The Erosion of Childhood: Child Oppression in Britain, 1860-1918

By Lionel Rose | Go to book overview

8

JUVENILE STREET TRADERS

Children were so prevalent as street traders in the mid-nineteenth century that Henry Mayhew devoted a whole section of his London Labour and the London Poor to the subject in 1851. 1 Of course, when over a third of the population was then under 15 and there was no national compulsory schooling, it was inevitable that children should appear so conspicuously in street life. They were sent out by parents to contribute to the family income however they could, or if mistreatment by parents or employers was unbearable they ran away to fend for themselves. In the absence of a home life, they banded together for companionship, living in sordid common lodging-houses, where, before regulatory legislation, both sexes and all ages mixed promiscuously in the foetid kitchens and dormitories. 2 Those that could not afford the price of a bed slept in the streets, under arches, in doorways, or under the barrows in Covent Garden Market.

The range of articles they hawked was legion: fruit and vegetables (costermongers’ leftovers sold off cheaply to the youngsters), firewood, matches, pen nibs, buttons, laces, clothes-pegs, glassware, cheap toys and flowers, to mention just a selection. In addition there were the sellers of services—the errand-runners, cab-hailers, distributors of hand-bills, crossing-sweepers, luggage touts at railway stations and shoeshine boys. Eager eyes were constantly on the watch for a chance to earn an opportunistic penny.

Their wares were often of poor quality and tricked-up for sale: sponges and vegetables might be rotten, and ‘silk’ braces were really cotton, for example. Children lived by their quick wits in the urban jungle. They ‘grew up’ precociously, though their life expectations would have been short. Inside they had been hardened

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