Infant and Child Mortality

Victorian Postmortem Photography. Credit: Pinterest

Infant and child mortality was very high during the Victorian era (1837-1901).  High mortality rates among the young were the result of industrialization, which led to rapid urbanization, increased pollution, severe impoverishment, and exploitation of child labor.

According to Report of the Medical Officer of Health for the City of London in 1849, twelve years after Queen Victoria’s reign began, the death rate for children under 5 years of age was around 33% in some areas in London. In Kensington, a relatively wealthy district in London, over the course of one year, there were a combined number of 1,022 deaths among infants and children. In Islington, a district near by, there were 2,269 deaths among infants and children. These are just two districts in  London, which does not even come close to covering all of the United Kingdom.

During the Victorian era the United Kingdom became a world power. An industrial revolution had begun and craftsmanship took a backseat to mass production. There were 6,800 miles of railroad track by 1851, and trade was booming. This was a major change for most of the agricultural towns in England. These rapid changes brought new wealth to some a crushing poverty to others.

In this set of pages, we explore factors related to industrialization that led to the astronomically high rates of infant and child mortality in London.

I. The environment throughout the city itself was atrocious. The blackened rain that fell from the sky from the smog that hovered over the English capital and inadequate sewage systems that polluted water sources, created outbreaks of disease.  When pregnant women became ill there was an increased probability that their infant would stillborn or develop a complication. Even if the baby was healthy at birth, their lungs were still developing and could be overwhelmed by the chemicals in the air which could bring diseases to the child as well.

L0049034 View over Leeds, smoking chimneys
View over Leeds, smoking chimneys, 1912. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

II. To counteract the impact of pollution, the children needed strong immune systems to fight off foreign substances that could cause harm to their bodies. However the nutrition level for many young people at this time was inadequate. Many families were too poor to afford adequate nutrition. Breast feeding was often ineffective because of the mother’s malnutrition.  To offset the poor nourishment, some parents began to use new drugs that were now being produced from the Industrial Revolution, including opium. The medications that were administered to the children were not regulated by medical professionals.  Some of them lowered appetite levels so hunger would dissipate for the children when there was no food.

III. With bad pollution and nutrition many children began to develop diseases. Tuberculosis and whooping cough were the main pulmonary illnesses that were extremely contagious and endemic in London. Smallpox was another significant killer of children. Cholera epidemics killed both young and old. The mortality rate of children was 33% higher than the rest of the population.

L0022577 G. Kirkland, 30 Plates of the small pox and cow pox.
Plates of the small pox and cow pox (1802). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

IV. This would continue until the end of the Victorian Era when vaccinations greatly reduced mortality in the city, cutting it in half for infants and toddlers. Smallpox was huge issue until a vaccine made by Edward Jenner, and widespread vaccination campaigns in the 19th century. The results of vaccinations weren’t visible until the 1940 when the Free Vaccination Act allowed people of low income to receive the medication for free. While the newly made vaccinations were vital in the fight against infant mortality, they were somewhat negated by the conditions commonly found with child labor.

L0068331 London labour and the London poor
Chimney sweep (1851). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

V. Various industries began employing young children. In this time, child labor was not a concern. People were unaware of the harm that could befall children and even adults in factories, coal mines and other industrial workplaces.  The Industrial Revolution led to the construction of textile mills and factories that eroded children’s bodies through long hours and bad conditions that they would see on a day to day basis. Jobs like coal mining and cleaning chimneys were extremely dangerous and led to respiratory issues from poor ventilation. Eventually acts were passed by parliament to limit child hours and raise the age requirement to begin working.  Overall, while the industrial revolution brought many new inventions and medicine, it is the main cog in why the children of London were living and ultimately dying in harsh conditions.

Written by Ross Ogden and Daniel Beltran




Common diseases


Child labor


Barrow, Mandy. “Working Children.” Project Britain The Victorians. 2013. Accessed April 09, 2016.

Bond, William Arthur. “Report for the Year 1901 of the Medical Officer of Health.” Wellcome Library. 1902. Accessed April 16, 2016.

Cockburn, Tom. 1999. “A historical perspective on the working contributions of children in Britain: 1800-1914.” Community, Work & Family2, no. 1: 33-50.

Cody, David. Social Class Victorian Web. 22 July 2002.

Davidoff, Leonore and Catherine Hall. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

Davies, Sue. 2014. “St Pancras school for mothers ”

Parssinen, Terry M. Secret Passions, Secret Remedies: Narcotic Drugs in British Society, 1820-1930. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Values, 1983.

Anthony S. Wohl, Opium and Infant Mortality Victorian Web.














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