Chapter 12. Children and Childhood

12.6 Childhood under Attack

The mid-19th century witnessed a moral panic over the condition of, and the perceived threat posed by, children in the streets of British North America’s major cities. The same situation existed in British and American cities at the time, sparking campaigns to improve the lives of children. (Charles Dickens’ novel, The Adventures of Oliver Twist, published in serial form from 1838 through 1839 served as an inspiration for increasing policing and philanthropy alike.)

Street arabs or urchins, as impoverished children were known, were viewed as criminals or criminals-in-the-making. They fell below contemporary hygiene standards (which were, by all accounts, pretty low to begin with) and were perceived as unsupervised. Many “child-savers” believed a solution was to put them to work; better to have them spend long days in a factory or be fostered out to a household, even if they would be exploited and ill-treated, rather than let them remain on the streets, or so the thinking went at the time. As one review of the literature put it:

The child-savers … made proper parenting in a natural family setting the central precept of their endeavours; yet, in practice, their programmes seldom allowed such a relationship. In the final analysis they expected the regeneration of children to take place through work: for the evangelicals hard, manual labour shaped appropriate personal discipline and morality, and for the child-savers, it turned aimless street arabs into productive workers.[1]

Initiatives to improve the lives of children included the promotion of education and concern for public health. In the third quarter of the 19th century the child’s body became a battleground for imperial fitness. Generations of weak urban children, it was feared, would produce equally enfeebled national armies. This concern percolated out of Britain and into British North America. The reshaping and policing of childhood in the early Victorian era (a movement that would persist for the next century or more) arose out of these concerns and created much of the framework on which we continue to mount our own measure of life before adulthood.

Key Point

  • Social movements in the Victorian era, including the spread of formal education, were manifestations of a moral panic about unsupervised children, particularly in urban areas.

  1. Craig Heron, “Saving the Children,” Acadiensis 13, no.1 (Autumn 1983): 173.

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12.6 Childhood under Attack by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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