10 Reasons Why a Victorian Childhood Was Fraught with Danger

While every generation of children faces challenge, life has certainly become more child-centred over the years. Children have more of a voice than ever before and play a much more prominent role in society – Greta Thunberg is a hyperbolic example of this. Gone are the days when children were seen and not heard.

 Whatever today’s hardships – ranging from not having the latest on-brand trainers to more serious societal issues – there is one period in history wherein the younger generation lived and breathed struggle: the Victorian era.

We know that children had it tough in the 19th century. Most of us are familiar with the likes of Oliver Twist, chimney sweeps, and street urchins. But beyond these overt representations of deprivation and toil, the younger generation – often unwittingly - faced danger every day of their lives. Little wonder that a quarter of children did not make it to their 5th birthday in England and Wales in the 1850s.

Dangers were many, varied, and not always well-known. Here are 10 of them!

Image Credit: Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums

Opium as Pacifier

The use of laudanum – tincture of opium – was widespread during the Victorian age, and as easy to obtain as cough mixture is today. Opium dens were ubiquitous and this unregulated drug was a favourite of the some of the most famous authors of the day, including Charles Dickens. This powerful narcotic was straightforward to access, along with cocaine and arsenic.

Chillingly, however, the use of opium was not restricted to adults, but used legally and liberally to treat children for a host of minor ailments. This practice was well established by the 19th century -  back in 1718, apothecary John Quincy let his views be known: “A very mischievous way some Nurses have got, of giving their Children this Medicine to make them sleep, more for their own ease than anything else.”  From the 18th century the “medicine” had been seductively packaged and advertised, making it appealing to Victorian mothers (especially those within the working class demographic), who often had to return to their employment quickly after giving birth.

The drug was sold under a variety of brand names such as Godfrey’s Cordial  (known as Mother’s Friend), Infants Preservative, and Soothing Syrup. Some druggists sold generic equivalents, euphemistically referred to as “quietness”. In Thomas Bull’s 1854 Hints to Mother he claimed that around three quarters of opium-related deaths were children under the age of 5.  While this estimate remained unsubstantiated, there is evidence of extensive damage arising from this custom. Appeasing infants with opium mixtures was found to suppress the appetite, contributing to another Victorian malady: malnutrition.

It was not until much later in the century that the addictive properties of opium were acknowledged (possibly due to the lucrative nature of the opium trade), and drafted into public policy in 1916.  


Those lucky enough to dodge the dangers of hard drugs would have to keep their fingers crossed they didn’t fall prey to malnutrition. Many Victorian children suffered from this condition, à la the two emaciated waifs - Ignorance and Want - in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Because of poor diet, children from poverty-stricken families would be more at risk of malnutrition, a condition that stunts growth. Working children, in particular, would be susceptible to malnutrition. And because the mother would also have likely been malnourished, her child was battling against the odds from the get-go.

The study of skeletons from the period indicates that deficiency diseases, such as scurvy and rickets, often contribute to malnutrition as a cause of death.  These diminished unfortunates would have resembled children half their age. Indeed, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury – an advocate for reforming the working hours of children – described a group of youngsters leaving the factory gates as “a set of sad, dejected, cadaverous creatures.” 


While dangers lurked everywhere for Victorian innocents, making it into the world at all was something of an achievement. The precariousness of childhood was often highlighted by authors such as Dickens: Pip, the young protagonist of Great Expectations, spends his Christmas Eve visiting the graves of his five brothers, a scenario that wouldn’t have been unusual at that time. Having been born in the first place renders Pip a survivor.

Stillbirth was a major killer in the 1800s, and for a range of reasons: poor birthing facilities and medical care, diseases inflicted on the foetus in utero, and the health status of the mother.

The bodies of stillborn babies were not deemed to be fully human and therefore sometimes sold to anatomists. Flora McLean, a young woman who gave birth in a Glasgow hospital in 1877, discovered that the body of her dead baby had been mutilated and sewn back together.

Deadly Doctors

Lack of medical knowledge and a basic misunderstanding of the importance of hygiene meant that a trip to the local quack could kill rather than cure. Even the better-off, who could afford to see a doctor, were at the mercy of a profession that had its limits.

The chances of poorer children escaping ill-health were virtually nil. These mites would commonly have to work for twelve hours per day before going home to cramped conditions. Added to that, disease was rife – especially in slum areas.  Diseases like tuberculosis and scarlet fever, now rare and treatable, were widespread.

Those who could not afford a doctor would put their faith in over the-counter treatments from an apothecary – and hope for the best. And a visit to the hospital was hardly the road to cure: routines like handwashing were not observed, and as for sterilizing medical equipment – well, that was not quite the done thing … Treatments such as bloodletting and the administering of vomit-inducing compounds often did more harm than good.

