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Victorian Children at Home

Tuesday 5th May 2020

Tijana Cvetkovic is one of our Curatorial Volunteers at the Museum and a regular blog contributor. Here she gives an insight into what life was like for Victorian Children at Home.

In Victorian times larger, wealthier homes would often have had a room or rooms for children near the servants’ bedroom. The children were in a similar position to servants – it was expected for them to be seen but not to be heard; they were excluded from the adults’ activities but remotely controlled and forced into obedience. Distance between parents and children permeates through memoirs of people who grew up in the Victorian era, seeing their parents as remote figures, and themselves sometimes closer to servants.[1] Older girls would soon have learnt to replace their mother in caring for younger siblings.

Watercolour of an unknown artist showing a boy with his governess, grandmother and mother in a domestic interior, about 1830

Many thought that the marital relationship was the primary one. In the family pyramid children were at the bottom but they were also in their own little pyramid, with boys, of whatever age, above girls. As the Victorian era progressed the adult-centred view would slowly change and children would move to the centre of their parents’ lives.[2] The old way of looking at children was of them as imperfect copies of adults. The Romantic movement began at the end of the 1700s, during this time the cult of innocence was created (a quality now noticed in children and not normally found in adults). This pro

Victorian Christmas card cut around the silhouettes of two children, printed about 1880-1900

moted a new view on childhood and by the end of the 1800s many parents no longer saw their children as unfinished adults and regarded childhood as a time of purity and innocence that needed protection. Dolls often reflect how adults see children and dolls’ faces developed a more angelic look.[3] The view that children are individuals possessing certain special qualities, stressing the needs of young children for special types of food, clothing and education, gradually triumphed and has informed attitudes to children until the present. Legal and social distinctions between adults and children were made in this period.[4]


With more widespread prosperity, improved manufacturing processes and falling real costs, toys became more ubiquitous. Although board games, outdoor games equipment, dolls and toys of different kinds were also produced in previous centuries, it was not until the late 1800s that the golden age for toys started. It is interesting that toys could be segregated into the sacred and the profane.

Set of wooden toy building bricks covered with transfer-printed paper which form the roof of a cathedral, and didactic blocks with the alphabet, Biblical passages and illustrations, in their original box, inscribed ‘Reed’s New Cathedral Filled With Sunday Blocks and Books’, thought to date about 1860-1900



On Sundays children could be given toys such as Noah’s Ark. Remembering her brothers’ (Willie and Eddy) play with this kind of toy, Lara Forster wrote how “Willie’s crime consisted in his making a stable of the animals, whilst Eddy held that they ought to follow Noah in Bible fashion two by two into the ark”.[5] Weekday toys could be soldiers, little horses, little carts filled with tiny wooden planks, rocking horses or horses on wheels that could be galloped down the street. Both boys and girls enjoyed a barrel organ with punched cards that made it play when a handle was turned. Girls could have dolls, a theatre, dolls houses and little china tea sets. It was a time when, with adults’ growing numbers of possessions and objects in the house, the number of children’s toys also multiplied.


Children’s furniture was not introduced until the 1830s. For the first time, in 1833, a publication, the Loudon’s Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture, introduced a short section for children’s furniture, most of it miniaturised versions of adults’ objects. By the end of the century every shop and catalogue had a full range of furniture designed especially for children.[6] To avoid airborne  infections and dirt being brought in through open windows, it was recommended for curtains, which were felt to trap germs and dust, to be replaced with blinds of a glazed fabric, or various forms of coloured-glass or ground-glass windows. Such windows were liked for the rooms where children learned, guarding privacy and as a prevention for children being distracted by the world outside.[7]


When a mistress of a wealthier home was pregnant, a monthly nurse was engaged. She would have arrived a month before the baby was due, and stayed until it was three months old. However, only the more prosperous of society could afford her. Later they might employ a nursemaid.[8] Mothers were often the ones teaching girls until the end of their education period, and boys until they were seven years old, because not every middle class home could afford a governess. Even if they had one, it does not mean that teaching was of better quality. While girls were mostly (but not all) being educated at home, boys would leave home and attend schools.[9]


For the wealthier in society, babies and small children, up to the age of three or four, were dressed alike, in what now would be called girls’ clothes- petticoats and frocks.

