Throughout the Victorian period, thousands of orphans and other unparented children existed on the fringes of society, where they were at once more pathetic and more of a threat to social stability than children in even the poorest of families. Such figures often feature in children's literature, for propagandistic or less stridently didactic purposes. These solitary pilgrims or wayward souls were useful in the development of individual narratives, and also contributed to the development of the genre as a whole.

Britain may have been at the top of its hour, but life for most of her citizens was much more precarious than it is now. Mothers often died in or following childbirth, leading Sir William Farr, the superintendent of statistics at the General Registry Office in London, to ponder "the deep, dark, continuous stream of mortality attendant on it," and admit (even in the '70s) that "there is great room for improvement" (276-79). Young men in the prime of life could be carried away as well, especially when the great epidemics swept through the overcrowded and insanitary areas of the industrial cities. Consequently, Laurence Stone estimates, "half of all children would have lost one parent before completing adolescence" (313). Many a young brood was left without any support at all.

street children

Streetchildren. [Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.]

Orphaned children far outnumbered the facilities available for them. The luckiest were taken in by other branches of their family, with various degrees of willingness. Others were deposited in orphanages. But these were overflowing; even their waiting lists were full. As Allan Woodcourt finds in Bleak House, it was easier to dispose of an ownerless dog than an orphaned child (Ch. 47). Coram's Foundling Hospital in London, for example, was forced to turn away as many five out of every six destitute children brought to its doorstep during this period (McClure 251). What remained for many was the hated workhouse, where 13,265 orphans and deserted children were recorded in the 1861 Census (Peters 7) — or the harsh freedom of the streets, for which figures can only be guessed at. Here, the strongest managed to survive by whatever means they could, contributing to the race of

half-savage children, street arabs, street urchins, mudlarks, and guttersnipes — filthy, ragged, lying, cursing, and hungry, roaming singly or in packs like young wolves, snatching stealing, stone-throwing, destructive, brutish, and cruel when not merely hopeless and lost. [Roe 27]

Swelling the numbers of the truly orphaned were not only the deserted or neglected, but also the abused, the rebels and the runaways — all, in one sense or another, living rough. Such children could be and often were dangerous, especially when exploited by hardened criminals; they were a threat to law and order, their wretched lives a blot on the scutcheon of the times.

Highly emotive figures are useful in literature, and, proportionately, there are even more orphans on the pages of Victorian fiction than there were on the streets. Focusing on a young character's lack of parents could pull in the reader's sympathy at once. An outstanding example of this in children's literature is when Tom, the chimney sweep in Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies (1863), stands wistfully in front of a picture in Harthover House of "a man in long garments, with little children and their mothers around him, who was laying his hands upon the children's heads" (Ch.1; emphasis added). Tom likes the picture, but he cannot "read" it: no wonder, for when Sir John tries to locate his parents later on, we are told that he "might have looked till Doomsday, for the one was dead, and the other was in Botany Bay" (Ch. 2). Kingsley speaks to the child reader's imagination through Tom's fantastic underwater adventures; but this reference at the beginning, to Jesus blessing the children brought to him by their mothers, is clearly for adults. Children should be spiritually nurtured, he reminds them, not cruelly exploited. The message got through. The story of the dirty little sweep thirsting for redemption pricked the general conscience so painfully that the Chimney Sweepers' Regulation Act went through within the year — although the three Chimney Sweeps' Bills of the previous decade had all been defeated.

For less crusading authors, too, orphans or mysterious foundlings were useful, indeed staple, figures. The didactic element is still there, but it is addressed to the children themselves. In Juliana Horatia Ewing's Bildungsroman Jan of the Windmill: A Story of the Plains (1876), for instance, Jan is an unwanted infant fostered by a miller and his wife, to whom the "frail fretful little creature" (Ch. 3) becomes totally devoted: "Jan knew now that he was only an adopted son of the windmill, though he stoutly ignored the fact, being very fond of his foster-parents" (Ch. 26). This exemplary outcast wins admiration as well as sympathy by defying his unpropitious beginnings: he proves to be a gifted artist; and, although his parentage is discovered and well worth discovering, he gives up his inheritance to continue making his own name in his own way.

Ewing was popular with both girls and boys, but adventure stories specifically targeted at boys also use the stock figure of the resilient, resourceful orphan to encourage self-improvement. G. A. Henty, who took to prefacing his books "Dear Lads," features an older orphan in Held Fast for England: A Tale of the Seige of Gibraltar (1779-83): fourteen-year-old Bob Repton is sent out to to the Rock to learn Spanish because his "crusty old uncle" fears he is getting into too many scrapes at school, but finds him still too young to help him in the wine trade. Fulfilling his promise as an "exceptionally plucky" schoolboy (Ch. 1) by his activities as a volunteer, Bob ends up winning both the hand of the Major's daughter and his uncle's approval. (As well as being a full-blown Imperialist, Henty seems to have been an advocate of early marriage.) Young readers would have learnt some history from this, and were also expected to take away the message that their youthful energy should be channelled into the service of their country. All the orphans who do so well on the page have a powerful twin message to give, about developing self-reliance, and living good Christian lives of service to the community and the country.

