinery in factories. Boys, working in one nail factory, were punished by having nails hammered through their ear lobes.

Coalmining: Children could be run over by mine carts carrying coal. (Candles were the only source of light). Other risks included cave-ins and gas explosions.

Until the law was changed in 1842 it was common for children under the age of ten to work in coalmines.

A law was introduced in 1891 to make school free for everyone and so children no longer needed to work.

Did you know?

Despair, Murder, Feather and Lettuce were all real Victorian first names.

Victorian schools

Photograph of Form III of Badshot Lea School with headmaster Charles Mansell. SHC ref 7146/5/1

Photograph of Form III of Badshot Lea School with headmaster Charles Mansell. SHC ref 7146/5/1.

There were fewer teachers in Victorian Britain so classes could sometimes have over 80 pupils!

The school curriculum was focused on simply teaching facts. Children were not allowed to ask questions. If a pupil answered a teacher’s question wrong they were made to stand in a corner of the room wearing a dunce’s cap.

Women in Victorian Britain were discouraged from going to university or having a professional job. A girls’ school curriculum could include household activities like needlework, cookery and even sweeping and dusting!

Victorians believed that children learned better through the use of harsh discipline. They thought corporal punishment (causing physical pain) was more effective than simply being told off. If you arrived late for school you could be hit on the hand with a cane and have your name written in the Punishment Book.

Ockham Village school pupils. SHC ref 7854/4/47/3/1

Ockham Village school pupils. SHC ref 7854/4/47/3/1.

Links to related pages

Link to the Victorians page
Link to the Victorian Activities page
Link to the A Few Famous and Interesting People in Victorian Surrey page
Link to the Life in Victorian Times page
Link to the Victorian Industry and Technology page
Link to the Victorian Crime and Punishment page

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