Closely bound up with the question of street trading was the perennial problem of child begging. Victorian figures and definitions in this area are imprecise but the 1851 census indicated that over 800,000 of the 4 million or so 3-12-year-olds in England and Wales were neither at work nor receiving any schooling; and many of those ‘at school’ were intermittent attenders. This large shadowy group would have formed the urchin population of street pedlars, beggars, scavengers and pilferers. 1 In 1848 Lord Ashley (later, Lord Shaftesbury) compassed a figure of 30,000 shelterless street-Arabs in London’s population of 2.5 million. 2 Assuming that each one begged at some time, this still leaves out of account those child beggars living in common lodging-houses or slum tenements. Nearly thirty years later Dr Barnardo could still estimate some 30,000 homeless youngsters in the capital. 3 Child beggars in fact formed a high proportion of all beggars in the country. Just how eagle-eyed and rampant they were can be gauged from Charles Dickens’s account in The Uncommercial Traveller (1865). 4 Walking through the street, he once bumped into and knocked over a ragged little scrap. When he stopped to help him up and give him some money out of sympathy, fifty similar ragamuffins
were about me in a moment, begging, tumbling, fighting, clamouring, yelling, shivering in their nakedness and hunger. The piece of money I had put into the claw of the child I had overturned was clawed out of it, and was again clawed out of that wolfish grip, and again out of that, and soon I had no notion in what part of the obscene scuffle in the mud of rags and legs and dirt, the money might be.
Parental drunkenness, neglect and brutality were common