"From the folding of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. . . . They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. . . . 'They are Man's,' said the Spirit, looking down upon them. 'And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.'"
[Footnote 8: Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.]
In surveying the long reign of Queen Victoria nothing strikes one more than the gradual growth of interest in children, and the many changes in the nation's ideas of their upbringing and education. At the beginning of her reign the little children of the poor were for the most part slaves, and were often punished more cruelly by their taskmasters than the slaves one reads of in Uncle Tom's Cabin.
When Disraeli, afterward Lord Beaconsfield and Prime Minister, wrote Sybil, he drew, in that book, a terrible picture of the life of children in the manufacturing districts and in the country villages. The following extract speaks for itself:
"There are many in this town who are ignorant of their very names; very few who can spell them. It is rare that you meet with a young person who knows his own age; rarer to find the boy who has seen a book, or the girl who has seen a flower. Ask them the name of their sovereign and they will laugh; who rules them on earth or who can save them in heaven are alike mysteries to them."
In such a town as Disraeli describes there were no schools of any kind, and the masters treated their apprentices "as the Mamelouks treated the Egyptians." The author declares that "there is more serfdom now in England than at any time since the Conquest. . . . The people were better clothed, better fed, and better lodged just before the Wars of the Roses than they are at this moment. The average term of life among the working classes is seventeen."
One of the first results of machinery taking the place of human labour was that an enormous number of women and young children of both sexes were employed in the factories in place of grown men, who were no longer needed. Especially in the spinning mills thousands of men were thrown out of work, and lower wages were paid to those who took their place. This led directly to the breaking up of the home and home-life. The wives were often obliged to spend twelve to thirteen hours a day in the mills; the very young children, left to themselves, grew up like wild weeds and were often put out to nurse at a shilling or eighteenpence a day.
One reads of tired children driven to their work with blows; of children who, "too tired to go home, hide away in the wool in the drying-room to sleep there, and could only be driven out of the factory with straps; how many hundreds came home so tired every night that they could eat no supper for sleepiness and want of appetite, that their parents found them kneeling by the bedside where they had fallen asleep during their prayers."
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, one of the greatest poets of Victoria's reign, pleads for mercy and human kindness in her "Cry of the Children."
Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers,
Ere the sorrow comes with years?
They are leaning their young heads against their mothers,
And that cannot stop their tears.
The young lambs are bleating in the meadows,
The young birds are chirping in the nest,
The young fawns are playing with the shadows,
The young flowers are blowing toward the west—
But the young, young children, O my brothers,
They are weeping bitterly!
They are weeping in the playtime of the others,
In the country of the free.
"For oh," say the children, "we are weary,
And we cannot run or leap;
If we cared for any meadows, it were merely
To drop down in them and sleep.
Our knees tremble sorely in the stooping,
We fall upon our faces, trying to go;
And, underneath our heavy eyelids drooping
The reddest flower would look as pale as snow;
For, all day, we drag our burden tiring
Through the coal-dark underground—
Or, all day, we drive the wheels of iron
In the factories, round and round."
In the country the state of affairs was no better. New systems of industrial production threw large numbers of farm hands out of work, the rate of wages fell, and machinery, steam, and the work of women and children took the place of the labourer.
The children found a champion in Lord Ashley, afterward Lord Shaftesbury, who succeeded in the face of much opposition in his efforts to pass laws which should do away with such shameful wrong and injustice.
The increased amount of coal used (15½ million tons at the beginning of the century, 64½ million tons in 1854) naturally led to the demand for more workers, and it was owing to this that the proposals of Lord Shaftesbury met with such opposition from the mine-owners, who feared that if child labour were made illegal they would not have sufficient 'hands' to work the mines and that they would have to pay higher wages.
The Act of 1842 forbade altogether the employment of women and girls in the mines, and allowed only boys of the age of ten or more to do such work. The Poor Law Guardians of the time used to send children into the mines at the age of seven as a means of finding employment for them. The hours of work were limited to ten daily and fifty-eight each week.
Little or no attempt was made in the Bill to give children the means of obtaining a good education, although considerably more than half the children in the country never went to school at all, and many large towns were without a proper school.
By a previous Factory Act of 1834 all children under fourteen years of age were compelled to attend school for two hours daily. The employer was allowed to deduct one penny a week from the child's wages to pay the teacher. This proved absolutely useless, as the masters employed worn-out workers as teachers, and in consequence the children learnt nothing at all.
It was not until the year 1870 that a Bill was passed in Parliament to create an adequate number of public elementary schools for every district in the kingdom. To show the increase in the number of schools built, there were in the year 1854, 3825, and in the year 1885, 21,976.
