We all complain from time to time that we don’t have all the things we want or need. But imagine if you didn’t have enough food to eat, no games to play with and not even a bed of your own to sleep in? Poor children living in Britain in the 19th century would have had very little to call their own and virtually no way of improving their lives.
The homes of the poor were small, cold and damp and often infested with lice and vermin. Water would be collected from a dirty pump in the street and filthy outdoor toilets would be shared with dozens of neighbours. Stoves were new and expensive so many homes didn’t have any way of making hot meals. A poor person’s daily diet would have been made up of mostly bread, cheese and potatoes.
Dirty and overcrowded, the city’s slums were the perfect breeding ground for many types of untreatable diseases. Death came early and fast to the poor and it would be rare to find a child who hadn’t suffered the death of a sibling or parent. With no one to look after them, orphaned children had no choice but to try and survive alone. Thousands of street children slept where they could; in doorways, damp cellars or on the streets alongside criminals, disease-carrying rats and open sewers. Starving, dirty, cold and weak, these ‘gutter-waifs’ had no-one to look after them and little hope of survival. With only filthy water to drink, dirty, smoke-filled air from nearby factories to breathe and scraps of bad food to eat, it was no surprise that many children fell ill and died.
The only place for poor children to play was on the street. Without expensive toys like bicycles or dolls to play with, their games were simple and often meant making best use of what they could find.
It was widely believed by the wealthiest Victorians that the poor only had themselves to blame for their pitiful existence and should not be helped. The very poor were treated like criminals, with no where else to go when they could no longer look after themselves but the workhouse. Feared by all, the workhouse was run like a prison, with strict rules and long days of hard labour. Eventually, attitudes towards the poor began to change and charitable groups and social reformers built homes, schools and orphanages for destitute children. For the lucky few at least, there was now somewhere safe to sleep, eat, get cleaned up and learn to read and write.