Death & Childhood in Victorian England

CD2I remember many childhood days spent propped up on my grandmother’s couch with a tower of pillows. I’d watch the day peacefully unfold from her picture window. One month, it was bronchitis. The next, it was pneumonia. My mother—then a nursing student—rushed me in and out of doctors’ offices and emergency rooms, where I was poked, prodded and eventually sent home with a bag full of medications.

Principals were notified; classes were missed. Friends brought armfuls of heavy books home each day after school with daily assignments. I’d hear their voices in the other room but never see their faces. Contagion was always a risk.

This was the life of a sick child.

At the time, I felt incredibly sorry for myself. Why couldn’t I enjoy good health like the rest of my girlfriends? Why did I have to stay indoors day after day, and swallow pills that made me nauseated and dizzy?

Years on, however, I began to realise that I was actually very lucky.  This wasn’t just the life of a sick child. This was the life of a sick child in the 1980s.

Today, we often associate death with old age. But we don’t have to go back far in history to find a time when childhood was both dangerous and deadly.

CD3Victorian children were at risk of dying from a lot of diseases that we’ve eradicated or can control in the 21st century, like smallpox, measles, whooping cough, diphtheria, and dysentery (to name just a few). Death was a common visitor to Victorian households; and the younger one was, the more vulnerable he or she would be.

In 1856, Archibald Tait—the future Archbishop of Canterbury—lost five children in just as many weeks to scarlet fever. [1] When the fever wasn’t fatal, it nearly always weakened the child who often died months or even years later from complications.  Indeed, this is the fate of Beth in Louisa May Alcott’s famous book, Little Women (1868/9).

Tuberculosis was also a common killer in the 19th century. On 26 April 1870, Louisa Baldwin (mother of the future prime minister, Stanley Baldwin) wrote in her diary:

I paid a sad call at the Worths where 2 children seem to be at the point of dying, the poor terrible little baby has constant fits & little Madge two years old, who has been ill 12 days with congestion of the lungs. This is the second time I’ve seen them in this illness…we went into next door where we saw poor little Miss Lee evidently very near the end, but sweet and affectionate as ever. [2]

_8No one was immune. The great scientist, Charles Darwin, lost his 10-year-old daughter, Annie [left], to tuberculosis in 1851. In his personal memoir, the grief-stricken father wrote: ‘We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age…Oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still & and shall ever love her dear joyous face.’ [3] By the mid-19th century, tuberculosis accounted for as many as 60,000 children’s deaths per year. [4]

Literature from the period reflects the prevalence of children’s deaths in Victorian England. The dying child makes a frequent appearance in 19th-century novels. In Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), the character of Little Nell dies at the end of the story, much to the dismay of many readers. When describing the scene to his illustrator, George Cattermole, the novelist wrote:

The child lying dead in the little sleeping room, which is behind the open screen. It is winter-time, so there are no flowers; but upon her breast and pillow, and about her bed, there may be strips of holly and berries, and such free green things. Window overgrown with ivy. The little boy who had that talk with her about angels may be by the bedside, if you like it so; but I think it will be quieter and more peaceful if she is alone. I want it to express the most beautiful repose and tranquility, and to have something of a happy look, if death can…I am breaking my heart over this story, and cannot bear to finish it. [5]

CD4Though children died with frequent regularity during the Victorian period, a child’s death was still seen as particularly tragic. Even Dickens could not help but mourn the passing of his young, fictitious character [depicted by Cattermole, right].

As a historian, people often ask me if I would have liked to have lived in the past. My answer is always a resounding ‘NO!’ When you consider that only 40 per cent of children born in the 1850s reached their 60th birthday—and less than 10 per cent reached their 80th—I feel very lucky indeed to have been born in 1982.

My life expectancy is 78.

 

1. D. P. Helm ‘”A Sense of Mercies”: End of Life Care in the Victorian Home’ (Masters Thesis, University of Worcester, 2012), p. 15.
2. Diary of Louisa Baldwin 1870, 26th April 1870. Baldwin papers. 705:775/8229/7 (ii), Worcestershire Record Office. Originally quoted in Helm.
3. The original manuscript is in the Darwin Archive of Cambridge University Library (DAR 210.13). You can find the entire transcript online here.
4. J. Lane, A Social History of Medicine: Health, Healing and Disease in England 1750‐1950 (London, 2001), p.142.
5. Letter from Dickens to Cattermole.

5 comments on “Death & Childhood in Victorian England

  1. Both of John Hancock’s children died. I think his daughter of an illness and his son from a head injury he sustained while ice skating. Always makes me wonder how we accomplished all that he did with that much sorrow hanging over him. (For non-Americans, Hancock is the guy with the big signature on the American Declaration of Independence.)

  2. […] her lying in her glass coffin. But for me, Rosalia is an unsettling sight. She is a reminder of the dangers of childhood in a pre-penicillin era, and represents her family’s unwillingness to let go of her even in […]

  3. vadocdoc says:

    You’re not kidding re: luck to have been born in the 20th century. When I was in London last August for your Soho soiree, I went to Guy’s Hospital and saw the display of Thomas Hodgkin’s original specimens from which he eventually described the disease in 1832 that bears his name – and with which I was diagnosed myself in 1985. Had I fallen ill anytime before the 1960s, it would have been fatal. Good timing.

  4. jeanjames says:

    It must have been brutal for parents to lose so many children to disease. It’s interesting how childhood disease was reflected in literature’s past. I wonder, what, if any, childhood illnesses are written about in today’s literature?

  5. I was lucky, as a child of the 1960’s, to not only survive rheumatic fever but to be left without a heart murmur. All down to antibiotics, which were in those days not given out like sweeties and therefore had a better chance of wreaking miracles. Modern life too means washing machines and hot water on tap, which means we can avoid things like typhus, carried on body lice, and the scourge of close living families with a dozen to a room and no proper washing facilities. The Victorians started improvements to health in the populace after ‘the great stink’ led to Joe Bazalgette’s great drains, and it’s why I think that water and sewage should never, never never have been privatised because as they cut corners for greater profits for shareholders, I can’t help wondering if all those diseases like cholera might make a reappearance… especially in a population where the children of the poorest are increasingly badly nourished and in need of food parcels.

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