Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Colourful Victorian Childhood

I found a small card today that was being used as a bookmark in a rather dull memoir by a Victorian clergyman. It was between pages 26 and 27, suggesting that the reader hadn't progressed any further.

One side contained this cheerful image:

The other had this appeal for donations to the 'Incorporated Society for Providing Homes for Waifs and Strays':

Emigration seems a rather extreme measure, but the average Victorian orphan would have probably fared better in the colonies than the damp, smog-ridden streets of the East End. 

The memoir with the Waifs and Strays slip turned out to be the first of a batch of Victorian books that included a selection of 'penny dreadfuls', a couple of titles by John Ruskin and a battered copy of a children's poetry collection from 1868.

As I picked it up, the poetry book fell apart in my hands. I tried to reassemble the pages and found these appealing colour illustrations:

(I'm not sure why there's a sinister-looking stranger in the background)

As for the poems themselves, they covered cheerful subjects like death, deformity and poverty. Take this, for example:

Not something you'd want to read to your child at bedtime. But in an age in which infant mortality was a common experience, poems like these sought to bring comfort, albeit in a rather maudlin, sentimental fashion.

The poems also hark back to a pre-industrial rural idyll, evoking a world that still exists in the popular imagination: cottages with roses around the door, the hum of bees on a summer's afternoon, the church spire of a distant village, a babbling woodland stream and a carpet of bluebells.

There are no factory chimneys or back to back houses. Young readers may have been deemed able to cope with the grim realities of death and disease, but some subjects were clearly beyond the pale.



Rog said...

Blimey - we certainly need to be reminded exactly how lucky we are from time to time.

Nota Bene said...

THe illustrations are delightful...looks like Fagin in the Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green! A good bit of miserable poetry never did any child any harm...

Canadian Chickadee said...

I hate the Victorian era! The Victorians really have a lot to answer for. ("And are there no poor houses or work houses for them?") Sadly, a lot of their ideas still have currency in this sad and sorry old world.

Steerforth said...

Rog - I've been reading a lot of Trollope recently and need to remind myself that the Victorian era wasn't all visiting cards and drawing rooms.

Nota Bene - I love the dark humour of Belloc. The one where the boy is eaten by a lion is a particular favourite.

Carol - It's a love-hate relationship for me. It's an endlessly fascinating period which has certainly cast a long shadow over the 20th.

Anne said...

The child migration policy has been called "a sorry episode in British history" as many of the migrants were subject to exploitation and abuse. The C of E home for Waifs and Strays in your illustration was a forerunner to the Children's Society, and one of several charitable organisations, including Dr Barnardo's, that engaged in the practice. I remember a chilling series of BBC programmes by Charles Wheeler (sadly not available online) about survivors of this trauma from the 1930s on. This Guardian review gives a flavour. The Child Migrants Trust is still working to reunite families.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

Lovely illustrations! I had a favourite poetry book when small called A Child's Garland of Verses (circa 1900). I loved a morbid poem about a little girl whose ragged cloak gets run over and ruined.

Steerforth said...

Anne - I was shocked to learn how recently this was going on. I'm not surprised by the behaviour of the British and Australian governments, which both had their own agendas, but it was disappointing to realise that organisations like Barnardos were willing participants.

Lucy - I think children love a bit of melodrama and consume sentimentality as voracioulsy as sweets. I'm disappointed that poetry didn't play a part in my childhood, with the exception of When We Were Very Young.