18th Century Child Management Theory and the Justification of Children in Workhouses


The most influential public work regarding child management in the 18th century that has survived to the present day is An Essay Upon Nursing and the Management of Children, written by Dr. William Cadogan in England.  His book went through 10 editions and has been translated into several languages.  It was widely read and highly regarded as a rational, superior, scientific approach to a complicated humanistic problem: minding children.

Dr. Cadogan’s premise involves removing decisions regarding childcare from the sphere of women, whom he regards as a thoroughly unscientific group and unsuitable for this weighty task.  Women, he reminds us, believe in old wives’ tales and the advice of bygone physicians, whereas Man would in their place be objective, clear-sighted, and…correct.  The physicians Dr. Cadogan speaks of so caustically were also, presumably, Men – but he passes sanguinely over this minor detail as he reminds us of the inadequacies of the woman childcare provider.  We will not belabor the point except to hope that Dr. Cadogan’s mother never read his book.


Dr. Cadogan concedes that this approach is a marked divergence from tradition.  Women have always had authority with matters related to child care, he reluctantly confesses, but this needs to change.  With the latest statistics, an up-to-date medical knowledge base, and the rational Man at the forefront, the decisions are bound to be as clean and correct as a mathematical equation.

His underlying approach toward children was to teach them ethics through hard work and withholding of material comforts.  He criticizes female relatives such as aunts and grandmothers (but not male relatives!) who spoil children by indulging them with too much food, such that they “foul their blood, choke their vessels, pall their appetite, and ruin every faculty of their bodies” (5).  He is quite eloquent and persuasive in reminding readers that children need a hardy upbringing to remain docile and good-natured.  Poor Dr. Cadogan!  Perhaps he has terrible memories of repeatedly being offered delicious food by unthinking females, and he feels compelled to prevent others from suffering as he did.  Don’t spoil the children, Dr. Cadogan pleads.  They need to grow up hardy.

cute kids
Crumpsall Workhouse 1897

Dr. Cadogan continues with recommendations for this hardy lifestyle.  Children of paupers are so lucky, he writes wistfully.  The mothers who can only afford to dress in a few rags and feed their child only from their breast unwittingly offer the best possible upbringing to their pauper children.  The mother who is dripping in luxury, on the other hand, raises a child “languishing under a load of finery… til he dies a victim to the mistaken care and tenderness of his poor mother.” (8)  If only Dr. Cadogan was lucky enough to find a pauper who would concede to removing the burden of his wealth and finery so that he, too, could live the supremely healthy lifestyle of the indigent!  Our prayers are with him.

Children should certainly be walking by the age of one, Dr. Cadogan insists.  And by the age of two they should be able to walk two miles easily – it simply needs a daily regimen to enforce this ability.

As we can conclude by our brief overview of Dr. Cadogan’s popular childcare manual, ideas about the best way to raise children involve a removal from the traditional nurturing environment of the mother and into a scientifically based regimen for producing superior men and women.  To this end, caretakers of children were encouraged to feed children little and require hard work.  This would instill docility and ethics in the young generation, proponents argued.  This line of thinking was the prevalent atmosphere among men in official positions which allowed for the treatment of children in workhouses – including the inherent abuses – to be justified on purely “scientific” terms.

Written by Danya Majeed


Cadogan, William. An Essay upon Nursing and the Management of Children: From Their Birth to Three Years of Age. Dublin: Printed for Jos. Sheppard …, 1772.