Conceptions of Childhood

It is clear that life for the average pauper in Victorian Britain was not an easy existence. However, for children who were brought up in workhouses or left to fend for themselves on the streets, there was little about their lives that could be considered part of a ‘modern’ childhood. Whether on the streets or in the workhouse, pauper children were generally malnourished, under-educated and inadequately housed. On the streets, much like in Oliver!, many children kept themselves fed and clothed through crime. In the mid-nineteenth century it has been estimated that around twenty thousand children were trained to be thieves and survived in this fashion.[ i ]In many cases, life in the workhouse was equally challenging.

Children who were brought up in a workhouse were often in terrible physical condition. This can be attributed to poor sanitation in workhouses and a diet that was even smaller than what was provided to adult inmates, determined locally in each area.[ii]This was further exacerbated by the fact that lowering food portions was a common punishment for misbehaviour.[iii]Physical discipline was also common, with floggings followed by a salt bath being a common practice.[iv]Though the New Poor Laws required workhouse children to receive an education, it was often wholly inadequate to do anything more than occupy their time. Even then, the goal of their lessons was little more than to learn basic reading skills and how to write their own name. Teachers were not provided and general workhouse employees, who in many cases were completely illiterate and uneducated themselves, ran the education programs instead.[v]

In order to try and prepare pauper children for life outside the workhouse, many parishes and unions tried to place children into apprenticeships so that they could learn a trade. In many cases children as young as seven years old were placed into apprenticeships, some of which were extremely dangerous. In this musical, Oliver is sold to the parish undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry, in order to make an example of him for asking for more food. Here he is physically and emotional mistreated by his new masters. Beyond physical and mental abuse, many apprenticeships were extremely dangerous for children. Because of their size, many children were used as apprentices to chimney sweeps or as workers in mines or in factories, and many died while performing their jobs.

Failure of and Objections to Victorian Britain’s Social and Legal System

Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, which forms the inspiration for Oliver!, was written as a reaction against the perceived injustices of the outgoing ‘Old Poor Laws’ and the incoming ‘New Poor Laws.’ These laws were made with the belief that individual paupers were to be blamed for their situation as opposed to the social, political and economic system that surrounded them.[vi]Dickens, however, was not the only political commentator who believed the poor relief system was inadequate for dealing with the growing numbers of England’s poor.

There was a concerted reaction against the passing of the New Poor Laws by both workers and politicians. Anti-poor law riots and demonstrations occurred in the North and South of England, as well as in rural and urban areas. In the south, riots were generally constrained to mobs hurling insults as well as objects, and in the most severe cases were put down by detachments of the police or military.[vii]In the North, which at the time was fairly rural, opposition to the New Poor Laws was far more consistent and well supported. Much like in the South, there was a great deal of popular resistance to the laws from workers and agriculturalists. In addition to this popular resistance, large numbers of the Northern middle classes and a number of Members of Parliament gave their support.[viii]

This resistance to the New Poor Laws, as well as the workhouse system, was due to a belief that they treated paupers inhumanely and that they reinforced, rather than solved, the issues of crime and poverty.[ix]This sentiment can in part be attributed to the work of Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. For many paupers, a life of crime with the possibility of hanging at the gallows was a preferable fate to resigning themselves to the workhouse.

Though supporters of the New Poor Laws suggested that their system had reduced poverty and crime, this can be attributed more to a change in administrative practices and record keeping.[x]In mid-nineteenth-century London alone, it was estimated that over eighteen thousand people made their living solely through crime, with a further thirty thousand who thieved in addition to a regular occupation.[xi]In order to combat crime in London and the surrounding areas, the Metropolitan Police, or ‘Bobbies’, were established in the nineteenth century in order to provide a standard, regimented form of policing throughout the kingdom.

Due to the failings of the New Poor Law of 1834, a number of revisions were made throughout the nineteenth century. In 1847 the Poor Law Board replaced the Poor Law Commission after numerous scandals. Later, in order to centralize poor relief alongside medical care, the Local Government Board was formed in 1871. Though these were efforts at reforming the Poor Law system, it was not until 1930 that it was completely abolished, with a welfare state finally being established after the Second World War.


Please see Resources for further information on footnotes.

[ i ]Bell, 160.

[ii]Higginbotham, 51.

[iii]Crompton, 60.

[iv]Higginbotham, 94.

[v]Crompton, 50.

[vi]Wood, 6.

[vii]Brundage, 74.

[viii]Brundage, 75.

[ix]Brundage, 83

[x]Wood, 25.

[xi]Bell, 159.