Child Health and Wellbeing within the Slums – Chloe Hearn

The Victorian period was one of great reform, especially in regards to children. With acts such as the Education (Provision of Meals) Act of 1906 and the Children’s Act 1909, which placed penalties on shops allowing children to purchase alcohol and cigarettes, it is evident that the government saw there was a need for reform to improve the lives of children within the slums. In addition to this growing awareness of need for reform due to the works of social reformists such as Booth and Rowntree, investigative journalists such as Henry Mayhew and socialist groups such as the Fabian Society.

Evidently some reforms were brought into place due to growing pressure from new socialist groups such as the Fabian Society who produced pamphlets detailing the extent of child malnutrition and its significance.[1] Not only did the Fabian Society highlight the issue of child malnutrition and the effect this had on child health and wellbeing but also identified poverty and overwork as a key cause.[2] The formation of such groups in itself demonstrates that there were new movements calling for equality and social reform during the period, producing information and putting pressure on the government. This subsequently increased concern for the health of children living in poverty. Pamphlets such as Hubert Bland’s After Bread, Education (Fabian Society, 1905) were printed in large numbers and information and ideas, on subjects such as the health and wellbeing of children in slums, was more readily available. This pamphlet also demonstrates the scale of the issue of child malnutrition within the slums as people were beginning to see the need to write about such problems and inform others of the issues faced by those in the slums. This political literature also drew on enduring tropes of childhood malnutrition that had been developed in literature in the nineteenth century, for instance in the work of Dickens, as can be seen in this 1890 frontispiece of Nicholas Nickelby.

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Claude Shepperson, frontispiece from Nicholas Nickeby by Charles Dickens, c. 1890 (Private collection/Ken Welsh/Bridgeman Images)

Such reforms were clearly also influenced by evidence of the high infant mortality rates in many slums. Booth’s 1889 Descriptive Map clearly demonstrated deprived areas within London. Booth goes on further to report that within London infant mortality rates in such areas had risen ‘from 180 to 193, and then going on to 210, 222 and 223’ deaths per 1,000 children under the age of 1 as a direct result of the spread of disease due to overcrowding within the slums.[3]

This infant mortality rate was extremely high with nearly 23% of children dying before their first birthday.

Statistics such as this could not be disputed and showed the harsh realities many living in slums had to face. It also cannot be argued that a child’s death from disease or malnutrition could not be prevented and therefore blame lay with those who were not doing enough to change such deadly environments. Booth also suggested that problems with poverty should be addressed by local authorities prioritizing those most in need within the slums, i.e. the very poor and children.[4] The committee also agreed with the Salvation Army on the idea that public nurseries may help with issues of child healthcare and wellbeing in the slums by taking children away from those who could not afford to care for them adequately. Though this offered a practical solution to some of the issues concerning health faced by children in the slums it placed blame on parents for not providing suitable care when many were doing the best they possibly could, especially when considering the environment they were in. Solutions such as contraception  to prevent people from having children they could not care for would have perhaps had greater chance of decreasing infant mortality, rather than taking the child from a family after they had been exposed to suffering as a result of poverty. Ginger Frost argues that exposure to illness was commonplace for children with their first memories often being of their mothers tending to the sick.[5]

In addition, Booth briefly details the dangers of child malnutrition in a similar fashion to Hubert Bland’s pamphlet for the Fabian Society. He shows a growing awareness of this issue as well as the danger pollution presented to health and proposed changes to combat this. Booth also acknowledged that child malnutrition was difficult to tackle despite the fact in had received much attention with literature being published on the subject. This idea of environment causing issues with health had been documented by Henry Mayhew in the 1850s, who described children were killing rats as a form of entertainment.[6] Vermin such have this would have spread disease rapidly in an already overcrowded environment and this demonstrates how poor hygiene was. Facing issues with hygiene on a daily basis such as vermin and lack of proper sanitation it is clear to see why infant mortality was so high within the slums.

Reformers such as Booth and Rowntree acknowledged that while some adults were responsible to some extent for the poverty they faced, children were not. They argued that the Poor Law was inadequate as it disregarded the non-able-bodied persons, the children, the sick, the mentally ill, and the aged and infirm who made up approximately 90% ‘of the persons relieved by the Destitution Authorities’.[7] This once again demonstrates the belief that there was not adequate care put in place under acts from the government to provide suitable conditions for children, including healthcare. In addition to this Booth’s poverty line demonstrated in a very clear way that people faced poverty most severely between the ages of five and fifteen years of age.[8] Harris also argues that Britain felt greater need for social reform in order to compete with other countries such as France and Germany.[9]

Overall, it is clear that reform in order to improve conditions for children was of key importance during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. There was increasing awareness and understanding of the idea that many could not prevent the difficulties they faced due to poverty especially children.

Chloe Hearn


[1] Bland, Hubert, After Bread, Education : A Plan for the State Feeding of School Children: Report of the Committee of the Society Appointed to Consider the Provision of Meals for School Children (London: Fabian Society, 1905).

[2] Bland, After Bread, Education, pp. 2-4.

[3] Charles Booth, Life and Labour of the People in London (London, 1903), pp. 16-20.

[4] Booth, Life and Labour, pp. 16-20.

[5] Frost, Ginger S., Victorian Childhoods (Westport, USA: Greenwood, 2009), p. 14.

[6] Mayhew, H. London Labour and the London Poor (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd. 1985), p. 22.

[7] Howard Glennerster, John Hills, David Piachaud and Jo Webb, One Hundred Years of Poverty and policy (York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2004); Minority Report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and the Relief of Distress, 1905–9, p. 1

[8]  Rowntree, Benjamin Seebohm. Poverty: A Study of Town Life (London: Macmillan, 1901), p. 137

[9] Harris, J., Private Lives, Public Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993),pp. 220-222