Victorian Christmas card, inside revealing crowd, mostly made of children, admiring sealife at an aquarium, published by Raphael Tuck & Sons, Ltd and printed in Germany, about 1890

The only survival of this today is traditional babies’ christening gowns. As toddlers grew into young children, clothes for boys and girls became entirely distinct.[10] Cassell’s Household Guide, a Victorian publication, assumes that little boys will wear dresses and tunics up to the age of eight in the 1860s and 1870s. This is a big reversal of the earlier practice (before the 1830s) when boys would be put into skeleton suits as young as two or four, but this new practice required a greater variety of distinctive boy’s dresses.[11] In the boys’ age period between wearing a dress and a suit, a tunic was also popular, worn with or without trousers.[12]

Child’s sailor collar, blue cotton with white stripes, with loops and tapes for attachment, about 1900

There were two main types of clothing for bigger children: outfits that were variants on adult clothes, mostly worn by girls, but also by boys, and outfits that embodied a fantasy world, mostly worn by boys- miniature military jackets, kilts, Little Lord Fauntleroy suits.[13]Although girls’ clothes mostly copied adult fashion, some concessions were maintained: girls’ dresses were generally shorter, looser and slightly simpler than their mothers’. It was in the 1880s and 1890s that developments in adult clothing helped to give girls styles which were more suited to their needs. Introduced at the beginning of the Victorian era, sailor suits became very popular boys’ clothes in the 1870s. Sailor suits were also popular for young girls’ school and holiday wear. These nautical suits reflected the growing popularity of the seaside holiday among the middle classes, encouraged by the establishment of an efficient railway network.[14] Poorer boys dressed more simply, with a coat and breeches of wool or leather, a coarse wool or linen shirt, wool stockings, and leather shoes. Girls would have worn plain or printed cotton and linen fabric dresses, with pinafores.

Street scene with children skipping, oil on canvas, by Janet Archer, 1883

Houses of the Victorian era were much colder than today, and together with the high child mortality figures and the subsequent worry about the health of children, many layers of clothing were considered essential, both inside and out. Even indoors, children were bundled up: little girls often wore two pairs of stockings, and babies were wrapped in gowns, petticoats and flannel shawls, as well as more ornamental wrappings. Layers of clothes were as important for summer as for winter; the only difference between layers in winter and summer was that summer layers were cotton or linen and wool, and winter ones were flannel and wool. It is during this era that the child mortality rate slowly dropped because children first felt the improvements that arose thanks to the understanding of disease transmission, a drop in real price of food and improved sanitation.[15]


The observant chronicler of Victorian domestic life Charles Dickens portrayed many children in his novels, a lot of them belonging to the lower classes of society. Being compassionate towards orphans and exposing the merciless treatment of many children with no home in mid 1800s’ London, he was raising a voice against children’s labour and campaigned for children’s rights and education. In our collection is a hand-coloured lithograph from 1841, Children of the Mobility (plate 8) by John Leech, showing two child street vendors.

‘Children of the Mobility’, plate 8, by John Leech, a hand-coloured lithograph from 1841 showing showing two child street vendors [16]
It was published by Richard Bentley who was also the publisher for Charles Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’. John Leech illustrated the disparity between the rich and poor, ‘the nobility and the mobility’ as he called them, and depicted the effects of poverty through the feelings of children at work and play.[16]


If a middle-class home could not afford a servant, a workhouse child could be called in to come from time to time help with the rough work. Workhouse children who would work full time in a household were available for a few pounds a year. Some of Dickens’ characters were an example – orphans from a workhouse or a charity school. At the same time experienced servants with references from good families would be paid between 16 and 60 pounds. Children from workhouses had had no training and, having grown up in institutions, had never seen a modern house, with gas or running water or any other various pieces of equipment they were expected to use. Girls from labouring families were of the same knowledge. Young girls from workhouses and from agricultural labourers’ families often worked only for their keep in their first job to get the training and the important character reference in order to begin their climb up the ladder of domestic service.[17]


