History of Childhood and Family

In the beginning we began by exploring the question of when was a child an infant and when did they become an adult. In pre-industrial Europe, the definition of a child and an infant seemed to be interchangeable. There did not seem to be a specific age in which one went from being a child to being an adult. This becomes an issue when researching, the history of children due in part to the limited amount of information available as well as the accuracy of the information provided, many were recollections of people’s childhood and not first-hand accounts. Legal documents such as ship manifests and court records did not always note the age of the child and they referred to them interchangeably as both infants and children. Following the industrial revolution, information on childhood and children’s first-hand accounts of growing up were readily available. Not only did the children themselves document their childhood but the adults around them also mentioned them more frequently in their records.

In pre-industrial Europe, the care of poor orphan children was the responsibility of the parish in which they resided. In the1550’s London and other larger towns began setting up hospitals to care for orphans. These hospitals replaced the charity care system of the religious houses. A system evolved whereby the small children and babies were boarded out, children were placed into the hospital at the age of six, and older children were given some schooling and instruction while at the hospital. Adolescents (thirteen to fifteen year olds) were usually placed in apprenticeships or positions of service. This new system brought the poor children under the jurisdiction of the civic authorities rather than the parishes (religious) authorities.

We then went on to learn about the education process in place during this time. One document written by Locke, states how he felt children should be educated. Although Locke, himself had no children, he appeared to have not only observed many of his friends’ children but also to have had a part in directing how they were educated.

Middle class children were known as the angels of the house, while women had control of the household and the ideology of manhood began to change. In the pre-industrial world, the rich married mainly to consolidate holdings or strengthen political partnerships. The lower class did not marry as young and usually only after the women had become pregnant.

The aristocratic adults talked about sentimental childhoods but reality was that children were usually brought to the parents and they were to be seen but not heard. Mostly they spent their time in the nursery prior to being introduced to society or being sent away for education.   New ideas around education began to be seen around the time of industrialization, when adults begin talking about the importance of play and childhood lessons. It was during this time that the idea of vulnerable children requiring adult supervision was introduced by reading stories in newspapers. Stories such as the popular Grimm brother stories, first published in 1827 and Peter Parley’s book of fables were written specifically for children and they had a moral theme. These books contained pictures and covers which had been painted by widows, sometimes with the help of their children. This craft work which also included painting cards meant that they were able to stay at home with their families while providing them with an income which helped to keep the family together.

The ideology of family was slowly changing; evidence of this can be seen in the group portrait done in 1846 by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. The painting shows Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children all together as one big family. Many other families had paintings done similar to that of the Queen and her family, showing how Victoria was setting a standard for the middle class morality and family. She was also the one who start the big white wedding tradition. Large families were the norm during this time and it has been estimated that about one-third of most women’s lives was dedicated to having children. This was due in part to the fact that many children did not survive due to the high fatality rate. Children were vulnerable to a large number of diseases and viruses and many did not live to see their fifth birthdays. Children were very susceptible to diseases such as whooping cough and diphtheria both of which were high contagious.

The dynamics of family life and the roles of women continued to change. This can be seen with the popularity of the book “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott. The book talks about four sisters; Margaret “Meg” March Brooke who becomes a governess and later on marries and stays home with her children, Josephine “Jo” March Bhaer who was a known tomboy when she was a young girl, and wanted to be a writer. She pursued this dream in New York City where she meets her husband who is a professor. The third sister is Elizabeth “Beth” March who is known as the home body, she later dies in the story. Last but not least is the youngest sister Amy Curtis March Laurence who wants to become an artist, she later on marries and has a child that she names Elizabeth “Beth” after her dead sister, her daughter seems to have many similarities with Aunt Beth as she is very ill. This was considered a coming of age reading for many girls.

Victorian British children did not receive the same education, playtime, or even the need to have a job. British society was still very depended on the class system. The life of the family differed according to their placement within society’s classes. This can be seen by comparing the three (sometimes four) classes; these classes being the high class, middle class, working class (the fourth being poor class). We can break it down even more with children having both parents, one parent, being an orphan or being a bastard child (though this child can be put in the same group as having one parent or orphan group).   The first subject that I will be discussing will be the education or lack of education in some of the cases.

Education was quite simply if you were part of the lower/working class you learned the basics; writing, reading, and some basic numbers. The middle classes education was very similar but went into more depth. This meant they were able to continue their education if they desired by attending colleges. The upper class not only learned writing, reading and math but they also would learn the classics as well as Latin and Greek. This distinction in classes continued into the Industrial Era.

In the Era prior to the Industrial Revolution, there was a boom in the younger population as people were marring younger (age 23 for most women). It was during the Industrial Revolution that the need for cheap labour and labour easily trained. It was during, Industrial Era that the Children of Victorian Era began filling in the labour force. These children have become known to the historians as the “white slaves of Britain”[i]. Some of these children signed up not knowing what they were signing up for, others were sold by their family, or they took over their parents jobs. These children started working at the age of six. They were in all types of works from factories, farming, to street work (newspapers, matches, sweepers). It was only in 1802 that children were not allowed to work before six am or after nine pm and then in 1831 no one was allowed to work after dark if they were under the age twenty. In 1842 some of the Victorian people became horrified over the reporting of children age five to six being used as trappers and that older children were exposed to topless women working in the narrower mine shafts which the ponies were unable to work in. This practice was stopped and only children twelve and older were able to work. It was due to legislation brought in 1847 that the Quarry Bank stopped using children in the factory, and 1850 in half days were introduced.

It was due to the child labour laws that the parameters around children became more defined. The age of children was not only noted and used to classify what work they were able to do but when they were able to engage in this work. Children and childhood began to have definite limitations as outlined by parliament.

[i] Children who built Victorian Britain, BBC network


Tarbin. Stephanie, Caring for Poor and Fatherless Children in London, c. 1350-1550.” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth. (Vol 3. # 3). The Johns Hopkins University Press. Fall 2010

Benzaquen. Adriana Silvia, Locke’s Children.” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth. (Vol 4. # 3). The Johns Hopkins University Press. Fall 2011

Nadel. Ira Bruce, ““The Mansion of Bliss,” or the Place of Play in Victorian Life and Literature”. Children’s Literature. (Vol. 10) The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1982

Hurl. F. Lorna, “Restriction Child Factory Labour In Late Nineteenth Century Ontairo”. Journal of Canadian Labour Studies. (Vol 21) Spring 1988

Children who built Victorian Britain, BBC network

Class for Notes Weeks 2, 4, and 5


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