However, exhortation was not always enough. Mrs Sherwood's influence did dwindle through the period, but even the most sympathetic children's writers of the later decades felt that a firm hand was needed sometimes. In Chapter 31 of Jan of the Windmill, Ewing places young Jan in London, where he is forced by a character nicknamed the Cheap Jack to become a pavement artist. Naturally, Jan encounters many other street children, youngsters of eight to ten who are "drunkards, sweaters [child-workers for the sweatshops? Or, considering the context, a mistake for "swearers"?], thieves, gamblers, liars, vicious," and who try unsuccessfully to corrupt him. Ewing pushes clumsily into the narrative here in her own voice:

Many people are sorry to believe that there are a great many wicked and depraved grown-up people in all large towns, whose habits of vice are so firm, and whose moral natures are so loose, that reformation is practically almost [should this be "always"?] hopeless. But much fewer people realize the fact that thousands of little children are actively, hideously vicious and degraded. And yet it is better that this should be remembered than that, since, though it is more painful, it is more hopeful. It is hard to reform vicious children, but it is easier than to reform vicious men and women. [Ch. 31]

Easier, no doubt, but "vicious children" like those running wild on the streets of London would need more than a good example or two to set them right.

Flora Shaw has long been admired for portraying children both sympathetically and realistically, yet her Castle Blair: A Story of Youthful Days (1878), shows that in certain circumstances sledgehammer tactics could still be coutenanced. Murtagh and his sister Winnie are not street children, but they do go "rampaging like wild animals all about everywhere" (Ch. 3) after being sent over to Ireland from India with their siblings, and given too much leeway by their reclusive uncle there: "it is almost the same as though they had neither father nor mother, poor little things," says their older cousin Adrienne (Ch. 3). Murtagh, a rebellious and impulsive boy with a "wild little heart" (Ch. 24), is completely crushed in the end, murmuring his repentance while still recovering from an ill-conceived and ill-fated campaign against the estate-manager, Mr Plunkett. This is not at all an Evanglical tale: Adrienne clearly speaks for the author when airing her liberal views on child-rearing, as does Winnie herself when she cries, "Oh, Myrrh, isn't it dreadful being children?" (Ch. 23). Ruskin, who was Shaw's mentor and had encouraged her to write the book (see Helly and Callaway), particularly liked the spirited Winnie. But even Shaw feels that such children need to be brought into line, if they are not to be a danger to themselves and others.

The truly orphaned (as against the abandoned and so on) were felt to offer unique opportunities for moral "shaping" in the workhouse; with proper upbringing, it was argued, such children could turn out well (Peters 8-9). But on the whole it was hard for the Victorians to feel positive about youngsters who were not part of a caring family. As Laura Peters points out, they easily associated such children with other unsettling anti-social elements like gypsies and foreigners (consider the term "street arab," for example), and the slurs of illegitimacy and mixed-raced parentage (143). This brings to mind Edmund Gosse's exclamation, when recalling his dying mother's exhortations: "what a weight, intolerable as the burden of Atlas, to lay on the shoulders of a little fragile child!" (66). Yet this very weight of meaning added to the usefulness of unparented young characters in children's fiction. Guiding them safely into the social fold was a brilliant way to reaffirm Christian, family and national values. So instead of parcelling them off to reformatories and the colonies, as so often happened in real life, children's writers often put orphans and their like centre-stage. There, they might be suffused with sentiment, like Kingsley's Tom; held up as models, like Ewing's Jan or Henty's Bob; or shown to be in need of very firm handling, like Shaw's Murtagh. But from the point of view of the genre itself, it hardly mattered. Simply by putting the spotlight on their struggles, these writers were increasing the inwardness with which child characters were now being presented (see next section).


Ewing, Julian Horatia. Jan of the Windmill: A Story of the Plains. Available at Project Gutenberg.

Farr, William. Vital Statistics: A Memorial Volume of Selections from the Reports and Writings of William Farr. Ed. Noel A. Humphreys. London: Offices of the Sanitary Institute, 1885.

Gosse, Edmund. Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments. London: Heinemann, 1928.

Helly, Dorothy O. and Helen Callaway. "Lugard [née Shaw], Dame Flora Louise, Lady Lugard (1852-1929)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Viewed 15 August 2007.

Henty, G.A. Held Fast for England: A Tale of the Seige of Gibraltar, 1779-83. Available at Project Gutenberg.

McClure, Ruth. Coram's Children: The London Foundling Hospital in the Eighteenth Century. New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1981. (See the Epilogue, 249ff., for its later history.)

Peters, Laura. Orphan Texts: Victorian Orphans, Culture and Empire. Manchester and New York: Manchester Univ. Press, 2000. N.B. Peters makes a useful distinction between orphans and other children in similar circumstances,

Roe, F. Gordon. The Victorian Child. London: Phoenix House, 1959.

Shaw, Flora. Castle Blair: A Story of Youthful Days. Masterworks of Children's Literature, Part 2, Vol.5. 1837-1900. The Victorian Age. Ed. Robert Lee Wolff. New York: Stonehill and Chelsea House, 1985.

Stone, Laurence. The Past and the Present Revisited. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987.

Last modified 22 August 2007