Victorian city streets were full of entertainment and children of all classes and ages adored them. On 1st May the Jack-in-the-Green took to the streets for the chimney sweeps’ annual holiday. A chimney sweep would have been covered in a wicker frame, like a beehive carried on his shoulders, with a dome over his head covered in greenery and flowers. His wife and children escorted him playing mouth organs and tambourines; the girls wore their best white stockings and they all danced. This was only a small part of a very great city street entertainment world that flourished in front of children’s eyes. By the mid 1800s stilt dancers and dancing dogs were disappearing, but there were plenty of other entertainers: little girls dancing the hornpipe for spare change; acrobats tumbling or doing feats of strength; balancers balancing swords or ladders, on their chins, with small boys to climb the ladders; ballad singers, singing songs and then selling the words for a halfpenny. Another form of street entertainment was called ‘A Happy Family’, which had a mouse that walked a tightrope and a bird that fired a toy cannon, while another bird was ‘killed’, put in a coffin, and towed away. The bird murderer was ceremoniously hung from a gibbet which was operated by a bird-hangman.

‘Children of the Mobility’, plate 7, by John Leech, a hand-coloured lithograph from 1841 showing children with a street entertainer [16]
By the end of the 1880s barrel organs and hurdy-gurdies, usually played by Italians accompanied by a monkey wearing a small scarlet coat or cloak and performing tumbling tricks, were both driven out by piano organs, which made more noise. Dancing bears appeared from time to time. Groups of musicians playing brass instruments or one musician who would play several instruments simultaneously could be seen. There were several kinds of puppet show that travelled the suburban streets. There were dancing sailor puppets, girl puppets performing a ballet, or a skeleton dancing. The great treat for children was the travelling Punch and Judy show with a pretty violent story of Punch being hanged after killing his wife. Many wealthier children would, however, have been allowed to watch the show only from their window, as their parents wanted to prevent them from mixing with poorer children.[18]


While walking city streets, one may have seen children acting as vendors – cherry and lavender girls, or girls with ‘ornaments for your fire-stoves’. Small watercress girls would have taken fresh cresses to the homes of the middle classes in time for breakfast or before tea, while the butchers’ boys would have called for orders after breakfast and have returned with the meat on trays carried on their shoulders a few hours later. Boys shoveled up dung from the horses in the street and sold door to door as garden manure. Until the 1880s there was a cow in London’s St James’s Park which supplied milk on demand for children out for their daily walks and for nurses.[19]


A strict and disciplined upbringing of children remained throughout the Victorian era but instead of beatings which children earlier in the century might have expected, persuasion was now used more; children were told of the disappointment they caused to their parents and to God. By the end of the Victorian era a child-centered world had started to be established.

Illustration by A. W. Cooper from a Victorian children’s book ‘Our Home’, printed in 1888

[1], accessed 07/04/2020.

[2] J. Flanders, The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003), 33-34, 60.

[3], accessed 07/04/2020.

[4]C. Rose, Children’s Clothes Since 1750 (London: B. T. Batsford Limited, 1989), 11-12.

[5] Flanders, The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed, 150-151.

[6]Ibid., 36.

[7]Ibid., 154.

[8]Ibid., 17.

[9]Ibid., 47-52.

[10]Ibid., 265-266.

[11]Rose, Children’s Clothes Since 1750, 67.

[12]Ibid., 91.

[13] Flanders, The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed, 265-266.

[14] Rose, Children’s Clothes Since 1750, 89, 100.

[15] Flanders, The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed, 266-267.

[16] two child street vendorsf=32273, accessed 07/04/2020.

[17] Flanders, The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed, 93-96.

[18]Ibid., 353-356.

[19]Ibid., 350-352.


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