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The work of reformists such as Barnardo and Shaftesbury helped to bridge the poverty gap in Victorian times
Being poor during the Victorian era meant a daily struggle to survive; finding food to eat, fuel for fires and clothes to keep warm were all extremely difficult tasks. Inevitably, the children of poor people suffered worst of all. There was no social security system to provide income to the unemployed or unemployable, elderly or disabled. Children – often from as young as three years old – were obliged to earn their keep. Workhouses, designed specifically to discourage admissions by their harshness and institutional inhumanity, were a last resort. Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist was written in part to protest about workhouse conditions for children and the use of children in organised street crime. The 1850s to 1880s marked a major period of social reform based on an awakening social conscience. Works such as Water Babies by Charles Kingsley and Mayhew’s London by Henry Mayhew also describe and expose the degree of abuse, neglect and suffering endured by poor children. (Extracts of classic Victorian tales such as these could be used to support the Literacy Hour.)
Children on the streets
One of the active campaigners and reformers in this movement was Dr Thomas Barnardo (1845-1905). Born in Dublin, he intended to become a Protestant Medical Missionary in China but, while studying for his medical degree in London, he became aware of the many homeless children in the city. During his study, he became a superintendent of a ‘ragged school’ in the East End at a juvenile mission he had founded. His first ‘Dr Barnardo Home’ was opened for destitute boys in 1870. The first home for girls came in 1876. Children in the homes were given a quality education, caring home and medical attention. His slogans included ‘No destitute child ever refused admission’ and ‘The ever-open door’. During his lifetime Dr Barnado was responsible for helping around 60,000 children, through more than 90 homes.
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Published 3 October 2007
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