Imagined Orphans: Poor Families, Child Welfare, and Contested Citizenship in London

Imagined Orphans: Poor Families, Child Welfare, and Contested Citizenship in London

Imagined Orphans: Poor Families, Child Welfare, and Contested Citizenship in London

Imagined Orphans: Poor Families, Child Welfare, and Contested Citizenship in London

Synopsis

"In Imagined Orphans, Lydia Murdoch focuses on the discrepancy between the representation and the reality of children's experiences within welfare institutions - a discrepancy that she argues stems from conflicts over middle- and working-class notions of citizenship that arose in the 1870s and persisted until the First World War. Reformers' efforts to depict poor children as either orphaned or endangered by abusive or "no-good" parents fed upon the poor's increasing exclusion from the Victorian social body. Reformers used the public's growing distrust and pitiless attitude toward poor adults to increase charity and state aid to the children. With a critical eye to social issues of the period, Murdoch urges readers to reconsider the complex situations of families living in poverty."

Excerpt

With the publication of Oliver Twist (1837-39), Charles Dickens created a portrait of the workhouse child that remained the standard image for the Victorian age. Born in an institution, Oliver was “a parish child—the orphan of a workhouse—the humble, half-starved drudge—to be cuffed and buffeted through the world—despised by all, and pitied by none.” The workhouse officials knew little about his parents. His father remained entirely unknown, his mother concealed in mystery. She “was found lying in the street. She had walked some distance, for her shoes were worn to pieces; but where she came from, or where she was going to, nobody knows.” Old Sally, an adult inmate present at Oliver's birth, stole his mother's locket and ring—the only tokens that could provide clues to his family identity. Not even Oliver's name connected him to his parents. Bumble, the tyrannical workhouse official, picked the name “Twist” from his alphabetical list of possible names for pauper children. Without parents, extended relatives, friends of his own, or even an identifiable place of origin, Oliver lived at the mercy of potentially vindictive or compassionate workhouse officials. The archetypal workhouse child was first and foremost an orphan: alone, without a past, and completely disconnected from his parents.

Throughout the late nineteenth century, middle-class reformers publicly represented most poor children in state and private institutions as being either orphaned, like Oliver, or abandoned by their parents. Late-Victorian welfare and reform literature portrayed such children as isolated in the world, without family or friends, arriving at institutions from unknown or transitory locations. The common phrases used to describe poor children accented their alleged separation from parents and lack of connection to established, stable communities. They were “waifs and strays,” or “nobody's children,” or “street arabs” who wandered nomadically through the urban landscape, sleeping under archways and on rooftops. According to popular representations, these children lacked homes and any kind of domestic life.

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