What was it like in Oliver Twist's day?

Were the Victorians as severe on children as we believe? What did they think was in a child's brain? And what happened if they broke laws?
20 October 2014

Interview with 

Dr Hannah Newton, Cambridge University


The Victorians had a firm belief in punishing criminals, and were particular shocked by Victorian Valentine's Day Cardchildren who crossed the line of the law. You may be familiar with Charles Dicken's Victorian classic novel, where the young Oliver Twist, picks a pocket or two with Fagin's London based gang.

When Dickins wrote this book, children as young as 10 were being sent to prison.

Naked Scientist Amelia Perry caught up with Dr Hannah Newton, from Cambridge University to explore how children were treated back in the day...

Hannah N. -   Obviously, there are cases of children being treated badly in any period, but to be honest, I think really, this is quite a big myth in the history of childhood.  When you look back at parent's diaries and letters and personal documents from the early modern period and before, the overwhelming picture is kindness to children and concern about them and their upbringing.  Part of the issue is that we have a slightly different conception of childhood to how people in the past understood it.  And for us, the idea of a child starting work at a young age seems to us incompatible with a concept of childhood.  But in the early modern periods, it was actually a necessity for financial survival that children contributed to the family income.  It didn't mean they didn't see their children as children and children were still thought to be different from adults and things that distinguish them where their love play, the curiosity, their need for affection and love.

Amelia -   I know lots of parenting manuals exist.  My mum has got about 20 on her shelf and it seems almost there are two different strands of parenting.  One, there's this strict authoritarian manner or there's the more kind of nurturing laid back approach.  Do you think those kind of approaches existed that many years ago?

Hannah N. -   Yes, I think they did actually.  There's a lot of literature produced in the 17th century about how to be a good parent and they thought it was a very important subject.  They tend to take a kind of moderate view.  They believe that children should be nurtured and loved, and that the primary duty of parents is to love and care for their children, but they also have very high expectations of children's behaviour and they think that children should be obedient.  I think in terms of different strands of parenting, this is detectable because you can see parents writing in their letters and their diaries about parenting.  Mothers occasionally, I think there's a gender element, mothers are often accused of being rather too fond of their children and spoiling them.  But there's equally great concern about being overly strict with children.  Bringing a child up in fear is thought to be not necessarily very good for the child's own development.  So, in the end really, it's about moderation.  They think love and affection, but also, discipline and knowing their boundaries.

Amelia -   So, how did people view children's brains back then?  What do they think about them?

Hannah N. -   The main overriding characteristics of children was their moisture.  They thought that when you are born, you have absolutely masses of moisture which filled up and saturated your body and your brain.  It was this moisture which accounted for children's tendencies to dripple and cry and the soft texture of their skin.  I suppose, they looked at old people and they thought that old people are rather dry and wrinkly, and ageing was therefore seen as a cooling and drying process.  So, you're warm with lots of heat and moisture, and you progressively dried out and cool down, until eventually, you died and that was the cause of natural death.  This moisture had a massive impact on children's brains.  It was thought to - one author wrote that children's brains are drowned and drunk with moisture and humours.  This was why children weren't very rational and it also accounted for their emotional tendencies.  Children cry very easily and get very happy and very sad very quickly.  That emotional fluctuation was put down to the fact that the rational soul, the part of the soul responsible for reason was slightly incapacitated by all these liquid.  And for this reason, children's brains are thought to be like wax.  They were very impressionable which made them peculiarly capable of learning and also made them - the time in their life really when their personality was thought to be formed.  This was really why parents needed to show affection to their children and teach them all the right manners and morals that they would need for the rest of their life.  The brain was most impressionable for all infants.  There's good and bad little children, babies who were thought to have very poor memories because their brains are so wet and so drenched that they couldn't really retain any impressions.  But as a child got to the age of about 7, it dried out slightly and then suddenly became the perfect consistency for learning which is why children start to school at 7.  The other issue is that I suppose, the treatment of a child, how they were brought up was thought to be particularly important in that age group because they would remember how they have been treated.

Amelia -   So, are there any records of brutality against children occurring in these early periods?

Hannah N. -   Yes, there is.  The old Bailey records contain evidence of witness statements for crimes.  They include cruelty to children.  There was some allowance for correcting children.  They called it moderate correction which meant beating a child but it wasn't supposed to be violent.  I think the word 'beat' for us comes at images of really violent aggressive physical assault.  But in the early mum period, it was perhaps more like how we might understand slapping or smacking a child.  Having said that, they did use canes and they did use birch twigs in the early modern periods and I think there was considerable potential for this to turn into abuse.  Having said that, it wasn't really advisable and it was prosecuted quite severely in the courts.  The death of a child caused by beating was a heinous crime and was punishable by death for the perpetrator.

Hannah -   Hannah Newton from Cambridge University. 


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