Victorian London - Childhood - Children - poor children

I have seen little children, fat enough for the spit, wrapped in woolpacks of fleecy hosiery, seated in their little carriages, drawn by goats, careering over the sward of Hyde Park; and at the same moment, crawling from the hollow trunks of old trees, where they had found refuge for the night, other children, their nakedness hardly concealed by a few greasy rags flapping against the mottled limbs of the creatures, heirs of shame and sorrow, and heritors of misery and its necessary crime.

John Fisher Murray, The Physiology of London Life , in Bentley's Miscellany, 1844

see also Albert Smith in Sketches of London Life - click here

see also D. Rice-Jones in In the Slums, chapters 22-28 - click here

    A PLAYGROUND IN THE EAST OF LONDON, with its throng of children whirling in and out, and jostling one another in their uproarious merri­ment. It is a scene of constant mo­tion; but with just a little of sadness running through the whole. We seem to look through their merry play and see beyond into the home-life of many of these poor little ones. We, who revel in our cosy nurseries and play-rooms, who tread with slippered feet on soft carpeted floors, who feast our eyes with bright pictures and cheerful books, and who lie snugly tucked in with warm blankets on downy beds, know and feel the full meaning of the word ‘Home.’ But how different it is with many of these poor little ones of outcast London! To them ‘home’ is often full of bitterness. Shoeless feet, bare boards, perhaps a few shavings or bits of straw for bed, and rags for coverlets, are their home comforts. They are more used to kicks than kisses, to blows than fond embraces, to angry words and horrible oaths than gentle voices of love and prayer. Money enough is found for the gin and other ruin­ous drinks, but none for home joys or proper clothing. And the publican thrives, and his children live well and dress in fine clothes with the money that ought to feed and clothe these poor children. And too often, because the child­ren and the drink together cost too much money, and one or other must be given up, the poor children are driven from home. To such this playground is a paradise.
    A little while ago this bright spot was a sad, dull and melancholy waste. Maybe it was an old churchyard with every grave filled: its stones, in memory of folks long since forgotten, now crumbling with age; and railed in all round to keep out children, large and small. But ~vise and kind-hearted people have levelled and laid it out as a garden and playground for the little ones. Here, strolling along its sanded walks, which go winding a round beds of bright-look­ing and sweet-smelling flowers; or stopping to watch the jet of water flung into the air from the fountain and dropping back into the basin where the gold and silver fish dart to and fro; or leaning back in the comfortable seats like real ladies and gentlemen, the myriads of children from the courts and alleys around, as well as those just let out from school, come to forget the hardness of their life in the beauty and merriment of the playground.
    Some of you whose friends bring you so many grand toys, would not look at the things that bring these poor children such enjoyment. An old shuttle­cock with one solitary feather in it, picked up from some dust-heap, is batted into the air with a piece of cardboard. A paper Windmill bought for a farthing, which mother has squeezed out of her hard earnings, delights that little three-year-old boy as lie holds it tightly in his chubby fist. His clothes are ragged and torn, yet I’m sure his mother is kind to him. He has found out that by holding the mill straight in front of him, the wind catches the bright-coloured sails and spins them round till the colours run one into the other and he sees only a rainbow-coloured ring in front of him. So, forgetting the big boots shaking about on his feet, he trots up and down, laughing so merrily.
    How admiringly one ragged little fellow looks on at the toy! He, poor boy, never had such a toy to make him happy. He likes to see the whizzing wheel; but rougher games amongst the courts and alleys suit him best. He is one of those little urchins who iii the dark days of winter startle us so with their shrill calls, or who so suddenly appear at our sides begging a ‘copper.’ If we speak to him, he will call us ‘general’ or ‘captain,’ at the same time saluting us while his eyes twinkle roguishly. Poor little chap! Of course lie gets his copper; for his life is a hard one. He dares not creep in to rest at night until the gin palaces are shut, and lie knows his parents are sleeping their drunken sleep. Still he looks for a bit of play in this playground. Bits of string picked from the shop sweepings and tied together, serve to start him: and in a twinkling he is the happy driver of a couple of boys who prance about as only carriage horses can; or the furious driver of a fire-engine; or managing the swift steeds in a race, just as fancy suits him.
    Here, with pale faces and wasted limbs, are the cripples, limping painfully along on crutches, admiring the lovely flowers; or seated to watch the joyous games of their companions. Breathing the air made sweet by the flowers, and drinking in the enjoyment of the others, their cheeks lose their paleness, their eyes their heaviness, and the sadness of their sufferings is forgotten in the glad­ness of the hour spent in the playground.
    Here, too, come the little mothers carrying babies, and looking after brothers and sisters with as much care and anxiety as though they were real mothers. And the little workers with busy fingers stitch and knit and crochet the articles which mother gets from the warehouse, and which must be worked at early and late to earn money enough to live.

And so we leave this happy scene, glad that the poor children have this fine place of enjoyment. And when we romp about in our comfortable homes and play with our toys, we will think kindly of these poor little ones, and, when opportunity comes, will help them as best we can.

Uncle Jonathan, Walks in and Around London, 1895 (3 ed.)