“Intentional Neglect.” On the Creation of Nationalized Child Protection in Victorian England

The idea of the pure and innocent child whom adults needed to protect and nurture had emerged in the work of Romantic thinkers and poets of the late eighteenth century. It reached new heights during the Victorian era when childhood was idealized and sentimentalized—but also scrutinized—to a degree not seen before. There was a new and intense interest in children’s experiences, from Charles Darwin’s close observations of his infant son, which laid the foundations for a new academic discipline of developmental psychology, to the birth of the child study movement, in which anthropologists, archaeologists, biologists and psychologists studied children scientifically and systematically.

This focus on the child also ran through the literature of the period, most notably in the novels of Charles Dickens, whose archetypal depictions of childhood in characters such as Little Nell, Oliver Twist or Florence Dombey represented the purity, devotion and fragility of childhood and emphasized children’s need to be both physically and emotionally nurtured. He also created several archetypes of the neglectful and abusive parent: Paul Dombey, for example, who emotionally neglects and abuses his daughter and, arguably, his son, and Mrs Jellaby, who is more interested in the undifferentiated poor children of Africa than her own offspring.

The idealized child in Victorian England was economically valueless but emotionally priceless, conceptualized as innocent, passive, dependent and needing to be protected and sheltered. This innocence was fragile, however, and demanded constant adult vigilance and supervision. It was also highly dependent on class, gender and ethnicity, and increasingly it was only the private, domestic and enclosed middle-class home which was able to provide and nurture this innocence.

While “the necessity for children of the very poor to beg or go hungry was largely accepted as a fact of life a century earlier, by the mid-[nineteenth] century, such a necessity was deemed unacceptable, and, by the 1890s, criminal.” Those parents who could not, or did not, provide a home that satisfied middle-class norms of morality and decency were seen as neglectful, and the best course of action deemed to be separation from their children.

The child who was not innocent, not properly nurtured and unsheltered was an anomaly which caused consternation. Henry Mayhew, in his comprehensive study of London street life, came across an eight-year-old girl selling watercress. “Her little face, pale and thin with privation, was wrinkled where the dimples ought to have been, and she would sigh frequently.” Despite her age, she “had entirely lost all childish ways, and was, indeed, in thoughts and manner, a woman.” He was at a loss as to know how to talk to her. He starts by talking to her as a child, “speaking on childish subjects; so that I might, by being familiar with her, remove all shyness, and get her to narrate her life freely. I asked her about her toys and her games and her companions; but the look of amazement that answered me soon put an end to any attempt at fun on my part.”

The watercress girl is not familiar with this aspect of childhood and has no experience of playing for pleasure. Mayhew then tries talking about the parks and the closest thing to nature she might know but she has not heard of them and does not know what to do in them. “Would they let such as me go there,” she asked, “just to look?”

Mayhew is moved by the child’s description of her life, and the way she has been deprived of her childhood, to the point where he finds her account “cruelly pathetic.” As a middle-class man, Mayhew is confronted with a working-class child who challenges and disturbs his notion of what a child is, how she should behave, how she should be looked after and even what she should look like. Where she should be dimpled, she is wrinkled, her natural milieu should be the parks, not the streets, and instead of radiating innocence she is unhealthy, undernourished and possibly corrupted. The watercress girl provoked pity but also, to a certain extent, fear.

As many literary critics, historians and sociologists have pointed out, the cult of the child, while predicated on notions of innate innocence and goodness, was ambiguous and always accompanied by the shadow of experience and depravity. Among the Victorians, the “uneasy complicity of good and evil can be observed in the case of children” and they “could not make up their mind whether children were angelic or demonic, Oliver Twists or Artful Dodgers.”

The emphasis on innocence left whole categories of children in an ambivalent limbo, not innocent, not children but something altogether more unsettling; possibly criminal and almost certainly a threat. Johnson Barker, a Victorian supporter of the Church of England Waifs and Strays Society, declared with some puzzlement that “the child should be innocent, yet we are confronted with the child not only familiar with crime, but also actually criminal.”