But the children of England owe almost as much to Charles Dickens as they do to Lord Shaftesbury. He was almost the first, and certainly the greatest, writer who, with a heart overflowing with sympathy for little children, has left us in his books a gallery of portraits which no one can ever forget.
He himself, "a very small and not over-particularly-taken-care-of boy," passed through a time of bitter poverty, and his stay at school, short as it was, was not a period of his life upon which he looked back with any pleasure.
The material for his books was drawn from life—from his own and from the lives of those around him—and for this reason all that he wrote will always be of great value, as it gives us a good idea of the Early and Mid Victorian days.
His ambition was to strike a blow for the poor, "to leave one's hand upon the time, lastingly upon the time, with one tender touch for the mass of toiling people."
Who can ever forget in the Christmas Carol the crippled Tiny Tim, "who behaved as good as gold and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see."
Other pictures of suffering childhood are 'Little Nell' and 'The Marchioness' in The Old Curiosity Shop, 'Jo' and 'Charley' in Bleak House, and 'Smike,' the victim of the inhuman schoolmaster 'Squeers.'
The cruelty of the times is shown in the case of an unfortunate sempstress who tried to earn a living by making shirts for three-halfpence each. Once, when she had been robbed of her earnings, she tried to drown herself. The inhuman magistrate before whom she was brought told her that she had "no hope of mercy in this world."
It was after hearing of this from Charles Dickens that Thomas Hood wrote the well-known "Song of the Shirt":
From weary chime to chime,
As prisoners work for crime!
Band, and gusset, and seam,
Seam, and gusset, and band,
Till the heart is sick, and the brain benumbed,
As well as the weary hand.
The age might well take to heart the lesson taught by the great-souled writer—that the two chief enemies of the times were Ignorance and Want.
The lot of the unfortunate children in the Union Workhouses was no better. They were treated rather worse than animals, with no sympathy or kindness, owing to the ignorance of those who were set in authority over them. Any one who reads Oliver Twist may learn the nature of the life led by the 'pauper' children in those 'good old days.'
"The members of this board were very sage, deep, philosophical men; and when they came to turn their attention to the workhouse, they found out at once, what ordinary folks would never have discovered—the poor people liked it! It was a regular place of public entertainment for the poorer classes; a tavern where there was nothing to pay; a public breakfast, dinner, tea, and supper all the year round; a brick and mortar elysium, where it was all play and no work. 'Oho!' said the board, looking very knowing, 'we are the fellows to set this to rights; we'll stop it all, in no time.' So, they established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they) of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it. With this view, they contracted with the waterworks to lay on an unlimited supply of water; and with a corn-factor to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal; and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Sundays. . . . Relief was inseparable from the workhouse and the gruel; and that frightened people."
A movement which helped, possibly far more than any other, to better the lot of the children of the Poor commenced with the foundation of the Ragged School Union, of which the Queen became the patroness.
Out of this sprang a small army of agencies for well-doing. Commencing only with evening schools, which soon proved insufficient, the founders established day schools, with classes for exercise and industrial training: children were sent to our colonies where they would have a better chance of making a fair start in life; training ships, cripples' homes, penny banks, holiday homes followed, and from these again the numerous Homes and Orphanages which entitle us to call the Victorian Age the Age of Kindness to Children.
Charles Dickens took the keenest interest in the work of the Ragged Schools. A letter from Lord Shaftesbury quoted in his Life gives a clear idea of the marvellous work they had accomplished up to the year 1871:
"After a period of 27 years, from a single school of five small infants, the work has grown into a cluster of some 300 schools, an aggregate of nearly 30,000 children, and a body of 3000 voluntary teachers, most of them the sons and daughters of toil. . . . Of more than 300,000 children, which, on the most moderate calculation, we have a right to conclude have passed through these schools since their commencement, I venture to affirm that more than 100,000 of both sexes have been placed out in various ways—in emigration, in the marine, in trades and in domestic service. For many consecutive years I have contributed prizes to thousands of the scholars; and let no one omit to call to mind what these children were, whence they came, and whither they were going without this merciful intervention. They would have been added to the perilous swarm of the wild, the lawless, the wretched, and the ignorant, instead of being, as by God's blessing they are, decent and comfortable, earning an honest livelihood, and adorning the community to which they belong."
Dickens believed, first of all, in teaching children cleanliness and decency before attempting anything in the form of education. "Give him, and his," he said, "a glimpse of heaven through a little of its light and air; give them water; help them to be clean; lighten the heavy atmosphere in which their spirits flag and which makes them the callous things they are . . . and then, but not before, they will be brought willingly to hear of Him whose thoughts were so much with the wretched, and who had compassion for all human sorrow."