large family
Families were often very large during this era, as shown above in a family portrait. Credit: flickriver.com

Children were a vital aspect of the economy and lifestyle during the Victorian era, as they made up 40% of the population throughout the urban areas. With that, the environment throughout these areas which surrounded the infants and children played a large role on the rates of mortality. An environment includes all of the living and non-living things around us therefore, we examined a variety of these things and how they caused numerous deaths. The social environment of a child was quite reflective on how big the family size was. This was because the more children a family had then the more work they could provide to support the household. The average family size during this period did change over time. Around the 1860s women often bore six children on average whereas by the 1910s the women bore approximately half of that with three children. The house, air, light, space, jobs, and more were the environmental factors which played a definite role in the high mortality rate among children and infants.

Credit: VictorianChildren.org

London during the Victorian Era is widely linked to the severe lack of sanitation it exhibited during the 19th century. The decline in sanitation throughout London during this time period was predominantly brought on by the industrialization of the city. The industrialization of London brought with it a significant increase in the burning of coal and gas; both of which contributed to the intense amounts of smog that regularly blanketed the city, the blackening of buildings, and even occasionally blackened the rain. Though this increase in the burning of fossil fuels contributed to the filth that covered London during this time, the real foundation for London’s detrimental sanitation problems stemmed from the hazardous manner of sewage disposal throughout the city, especially in those areas near the Thames.

The greatest sanitation issue throughout the Victorian Era was that of the disposal of raw sewage and industrial waste into the Thames. Without proper sewage and waste disposal systems in London during this time, approximately 250 tons of waste and sewage were poured into the Thames every day in the 18John-Leech-Cartoons-Punch-1850-05-11-18850s; this extensive amount of sewage quickly resulted in the deterioration of the river. Additionally, the majority of this waste stayed in London, as opposed to flowing out to sea, due to the fact that the Thames is a tidal river. Not only was waste accumulating in the water supply, but thamessewage was also disposed of by dumping in the streets, creating cesspools of filth around the city; which produced noxious fumes that had even caused an “instantaneous death by asphyxiation” in many people. This continuous accumulation of waste in both the river and the streets of the city ultimately created an ideal environment for the development and spreading of disease around the city. Diseases such as cholera, various tubercular diseases, and countless others were spread throughout London during this era, leading to an increase in mortality not only in adults, but even more so in the lives of children.

The industrialization of London, as well as the pollution of rivers, such as the Thames, and the street with not only industrial waste, but also raw sewage, dramatically affected the live of children during the Victoria Era. The mortality rate of children in London drastically increased due to the physical environment that arose with the industrialization and the increase of of waste disposal into both the water supply and the streets around the city. In the annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health in 1896, the main causes of child mortality during this time were:

(1) Bad environment, such as insanitary conditions, overcrowding and absence of parks and open spaces. (2) Improper and insufficient food. (3) Mismanagement through maternal ignorance. (4) Early marriages. (5) Debility, disease and dissipation of parents. (6) Maternal neglect, due to mothers being more or less employed away from home in factories and workshops. (6) Use of opiates; usually in the form of patent medicines.

The physical environment, in that of extremely unsanitary  and polluted conditions around the children, infant to 5 years of age, ultimately caused a rapid spread of disease. Ultimately the “environment” in which the child was raised plays a crucial role in the mortality rate of children during this time period, however the physical environment is only half of the “environment” that facilitated this dramatic increase in child mortality.

Some children of this time began working as young as the age of five. This cultivated a sense of dependency on child labor to further support a family. The majority of families were middle and lower class status who had to work long hours to support their large family. Consequently, having many children seemed to be solution, yet these children faced many environmental obstacles. If a baby was too young to work, it was not uncommon for a mother to use opiates and other drugs to put them to sleep. Drugs such as this were known as “infants quietener” so that a mother could work while the baby slept, but sometimes resulted in death or severe illness. If a child survived infancy and was able to work, at that point they were put to work at an early age for jobs which exponentially neglected their innocence and dependence as a child. Some of these jobs, such as coal mining, chimney sweeping, factory work, rat catcher, and textile milling, had high rates of injury or death among the children involved.

Overcrowding was an issue many families faced during this time period. As pictured above, it depicts the different levels of a lodging and how the occupants were dispersed. Credit: Victorian London

The housing structure throughout Europe at this time was not a clean, pretty picture, but rather another large factor related to the youth mortality rate. In many cases, an entire lower class family occupied one single room. Based on a report in Devonshire Place, there were 25 houses inhabited by 93 different families. This ultimately led to extremely poor lighting, air ventilation, and sanitation. At the same time, another health report from St. Georges in 1894 found that the leading cause of infant mortality was the influence of unsanitary conditions and overcrowding. The bad environmental factors connected to housing were more prevalent in causing child death than malnutrition, mismanagement of mothers, and maternal neglect due to work related responsibilities.

Families who owned animals also faced environmental factors linked to child and infant mortality. Insufficient light and ventilation was already taking a toll on the health of the children inside the many single room homes, but families who owned animals were susceptible to even more issues. A medical report during 1896 in Croyden examined a number of houses which exhibited that the contiguity to stables and livestock led to filthy conditions and vast exposure to animal bacteria. This same report also found that many houses were under general decay including dampness of the walls and defective roofs which were deemed unfit to live in by the Medical Officer. Altogether, the unpleasant housing conditions were a sad but large contributor to the mortality rates among children and infants.

Public water was often contaminated and dangerous leading to illness or death during the Victorian era as depicted here. Credit: 99percentvisible.org

Written by Kimber Brooks and Dylan McRae

Other sources

Cockburn, Tom. 1999. “A historical perspective on the working contributions of children in Britain: 1800-1914.” Community, Work & Family 2, no. 1: 33-50.

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

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

Pooley, Siân. “Parenthood, Child-Rearing and Fertility in England, 1850–1914.”The History of the Family 18.1 (2013): 83–106. PMC. Web. 6 Apr. 2016.

Twomey, Christina. 1997. “Gender, Welfare and the Colonial State: Victoria’s 1864 Neglected and Criminal Children’s Act”. Labour History, no. 73. pp. 169–86. doi:10.2307/27516508.

Wohl, Anthony S. Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983. pp. 12-13.