The issue of
childhood mortality is written into the works of
Gaskell and Dickens with alarming regularity. In Mary
Barton, Alice tells Mary and Margaret
that before Will was orphaned, his family had
buried his six siblings. There is also the death
of the Wilson twins, as well as Tom Barton's early
death --an event which inspires his father John to
fight for labor rights because he's certain his
son would have survived if he'd had better food.
In Oliver Twist, Dick's
early death is typical of workhouse children who
never recover from years of chronic malnutrition.
And in Dombey and Son,
Paul demonstrates that wealth does not guarantee
longevity, as we watch him steadily weakened by
some mysterious illness. Evidence is everywhere
that Gaskell, Dickens, and many of their
contemporaries, used fiction to chronicle a sad
fact of l9th century life: Many children didn't
live to become adults.
the Newell Historical Burial ground in Attleboro,
the stone marking the graves of the Stanley family
Mary and Seneca
lived long lives for the times, but William, as
well as Joseph and Lydia, who might have been
twins, were either stillborn or died before their
first birthdays. If there were any other children
who survived childhood, they were probably
daughters who were buried in their husbands'
A typical grave
from the mid-19th century is a husband's stone
flanked by two or even three wives each but the
last having died in her 20s or 30s. Certainly many
of these women died in childbirth, because their
death dates match the birth dates on the
might be named after the father. In one family
plot with eight children, three were named John
because only the third one survived the first
year. At a time when the death of a toddler was as
normal as this practice was quite common in both
America and England.
While all of
Dombey's money couldn't save his son from dying,
little Paul's diet, lifestyle, and medical
attention gave him every advantage available. The
relationship between poverty and childhood
mortality is unmistakable. In Boston's Irish
Catholic slums, Lemuel Shattuck found that between
1841 and 1845, 61% of the population died before
the age of five. (Woodham-Smith, p. 252) Poor
English children didn't fare any particularly in
the manufacturing towns of London, Sheffield,
Leocester, Manchester, and Liverpool. Statistics
from the Sheffield General Infirmary' between 1837
and 1842 reveal that of 11,944 deaths, half were
children under age five:
|2 to 4:
also attempted to determine the average age at
death for different classes in 1842.
contributed to high mortality rates among poor
children, including vitamin-deficient diets and a
complete lack of sanitation. These conditions were
then worsened by overcrowded living conditions,
and by some of the most unhealthy working
environments imaginable. (See Deb Taft's paper on housing).
greatly affected the health of the poor, and
unusual choices were sometimes made in its
distribution. In many areas of Ireland and Sweden,
for example, food was served to boys and men first
under a cultural norm called the "peasant
feeding rule." This practice took place in
poor rural and urban areas, and was based
on the belief that females either needed or
deserved less food.
some of the highest rates of childhood mortality
in the mid-19th century followed the 1845 Irish
potato blight. Families with children needed more
money to emigrate than single individuals,
resulting in a disproportionate number of children
who starved to death. By 1847, when the full
effects of the famine were being realized,
children in rural Irish areas were described as
skeletons, with sagging, wrinkled, flesh on their
arms and skin taut on their empty, distended
stomachs. Prolonged starvation even caused the
hair on their heads to fall out in patches, while
long, downy hairs grew on the forehead and
temples. R.D.Webb of the Society of Friends was
one of many who remarked that these starving Irish
children looked like "monkeys." (How
children who didn't starve often suffered
physically as a result of poor nutrition. Many
lived on bread and tea, and the little meat which
supplemented this diet was of poor quality and
often prepared in the one contaminated pan the
family owned. Such unbalanced diets were linked to
the increased incidence of infectious disease in
poor neighborhoods. Nutritional deficiencies stunt
the production of normal antibodies, which raise
the body's resistance and promote healing. And
often, a vicious cycle would occur when infectious
disease would set in, because it often reduced the
appetite and caused an intolerance for food. These
problems were then compounded by the poor physical
conditions of the overcrowded slums where they
In the middle of
the l9th century, medical experts and health
officials were just beginning to connect germs
with the spread of disease. Some of the wealthier
