When Dickens introduced his readers to the child actress Ninetta Crummies as the bogus ‘Infant Phenomenon’ in Nicholas Nickleby,1 he was caricaturing the use that would have been well known to him as a keen amateur actor, of the drawing power of precocious child performers. Edmund Kean and Sarah Siddons had started as child actors. William Betty (1791-1874) was starring in adult roles as a child prodigy in the early 1800s; at 13 he was playing Hamlet, Romeo and Richard III! 2 Around fifty years later Ellen Terry played the Duke of York in Richard III when only 6, and her sister Kate played Arthur in King John before she was 10. 3
The 1861 census records as actors, acrobats, dancers and so on about 30 5-9-year-olds and 100 10-14-year-olds in England and Wales, but this is certainly a gross understatement; there was a very high seasonal demand for children in pantomime; perhaps the migratory nature of theatrical companies caused them to slip through the enumeration net. In the 1880s it was reckoned that there were ‘as many as' 1,000 theatrical children in London alone. 4 Lord Shaftesbury was to raise the specific issue of cruelty and physical danger to child acrobats from the early 1870s, and the moral dangers to and alleged exploitation of children in theatrical work were to be canvassed in the 1880s by the emerging child protection movement.
There was then no restriction at all on the employment of children at any age for any hours in theatrical work, except for the requirements of school attendance under the 1870 and 1880 Education Acts. However, parents and theatrical managers found a loophole in the law: children who were sent to fee-paying ‘private adventure’ schools could be trained and rehearsed under the veil of a sham education. 5 Ellen Barlee’s Pantomime Waifs (1884) was an