Despised by All and Pitied by None: Victorian Childhood in Oliver Twist

“For the rest of his life, Oliver Twist remembers a single word of blessing spoken to him by another child because this word stood out so strikingly from the consistent discouragement around him.” 
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist
“In the little world in which children have their existence whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice. It may be only small injustice that the child can be exposed to; but the child is small, and its world is small, and its rocking-horse stands as many hands high . . .”
Charles Dickens,  Great Expectations

Childhood. Just typing that word makes me feel warm and fuzzy. However, the idea of a “childhood” is a relatively modern concept. These days childhood is often thought of as a sacred time where people experience true innocence and unmitigated naivety. For me when I close my eyes and travel back to my childhood, I have flashes of uncontrollable giggling, running around freely at  my grandma’s, spinning around in circles until we “all fall down,” and the most magical Christmas EVER when I got an Nintendo 64 from Santa.

For some like me, it’s a golden, glittering, warm time that we can go back to in our memories. For others childhood is a; grim, gray, cacophonous beginning, a time to be barred away and forgotten. In both cases, this time shapes us into who we are and how we enter into the world of adulthood. Not being adults gave us all a chance where we weren’t in charge, where we didn’t make decisions for ourselves, either freeing us to play or chaining us to deal with decisions thrust upon us. Children of the Victorian period, however, were simply adults in smaller packaging. Especially for children of lower classes, children were small adults who needed to pull their own weight so their family could avoid the curse of a workhouse or debtors prison. Because there were no laws that protected children at that time, their lives as workers or on the street was incredibly cut-throat, dangerous, and, for lack of a better word, adult. 

A lower class family in the Victorian period in their home. Look at the boy looking straight into the camera; that is not the face of a carefree child.

A lower class family in the Victorian period in their home. Look at the boy looking straight into the camera; that is not the face of a carefree child.

In Dickensian England, a childhood as we envision it was only within the reach of the wealthy. In rich homes, children were raised by nannies or nurses and expected to follow a strict standard of behavior. For lower class families, children were breadwinners that brought home meager wages from factories, coal mines, or other people's pockets. Kids went to work just like everyone else in the same conditions that are enough to turn our contemporary stomachs. There were few laws protecting them from working alongside their parents in the mills. Before the Factory Acts of 1847, which stipulated that children under the age of nine could not work in the textile mills, children as young as four were employed to perform a simple task, and often, spent most of their unemployed infancies in the deafening, dirty factories. E.P. Thompson notes in The Making of the English Middle Class

“...Mothers, for fear of losing their employment, returned to the mill three weeks or less after the birth: still, in some Lancashire and West Riding towns, infants were carried in the 1840s to the mills to be suckled in the meal-break. Girl-mothers, who had perhaps worked in the mill from the age of eight or nine, had no domestic training: medical ignorance was appalling: the parents were a prey to fatalistic superstitions (which the churches sometimes encouraged): opiates, notably laudanum, were used to make the crying baby quiet. Infants and toddlers were left in the care of relatives, old baby-farming crones, or children too small to find work at the mill. Some were given dirty rag-dummies to suck, in which is tied a piece of bread soaked in milk and water, and toddlers of two and three could be seen running about with these rags in their mouths, in the neighborhood of factories.”

lau·da·num
ˈlôdn-əm,ˈlôdnəm/
noun
1. an alcoholic solution containing morphine, prepared from opium and formerly used as a narcotic painkiller.

There were many studies commissioned by the British government and activists of the time that pulled back the curtain and showed the truths of these factories. In 1842, 5 years after Dickens began to release Oliver Twist, The Condition and Treatment of the Children Employed in the Mines and Colliers of the United Kingdom was released that showed the daily and routine mistreatment of children that shocked many upper class Englishmen and women even though it had been a reality for those living in the lower classes for years. 

Children from families like the one above hard at work in Victorian factories.Their work was unsafe and unregulated. To take a closer look into the world of a child laborer, explore the 1842 report yourself.

Children from families like the one above hard at work in Victorian factories.Their work was unsafe and unregulated. To take a closer look into the world of a child laborer, explore the 1842 report yourself.