sections of London had been provided with paved
roads and a sewer system as early as the 18th
century, but the neglected, muddy slums of the
East End of London and the waterfront were ideal
breeding grounds for bacteria. In some areas,
polluted rivers which held refuse also supplied
the residents' drinking water. E.P.Thompson noted
that, "The industrial town-dweller often
could not escape the stench of industrial refuse
and of open sewers, and his children played among
the garbage and privy middens." It's easy to
understand how contagious diseases like measles,
scarlet fever, and small pox, quickly became
epidemic. Cholera, dysentery and other intestinal
disorders were also easily transmitted by
contaminated food and water, and these ailments
were almost always fatal for their youngest
Since so many
poor lived in crowded basement apartments, they
frequently experienced flooding due to the lack of
planned drainage, and for the thousands who lived
near the Thames River or the Atlantic Ocean, there
was no escape from the moldy dampness. In 1849,
Dr. Henry Clark described Half-Moon Place in
Boston (behind Broad Street on the side of Fort
One cellar was
reported by the police to be occupied nightly as
a sleeping-apartment for 39 persons. In another,
the tide had risen so high that it was necessary
to approach the bedside of a patient by means of
a plank which was laid from one stool to
another; while the dead body of an infant was
actually sailing about the room in its coffin.
(Ware p. 13)
children were exposed to hazardous conditions in
the factories, although by the middle of the l9th
century, just breathing the air could be
dangerous, depending on where one lived. The
tuberculosis rates in Manchester, Leeds,
Liverpool, and Sheffield were twice as high for
women and five times higher for men, compared to
those who didn't reside in factory towns. This is
partly due to the excessive burning of pure coal,
to power the factories and heat the homes. In
1829, the consumption of coal in England and Wales
was 3.5 million tons for manufacturing and 5.5
million tons for household use, and this was still
just the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
Tuberculosis was contagious, and further
aggravated by the poor respiratory health common
to the men, women and children who sometimes spent
14 hours a day in factories. And while T.B. was
more fatal to young adults than children, the
harbored bacillus in a child would usually cause a
far more severe reaction later in life. Poor air
quality also increased the incidence of childhood
The lack of
ventilation in the factories meant that workers
constantly breathed air poisoned with germs and
chemicals. The report titled "Hygiene in
Massachusetts," 'describes the winter
environment of Lowell's Merrimac Mill in 1849.
months when the windows are closed and generally
double, each room has fifty solar lamps burning
morning and evening, which assist not only in
impuring the confined air, but also in raising
the temperature frequently to ninety degrees
before closing work at night. In all kinds of
weather the operatives, with hastily adjusted
dress, emerge from this atmosphere, to their
boarding-places, partake of a plain but
substantial dinner, and return to resume their
labor in the space of forty-five minutes. (Ware
For months, the
only ventilation in this textile mill came from
the opening of doors as workers came and went, and
these people breathed the same, stale,
fiber-filled air day after day. Many of those
trapped inside these factories were children.
The concept of
childhood is a relatively new one, and there were
few laws protecting them from working alongside
their parents in the mills. Before the Factory
Acts of 1847 which stipulated that children under
the age of nine could not work in the textile
mills, children as young as four were employed to
perform a simple task, and often, had even spent
most of their unemployed infancies in the
deafening, dirty factories. E.P. Thompson notes:
for fear of losing their employment, returned to
the mill three weeks or less after the birth:
still, in some Lancashire and West Riding towns,
infants were carried in the 1840s to the mills
to be suckled in the meal-break. Girl-mothers,
who had perhaps worked in the mill from the age
of eight or nine, had no domestic training:
medical ignorance was appalling: the parents
were a prey to fatalistic superstitions (which
the churches sometimes encouraged): opiates,
notably laudanum, were used to make the crying
baby quiet. Infants and toddlers were left in
the care of relatives, old baby-farming crones,
or children too small to find work at the mill.
Some were given dirty rag-dummies to suck, in
which is tied a piece of bread soaked in milk
and water, and toddlers of two and three could
be seen running about with these rags in their
mouths, in the neighborhood of factories.
