Childhood barely existed for most British children at the end of the eighteenth century, since they began a lifetime of hard labour as soon as they were capable of simple tasks. By contrast, the fortunate children of the wealthy generally were spoiled and enjoyed special provisions for the need of a lengthy childhood, yet who in a way may have endured the same pain of those who were not as fortunate.
Child rearing in the Victorian times was not at all similar to child rearing today. There were of course two different categories on how the child was brought up. They went from one extreme to the other. They were the difference of the classes. The life of an upper class child during the Victorian era, was as one may put it, stuffy, conventional and routine, not to mention quite lonely at certain times. Yet others argue Victorian children should have been quite content, given the fact that they were treated to only the best of toys, clothes and education and it was absurd to even consider the child being neglected.
Mothers and Fathers were seen as special, glamorous guests, due to the fact that they were never around and rarely seen by their children. This was because child and parent led totally separate existences; they were only summoned to appear before their parents at a certain set hour of the day. Many Victorian children like Winston Churchill and Harriet Marden recall such cold relations between their selves and their mothers that they would be able to count how many times in their life they had been hugged. Family life was formal, although during that time child rearing manuals urged bonding and maternal ties, mothers remained cool and distant. Children were a convenience to their parents; they obeyed them as they would an army officer. Sir Osbert Sitwell once argued,
Parents were aware that the child would be a nuisance and a whole bevy of servants, in addition to the complex guardianship of nursery and school rooms was necessary not so much to aid the infant as to screen him from his father or mother, except on some occasions as he could be used by them as adjuncts, toys or decorations. Although this only describes a minority of parents it was always in the best interests for the child not to be heard or in the way, it was rarely taken to the extent of screening the child.
It was the era of nurses and nannies, the child was not raised by the woman who gave birth to him, but by the hired help. This assured the parents of a good upbringing, considering they inform the nanny to instill their beliefs and morals onto the children. It also assured constant care and a watchful eye.
The child’s life operated with clockwork regularity, they seldom ventured out of the nursery, unless it was to take a walk in the park or to attend dance class with the nanny. The child ate breakfast at eight o’clock, dinner at 12 o’clock and tea at six o’clock. When the children reached a certain age they were permitted to join their mother for a luncheon at 10 o’clock, and were able to spend one hour prior to dinner in their mother’s dressing room. Other than meals, occasional visits with mother and short walks in the park, the child had nothing to do except play with lavish toys, such as the toy theatre, the steam driven train, jack-in-the-boxes and beautiful dolls.
It was quite important to select a conscientious, attentive type of nurse given she will raise the children until the latter years in which they will be reared by the school. Therefore, parents screened them before hiring them. Many nannies, contrary to the Mary Poppins stereotype were usually unmarried old maids who were strict to the point of being sadistic. Although on the other hand some were warm and caring, providing the only love and companionship in the child’s life. Even with the austere aspects of the nursery, caring nannies could brighten everything up right down to the meals, which were monotonous unlike those of their parents who would feast on a thirteen-course meal while they would force down boiled potatoes and mutton. They were not permitted to indulge in any confectionary, fresh fruit, puffed pastries or sugared candy for it was thought rich foods of that sort were bad for the child’s digestive system along with his morals.
Children who were raised in the wealthy families of this period had lives which were very protective, very suffocating; they were unable to show any emotion to the people responsible for bringing them into this world. They were always to act prim and proper, and to speak only when spoken to. In our day in age we would probably consider that mental abuse, and even though they were the educated ones, the families in the lower classes were more attached, more bonded as a family.
The regime for the upbringing of poorer family was not at all as extravagant and ludicrous of those of aristocracy. They were usually tightly bonded, living in such small quarters, sharing everything, and being unable to afford any hired help to raise the children. The lower class children did not enjoy the expensive toys, the attentions of the nurse maid, nor the comforts of a wholesome diet.
The gap between these children diminished as we entered the twentieth century, albeit during the Victorian era they came to share the same pastimes, educational facilities, and welfare.
The strict upbringing of prominent Victorian children left its mark on society. Even though it has almost been 100 years since the end of this era, it took a very long time for the child to escape the meticulous and rigid manners of such a contrast time and finally be free to express feeling, thought and opinion without being punished.
It leaves one to question the morality and sense in the minds of these parents, who in a way had children that they did not take care of, yet provided for them throughout their lives. Parents wanted perfection instead of devotion. And it seems all preposterous, but it appeared theirs was less violence, more respect, and virtually a better society.
It would appear the Victorians had the right idea in the strictness and the demonstration of respect, but they lacked love and feeling in the realm of child rearing.
Evans, Hillary & Mary. The Victorians. New York: Arco, 1973.
Greenleaf, Barbara Kaye. Children Through The Ages. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978, pp. 78-83.
Kennedy, David. Children. London: Batsford, 1971, pp. 59-67.