Children like The Artful Dodger and Charley Bates in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist took to the streets to avoid the torture of “respectable” employment. In his book, Orphan Texts: Victorian Orphans, Culture and Empire, Hugh Cunningham notes, “indeed, an estimated 60% of the criminal population were orphans, at one point or another. They indulged in thievery or became prostitutes to survive. The more honest orphans who lived on the streets often banded together for survival, doing menial tasks for the upper class, or begging for money.”

Children from the Victorian period often lived on the streets or as Nancy tells Fagin in Oliver Twist, “I theived for you when I was a child not half as old as [Oliver]! I have been in the same trade for twelve years since...It is my living and the cold, wet dirty streets are my home.”

Children from the Victorian period often lived on the streets or as Nancy tells Fagin in Oliver Twist, “I theived for you when I was a child not half as old as [Oliver]! I have been in the same trade for twelve years since...It is my living and the cold, wet dirty streets are my home.”

In Twist we get a peek into the inner workings of  a band of child thieves and pickpockets who are led and cared for by Fagin. 

When Oliver meets The Artful Dodger, the contrast between the two boys is very stark. Although Oliver has been walking for seven days from the countryside to London and is, “very tired and hungry,” he still has a glow radiating from the inside of him. An innocence and a, dare I say it, childlike quality that beams against the soot of London and the dankness of Fagin’s lair. Oliver is an innocent, a beacon, a true child, who draws attention from those who would seek to corrupt him. The Artful Dodger, on the other hand, is more of an adult than most of my friends  in their 20s. According to Dickens, 

“he was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough; and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see; but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man. He was short of his age: with rather bow-legs, and little, sharp, ugly eyes. His hat was stuck on the top of his head so lightly, that it threatened to fall off every moment--and would have done so, very often, if the wearer had not had a knack of every now and then giving his head a sudden twitch, which brought it back to its old place again. He wore a man's coat, which reached nearly to his heels. He had turned the cuffs back, half-way up his arm, to get his hands out of the sleeves: apparently with the ultimate view of thrusting them into the pockets of his corduroy trousers; for there he kept them. He was, altogether, as roystering and swaggering a young gentleman as ever stood four feet six, or something less, in the bluchers.”

This miniature adult leads Oliver into the underbelly of London or as director and adapter Patrick Mullins, puts it, “The Artful Dodger is Oliver's concierge into the world of the underground.” As Dodger takes Oliver deeper and deeper we can’t help but root for Oliver’s childhood. We hope that Oliver remains incorruptible against all odds. The preservation of childhood is such a human impulse that we all feel compelled to wrap our arms around the small child and keep him safe.

A group of child chimney sweeps taking a break from their workday during the middle Victorian period. These kids can’t be much older than 10, but their hardened expressions challenge the photographer to call them tikes or pat them on the head. 

A group of child chimney sweeps taking a break from their workday during the middle Victorian period. These kids can’t be much older than 10, but their hardened expressions challenge the photographer to call them tikes or pat them on the head. 

The importance of childhood is something we feel in our gut. It leads us to save pictures and toys in special boxes tucked under our bed or in the back of the closet. It’s why you can’t help but giggle while you run across the street while cars rush by. But for children of Oliver’s time, it was nonexistent or simply a shade of adulthood. The childlike naivety of Oliver makes him standout. Every character that encounters him in London sees something special in the boy that makes him the spark of youth in the grey factory of adulthood. That is why Nancy is willing to risk it all to deliver him out of the gutter and to Mrs. Brownlow and a home that will truly let him be a child and grow. While Nancy walks to meet with Mrs.Brownlow on London Bridge, we hear a haunting melody from composer and musical director Jake Hull:

“Oh I’d live for you
Turn your fate around
Give my whole fortune or burn this whole place down
Just to see you run
Far away from this
But I have nothing, no
Just my life to give.”

These lyrics reflect just how deeply we covet childhood as a precious, protected time. And a time that all children, regardless of what they are born into, deserve to have.

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles, Scott McKowen, and Arthur Pober. Oliver Twist or a Parish Boy's Progress. New York: Sterling, 2008. Print.

Peters, Laura, and Hugh Cunningham. Orphan Texts: Victorian Orphans, Culture and Empire. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000. Print.

"Report on Child Labour, 1842." The British Library. The British Library, 06 Feb. 2014. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.

Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Pantheon, 1964. Print.