Some of these
toddlers were soon employed by the factories;
there is even a report of a 20-month-old baby
drawing lace in a factory. (Ginswick, p. 157) In
Derby, England, silk twist boys were hired to run
silk thread to be spun between hooks, and they
usually ran at the rate of 5 or 6 m.p.h., covering
more than 20 miles per day. In textile mills,
girls as young as 5 or 6 would mend imperfections
in manufactured lace, and black lace was
particularly hard on the eyes. When combined with
poor lighting, these conditions resulted in
near-sightedness or even blindness. In Mary
Barton, Margaret Legh demonstrates
this particular occupational hazard when she loses
her sight sewing mourning clothes. Luckily for
Margaret, she is also a talented singer, so she
can continue to support herself and her father,
but one can only imagine the dismal fate for young
blind women who couldn't even perform slopwork.
needed everyone to contribute support, and while
the factory was known to be hazardous to health,
these dangers paled beside more immediate needs as
hunger. In Mary Barton,
for example, Mrs. Davenport is angry about the new
child labor laws. She wants to lie about her son
Ben's age to the factory manager, because if he
doesn't work he'll starve. (p. 129)
But the worst
exploitation of children was as coal mine laborers
and chimney sweeps. Because they were able to fit
into small spaces, girls and boys were sent into
the coal pits as "trappers." Naked to
the waist to slide through the tunnels easily,
they'd squat for 12 hours, often in complete
darkness, ready to close the doors behind coal
putters. When the upper classes learned of this,
some were appalled --not so much because children
were performing this dangerous work, but because
of the "unchristian" manner of dress in
a coed working environment.
As a chimney
sweep, a child six, seven, but sometimes as young
as four, was sold to a master sweep by the parent
or whoever happened to have custody of the child
at the moment. (In Oliver Twist,
Mr. Bumble tried to sell Oliver to Mr. Limbkin for
this purpose, but a sympathetic magistrate refused
to allow the arrangement--p. 42-5). Chimney
sweeps, like many trades, apprenticed for 7 years,
but unlike other careers, most sweeps had no
marketable skills at the end of their training
because they grew too big to fit in the 9" or
even 7" chimneys. They usually worked naked,
both to save room and to allow them to slide' more
easily, and knees and elbows were scraped and
bleeding until they eventually callused. Children
afraid to go up into the dark holes were coaxed
with fire, slaps, pole prods or needle pricks on
the soles of their feet. At the end of the day,
the workbag of soot doubled as a soft bed to sleep
suffered twisted spines and kneecaps, deformed
ankles, eye inflammations and respiratory
illnesses, and were only allowed to bathe a few
times a year. An ailment known as "chimney
sweep's cancer" commonly appeared on the
scrotum from the constant irritation of the soot
on their naked bodies. Many sweeps were maimed or
killed after falling or being badly burned, while
others suffocated when they became trapped in the
curves of the chimneys. In 1847, the Factory Acts
were passed to offer (minimum) protection to women
and children in the mills, but using children as
sweeps was not outlawed until 1870.
indirectly caused many childhood deaths in the
tenement slums, but children living on the streets
with their single mothers were even less apt to
survive into adulthood. In Voices of
the Poor, Henry Mayhew interviewed
many women who worked as prostitutes, often after
being widowed or abandoned by their husbands and
discovering they could not support their children
on slop workers' wages. One woman, who'd been
widowed for 7 years, told Mayhew a story which was
unfortunately, quite typical of women living on
...I have no
children alive. I have buried three. I had two
children alive when my husband died. The
youngest was five and the other was seven...
After his death I was penniless, with two young
children. The only means I had of keeping myself
and little ones was by the slop work; My eldest
boy died of scarlatina. My second boy has only
been dead five months. He died of the
whooping-cough. I loved him as I did my life;
but I was glad he was took from me, for I know
he's better now than I could have done for him.
He could but have been brought up in the worst
kind of poverty by me, and God only knows what
might have become of him if he had lived."
workhouse charity was considered an even worse
alternative than prostitution for many of these
women: not only would they be separated from their
children, but many believed these institutions
were more lethal than the streets. One woman who
was homeless with one child while pregnant with
another, told Mayhew,
without a home. I worked till I was within two
months of my confinement, and then I walked the
streets for six weeks, with my child in my arms.
