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The Victorian Child and the Working Class Family

Accounts show that children born into working class families felt that their mother was the best mother of all. Thomas Okey who was born in 1852 described his mother as "heroic" because "all the work of the house, the nursing and care of the children in health and in sickness, the providing, the preparation and the cooking of the food, the making and repairing of the clothing and hardest of all, the balancing of the domestic budget fell on her."1

Despite all the good qualities exhibited by their mothers, a mother still was not without her faults or limitations. Oftentimes, they were so overworked and tired that they were harsh and indifferent to the children's needs for attention and sometimes disciplined them with slaps and even beatings. They showed their love by providing food and paying the rent. Kathleen Woodward described her mother as "sweated and laboured for her children, equally without stint or thought, but was utterly oblivious to any need we might cherish for sympathy in our little sorrows, support in our strivings. She simply was not aware of anything beyond the needs of our bodies. . . She had no love to give us and, thank God, she never pretended what she did not feel; but children miss the presence of love and wilt, when they are not embittered, in its absence. At home it was always wintry.2

In the early part of the period, Victorian families were large and nuclear, typically composed of two generations, parents and children. With the low life expectancy of the times, few children got to know their grandparents well if at all. Between 1781 - 1831, the average family included six children. By the end of the period, the birthrate dropped to about half. The household might also include an unmarried aunt or a grandparent. In the upper and middle classes, the family also included servants while the lower class family may have included lodgers.

The Working Class Family

As one can imagine, life within families differed significantly between the classes. In the working class home, mothers gave birth to their children at home with a mid-wife rather than a doctor. The homes were typically small, difficult to keep clean and had minimal furniture. Despite the attention given to the child, life expectancy was low and in the poorer districts, 20% died before the age of one, with 25% deceased by the age of five. Life expectancy improved if a child reached five with children living in rural areas having the better chance. By 1900, the death rate of infants in their first year in London was still at 15%. Health conditions did begin to improve after the 1850, but cholera, smallpox, and other diseases still posed significant threats to children.

The child's first transition was from baby to toddler, often starting at the time of the birth of a sibling. The mother's time was then transferred to the newborn. Taking care of a toddler also wasn't easy. According to some reports, some children were tied into their high chairs or locked in their rooms to avoid accidents.2 Sometimes the younger children were often put under the care of their older siblings. Usually there was some time between the ages of 3 and 6, that the child had some freedom before being sent to school or out to work.

Homes were often run-down, unsanitary row houses or rented rooms in tenements or basements. In the newer industrial towns, disease ran rampid. Although rural living provided more fresh air, living conditions were similar with substandard housing and the lack of indoor plumbing. The homes were small and more often than not, two or three children oftentimes shared a bed; sometimes sleeping on pallets. The homes were insect infested and had little light or heat.

With little to no money, clothing was mostly hand-me downs. Shoes were hard to find with some children going barefoot or having to wear wooden clogs. Winter coats were non-existent. And the children quite often did not eat well. Most families had little money so potatoes, bread, cheese and tea were the mainstays of the diet. Sunday dinners were a little more lavish and may have included a small portion of meat. The worst time of the period was during the 1840s when the economy dipped frequently and agricultural harvests poor. During these times, the parents ability to make ends meet determined the child's well-being.

Unlike the middle and upper classes, both parents typically worked to support the family, the mother often part-time. The father was usually gone for long periods of time having to go where the work was and the mother,with the money she received from her husband, usually 1 a week, had to care for the children and maintain the house. Despite the parents love for their children, there was little emotion; it was proven rather in their ability to provide for them.

  1. Thomas Oakey, A Basketful of Memories: An Autobiographical Sketch (London; J.M. Dent and Sons, 1930)

  2. Kathleen Woodward, Jipping Street (1923 London, Reprint Virago 1983) 19-20. (Westport, Ct; Praeger 2009) p. 13.

Victorian Child and Working Class Family p1 Child and Working Class Family Victorian Child and Working Class Family p2 Child and Working Class Family, p2 Child and Working Class Family p3 Child and Working Class Family, p3

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