Unsurprisingly, death was everywhere, therefore not taboo. Death features as a theme in the popular children’s street game Old Roger, and children would commonly dress up their dolls in mourning clothes, with “playing funeral” a commonplace game in the latter half of the century.

Victorian children were clearly realists …

Mental Health

While physical health was a precious commodity for nineteenth-century children, they did not exactly fare well in terms of their mental health either. Child psychiatry as a discrete discipline did not come into existence until the 1930s.  

At the start of the 19th century mental health became high profile, thanks to the “madness” of King George III. Asylums – the most famous being Bedlam – sprang up. This increased after the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which resulted in lots of children residing in workhouses and orphanages. A growing asylum population meant that draconian treatments such as straitjackets – which had been on the wane – were resumed.

Children admitted to asylums could expect to be treated the same as adults and would be labelled as “idiots”, or similar terms we now consider derogatory but were then legitimate diagnostic terms. 

Once admitted to an asylum, a child would have limited contact with their family. Between 1854 and 1900, Worcester County Asylum recorded a high death rate and many references to suicide risks.

Inherited Syphilis

In 1894 Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle penned a short story called  The Third Generation. The word “syphilis” is not mentioned in the story, but it is understood that the symptoms described in it are consistent with the congenital disease: notched incisors and inflammation of the cornea, two of the three symptoms of “Hutchinson’s triad” (the third symptom being deafness). It transpired that the character in question was innocent of any wrongdoing and the sexually-transmitted disease had been passed down from his grandfather, hence the story’s title. Conan Doyle had no doubt been taught about this during his medical training at Edinburgh. Numerous other writers of the era, including Henrik Ibsen, addressed the terrible consequences of inherited syphilis – believed to be transmitted via the father’s sperm - in their works.

Talk about the sins of the fathers …

Trouble at T’Mill

The average age for children to go out to work was 10, but some were put to work from the tender age of 4. The demand for work was there in Victorian Britain, with industrialization exploding, along with rapid population growth. Children were cheap labour. In the 1850s, the average wage was 15 shillings – but children would only be paid around 5 shillings.

While not considered child cruelty at the time, some of the jobs performed by children exposed them to real dangers. In the cotton mills, fast machinery would lead to accidents. The mills were poorly ventilated, resulting in eye infections and respiratory problems. Being small, children would be tasked with climbing under moving machinery to “scavenge” – in other words, retrieve cotton that had fallen. Children would lose their hair by catching it in machinery, or have their hands crushed when they fell asleep while using dangerous equipment.

And Sunday off? Forget it: the machinery needed cleaned.  

Falling Through Ice

The story of Prince Albert falling through the ice and being saved from drowning by his wife, Queen Victoria, is absolutely true. The incident happened in February 1841 and was reported in The Times.

Between 1550 and 1880 Britain endured what became known as the Little Ice Age, even causing the Thames to freeze over up to the early 1800s. Winters were bitter, icy and snowy. Little wonder that ice-skating became a  popular pastime by the 1850s. The Victorian winter scene, as depicted on so many Christmas cards, became ingrained in the collective memory.

But the danger of ice didn’t just affect royals; children were prey to it too. Children then, as today, loved to play in snowy conditions. Cemetery records from the era indicate just how common it was for children to fall through the ice and drown. Records for York Cemetery, for example, regale the story of two young boys, John Garnett (11) and Henry Booth (10), who both drowned attempting to cross the frozen Riven Floss in February of 1860.

Treacherous Toys

For some Victorian children, those shiny new Christmas toys turned out to be killers. Lead is well-known for its wood-preserving properties, making lead-based paint just the thing for ensuring the longevity of wooden products – including children’s toys. Unfortunately, children do have a tendency to put things in their mouths, and because there was no unpleasant taste Victorian children did exactly this with their toxic toys. The inevitable result: lead poisoning.

For affected children, the tongue and gums would eventually turn black, blue or grey. By the time these symptoms of lead poisoning materialized it would be too late. Coma and seizures would ensue, culminating in death.

The real tragedy is that the dangers of lead had been known since Roman times, but blithely ignored by the Victorians.


Murder Bottles

It became very unpopular to breastfeed during the Victorian era. Those who did choose to do so were advised by Mrs Beeton - paragon of Victorian domesticity -  to “drink lots of beer”.

Nevertheless, bottle-fed babies fared much worse. Glass, banjo-shaped bottles were de rigeur, despite the fact that doctors disapproved of them. The shape made the bottles very difficult to clean, hence infections and bacteria were rampant. Mrs Beeton suggested they only needed to be cleaned every two weeks, worsening the spread.

To make matters worse, these “murder bottles”, as they became known, were filled with questionable formulae, including flour-based liquid or pasteurized cows’ milk, contributing to malnourishment and tuberculosis respectively. Sometimes boracic acid was added, causing conditions like nausea, stomach cramps and skin loss.

Consequently, two out of ten infants would not survive to their second birthday, making this Victorian norm a mass killer.


Amanda Ellison