At last I went into Wapping Union: my child was
taken from me, and there (bursting into tears)
he was murdered. I mean he was torn from me, and
when I next saw him he as a mere shadow. I took
my discharge, and took him out, dying as he was.
I took one in my arms, and my boy, dying as he
was, and we wandered the streets for two or
three days and nights. I then went back to the
house. The matron said she would not take my
child from me. She said he was dying, and he
should die beside me. He died eleven days after
we went in.
I took my
discharge again. I tried again to get a living,
but I found it impossible, for I had no home, no
friends, no means to get work. I then went in
again, and the Lord took away my second
In Oliver Twist,
Dickens often presents Mr. Bumble making jokes
about feeding the workhouse children as little as
possible. But after reading several other Mayhew
interviews which tell of mothers losing children
to the workhouse, it's obvious that Mr. Bumble
wasn't kidding at all.
Charles, Dombey and Son,
New York, Penguin Books, first published in 1848.
Charles, Oliver Twist, New
York, Penguin Books, first published in 1838.
Social Theories of Fertility and the
Malthusian Debate, London, Oxford
University Press, 1959.
Elizabeth, Mary Barton,
New York, Penguin Books, first published in 1848.
Ed. Labour and the Poor in England and
Wales, (1849-1851), London, Frank
Cass & Co., (originally published in the Morning
Chronicle, 1849-1851), 1971.
A. Sex-Specific Mortality and the
Economic Value of Children in Nineteenth Century
Massachusetts, New York, Garland
Publishing Inc., 1989.
James, The Moral and Physical Condition
of the Working-Classes, 2nd ed.
Mayhew, Henry, Voices
of the Poor, London, Frank Cass &
Co., (originally published in the Morning
Chronicle 1849-1850), 1971.
K., Blake: A Collection of Critical
Haines, Fatal Years,
Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1991.
Thompson, E.P., The
Making of the English Working Class.
Ware, Norman. The
Industrial Worker 1840-1860, Boston,
Houghton Mifflin Company, 1924.
Yasuba, Yasukichi. Birth Rates of the White
Population in the United States, 1800-1860: An
Economic Study, Baltimore, John
Hopkins Press, 1962.
Yelling, J.A. Slums
and Slum Clearance in Victorian London,
London, Allen & Unwin, 1986.
When A Child Dies
All heaven was in
The day that young man died,
When He closed His eyes, they said,
Ten thousand angels cried.
The angels shed their many tears,
Because He was God's Son,
But there is a special sadness,
When God takes the very young.
At times like that, I question God ,
Why let a child die?
I cannot understand it,
And I need to ask Him why
I, too, have heard the angels cry,
I've heard them cry first hand,
For I, too, gave up a child,
And I've tried hard to understand.
Yes, I received God's comfort,
Though I'm grateful, I want more,
I want reasons; I want meaning,
I am a parent who's heart-sore.
God can give, and God can take,
I am well aware of this,
But, why my baby - why my child?
Why did God put him on His list?
Did I love my child too much?
Was he too good for this old earth?
Had his purpose here been filled?
Was that why he was taken first?
I awake each day with questions,
I fall asleep at night, the same,
So many times I ask God why,
I'm both saddened and ashamed
But then, in reflective moments,
When my prayers are most intense,
One word keeps going through my mind,
Patience - patience - patience.
Maybe now is not the time,
To explain this great heartache,
Even if I knew God's reasons,
What difference would it make?
Can't I just be grateful,
For any time we had?
Accept God's action without question?
Why is that so very bad?
What's my hurry - why my pressure?
Is my faith not strong enough?
God will explain it when He's ready,
Surely I can trust that much.
God understands my broken heart,
He, too, gave up a Son,
He knows the pain of one lost child,
He weeps with me, and we are one.
Just as I talk to God each day,
I talk to my precious child,
I blow him kisses, and I say,
"See you, honey, in a while."
Author, Virginia Ellis,
2000, used with permission)