Orphans in 19th Century Victorian England

by Jodi Greig

The Victorian Era was a time of social evolution as well as technological and economic advance. A distinct, unique middle class was formed alongside the traditional working class and wealthy aristocracy. However, there were certain individuals that fell outside this model of Victorian society. The “abandoned child” was society’s scapegoat- a person without a past, without connections, without status. They could appear in any class, at any time. The upper and middle classes often had a somewhat romantic perception of them, due to their prevalence in Victorian literature. Novels like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights made heroines/heroes out of orphans, portraying them as respectable yet troubled (Cunningham,“Orphan Texts”). However, orphans were also often treated with disdain and distrust, due to their reputation as “criminally prone” individuals. They were a victim of classic “Victorian contradictions” that characterized most aspects of Victorian society.

Victorian Definition of “Orphan”
When we hear the word “orphan” we imagine a child whose parents have both died tragic deaths. Indeed, there were plenty of these pitiable creatures in Victorian society – the living and working conditions of the poor were so unsanitary and crowded that diseases such as typhus and tuberculosis often spread unchecked, sending many of their victims to the grave (Czarnik, “Living Conditions”). However, children were often considered “orphans” if they had one surviving parent, had been abandoned by their family, or were forced out into the world because of overcrowding at home (Cunningham, “Orphan Texts”). In 1861, it is estimated that 11% of children had lost a father by the age of 10, 11% a mother, and 1% had lost both parents (Czarnik).

A very common fate of orphans was adoption. They were often taken in by relatives or neighbors, and even, on occasion, strangers wishing to raise them as their own children. In England, there were no laws concerning adoption until the 1920s, so most adoption was informal. Children who were adopted by their own social class were usually treated fairly and equally… however, if they were adopted by a family whose status was above and beyond their original class, they were frequently mistreated and neglected. Children of different social classes were not encouraged to fraternize, so if an orphan was taken into a household where higher class children lived, they could be forbidden to even speak to them (Czarnik).

Orphans sometimes met another fate… being placed in an educational institution. Many philanthropists donated money to these “schools” for the express purpose of boarding and educating orphans. Their education was rarely as good as those whose families paid for it, yet it still gave them an advantage that many of their peers lacked. Most of these programs were designed specifically to train children to a lower-middle class occupation, such as becoming a governess. Food, education, and lodging were provided until the orphan turned 17… then they were expected to begin working (Czarnik).

Some of these institutions were not such a good “opportunity”. Many were underfunded, crowded, and unsanitary. Disease spread rapidly in such close quarters, and poor nutrition and excess corporeal punishment didn’t help matters much. Charlotte Bronte, while not an orphan, attending one such school, and used her experiences to create the Lowood School in Jane Eyre (Czarnik).

After the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1934, also known as the New Poor Law, orphanages and children’s homes were created for those who could not care for themselves. Boys were generally taught a trade and girls were prepared to enter domestic service (Czarnik). However, some of these institutions were so awful that children actually opted to pursue a criminal lifestyle on the street than to suffer in an orphanage.

Criminals/Other Occupations
Orphans would were not adopted nor entered an institution often became criminals. Indeed, an estimated 60% of the criminal population were orphans, at one point or another (Cunningham, “Orphan Texts”). They indulged in thievery or became prostitutes to survive (Payne, “Two literary”).

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.

Works Cited
Cunningham, Hugh. “Orphan Texts: Victorian Orphans, Culture and Empire (review)” Victorian Studies. 45.4. Summer 2003. 10 March 2005. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/victorian_studies/v045/45.4cunningham.pdf>

Czarnik, Jason. “Living Conditions of Orphans in Nineteenth Century England”. Charlotte’s Web. Ed. Lisa Denney, Elizabeth Bellalouna, and Lauren Russette. U of Michigan-Dearborn. Winter 2003. 10 March 2005. <http://www.umd.umich.edu/casl/hum/eng/classes/434/charweb/czarnik1.htm>.

Payne, Jennifer. “Two literary treatments of prostitution in mid-19th century England:  Rosetti's "Jenny" and Gaskell's ‘Esther’” History Homepage for Jennifer Payne. 24 August 1998. 11 March 2005. <http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Aegean/7023/prostitution.html>.

Interesting Links


Look under Childhood/Children’s Orphanages