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Childhood in the Victorian era. | VRChristensen

Childhood in the Victorian era.

What was childhood? How was it defined? And how were the innocent protected during the Victorian era?

Well, unless a child was fortunate enough to be born to the middle and upper classes, they weren’t. By law, before 1885, it was illegal to ‘carnally know’ a girl under the age of twelve years.’ Did that then effectually define a girl (there was no concept of male child abuse) as a woman when she turned thirteen?

Child labour laws, too, were largely ineffectual and generally only applied to the textile industries who demanded long hours and dangerous jobs for children nine and up. But younger, smaller children were still employed, even needed, for certain tasks. Chimney sweeps, newspaper sellers, matchmakers, street sweepers. The list is endless, and any child old enough and strong enough to contribute to the family’s well being was expected to do so.

From Wikipedia

“The Victorian era became notorious for employing young children in factories and mines and as chimney sweeps. Child labour played an important role in the Industrial Revolution from its outset, often brought about by economic hardship, Charles Dickens for example worked at the age of 12 in a blacking factory, with his family in debtor’s prison. The children of the poor were expected to help towards the family budget, often working long hours in dangerous jobs for low pay, earning 10-20% of an adult male’s wage.”

A child born into anything other than the upper crust would understand the responsibilities he held to help the family financially.

Victorian children, particularly those born to the lower classes were far savvier and streetwise than children today. They were not sheltered as today’s children are. Not by a long shot.

Within the context of Of Moths and Butterflies, Imogen observes that Charlie is very young to understand the nature of the relationship between his mother and Miles Wyndham–this is what he’s referring to by his remark that he understands the difference between love and  ‘something else low and cheap’. He is a remarkable child, growing up in this kind of half-existence between poverty and privilege. He sees both sides and understands that both have their vices and virtues.

His age was something I had to carefully consider. Is he too young? Well, he certainly should be. But I don’t think he would have been considered too world-wise for his circumstances during that period. Assigning his age is a precarious business, for if he’s any older, would anyone really suspect Archer of having fathered him? So far that question has never arisen, but the question of Charlie’s age has.

Interestingly enough, I found this article today. It was part of a wonderful and very informative blog called Victorian History, in which the author asserts that “such young children were “street wise,” knowing a great deal more about life and sex than either their counterparts in the higher classes or today’s young children.” The article can be seen here.

I’m rather inclined to believe him. It certainly goes along with my understanding of childhood in the Victorian era, like it or not. If it makes us uncomfortable, than perhaps it should. And perhaps we have good reason to be grateful that times have improved, and that our children are safer. (Now if only we could get them to take out the garbage.)


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