In Victorian England, the quality of a child’s life was determined largely by whether he or she was born to a poor family or a wealthy one. If born to a working class family, the child was usually sent to work, often by the age of five. With no laws to protect children from exploitation, they were expected to work long hours in harsh environments. Some were sent into the coal mines to push carts of coal to the surface or open and close doors for ventilation, underground for 12 hours a day. Others, in factories, were sent into small spaces under machinery when problems arose, sometimes resulting in their death. Children who were orphaned or abandoned could be sold and forced to work in such grim jobs as chimney sweeps.
Education was regarded as a privilege for those families that could afford it. Boys had a better chance of being sent to school than girls. But for both, the survival of their families often depended on their working and earning as early as possible.
During Queen Victoria’s rule, advocates for the rights of children succeeded in bringing these deplorable conditions to light. A series of laws were passed, beginning with the Mines Act of 1841, which prohibited sending children under the age of 10 to work in the mines. In 1868 a similar law was enacted to protect children in rural areas who were under the age of eight from being exploited as farm workers. By 1874, it was illegal to employ a child under the age of 10 in a factory. Despite this increased awareness and the enactment of protective laws, by the time of Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, many
children ages nine and up still worked.
Children of the wealthy had very different experiences. Usually a nanny was hired to care for the children; she lived in the house and often had a greater role in the children’s lives than the parents. Children in these families had toys to play with, trips to the park with their nanny, and some measure of education.
Wealthy or poor, children in Victorian times were held in fairly low regard by the culture. They were expected to behave like little adults, and to be self-contained and self-reliant at a very early age. Childish exuberance and playfulness were repressed; obedience and conformity were imperative. Older siblings, especially girls,
were expected to care for their younger siblings.