The idealized child in Victorian England was economically valueless but emotionally priceless, conceptualized as innocent, passive, dependent and needing to be protected and sheltered. This innocence was fragile, however, and demanded constant adult vigilance and supervision.

Neglect had become a criminal offense in 1868 when Section 37 of the Poor Law Amendment Act made it an offence to “wilfully neglect to provide adequate food, clothing, medical aid, or lodging for [a] child… whereby the health of such child shall have been or shall be likely to be seriously injured.” Although the Act brought with it the possibility of a prison term of six months with or without hard labor, enforcement was almost non-existent, except when used to prosecute parents from particular Christian sects, whose religious beliefs forbade them to give medicine to their children. Familiar or unexceptional neglect was ignored, or possibly not noticed.

While there was a push to define and criminalize “child cruelty” in the 1880s, which culminated in the ground-breaking 1889 Prevention of Cruelty to, and Protection of, Children Act, there was much debate over whether to include neglect in the legislation. As the Bill passed through Parliament, the word “neglect” was debated, removed and reinstated several times until agreement was reached that it referred only to “intentional neglect,” whatever that might mean.

When cases of neglect were prosecuted, they clearly showed the fault lines in Victorian society between men and women, the middle and working classes, and the disrespectable and respectable poor. Studies of parents prosecuted for child neglect in the 1870s and beyond show distinct patterns, with women, and mothers in particular, more likely to be found guilty than men or their middle-class peers, and more likely to receive heavier sentences.

In 1878, for example, Frederick and Elizabeth Wise were prosecuted for manslaughter after their one-year-old child died. The child was malnourished, underweight and there were open sores all over the body. While both husband and wife were found guilty of manslaughter, Frederick received only three months’ imprisonment while Elizabeth received 15 months. There were high levels of squalor, violence and drunkenness in the house, and when Elizabeth was arrested she had two black eyes.

In court, however, Elizabeth was vilified as a habitual drunk who would pass out on the kitchen floor and had to be kicked awake, while her husband was described as “moderately sober,” and it was claimed that being drunk was not his “constant practice.” Indeed, his violence against his wife was warmly commended by the jury as an appropriate response to her neglect of their child, and there was a strong recommendation to mercy for him by the jury.

Nine years later, in 1887, William Neale and his wife Alice were prosecuted over the neglect of their six-month-old daughter which ended in her death by starvation. William was unemployed and, because he could not afford food for her, was acquitted. His wife was found guilty of manslaughter because she did not take the child to the workhouse. Although fathers were treated more harshly if they were habitual drunks, it was poor women who bore the brunt of social opprobrium against child neglect, perhaps reflecting long-standing beliefs that a woman, as Mrs Brown had argued before the magistrates in 1825, was “more blameable than her husband” because “the care of children was rather the duty of a woman than a man.”

Although the term “intentional neglect” was never clearly defined in the nineteenth century, it quickly became synonymous with dirt, pollution and “matter out of place.” Neglect was a form of both physical and moral harm, rendering children dirty when they should be clean and disgusting when they should be pure. Parents were neglecting their children by failing to provide food, accommodation and, increasingly, education, but they were also neglecting them morally, rendering them “moral dirt.”

The imagery of sewers and waste runs through descriptions of the poor at the time; they are variously described as “foul wretches” and “moral filth” who lay heaped in “stagnant pools” about the streets. “Their houses were depicted as cesspits.” Those children who were poor, those who worked, those who begged or stole, those who were homeless, those who were racialized as different in any way (Irish children made up a large proportion of the London and Liverpool poor), those who knew about sex and those whose innocence had been replaced by experience were deemed as neglected. They were dangerous and contaminating to others—“a polluting presence.” They found themselves labelled the “submerged tenth,” “a race apart,” “street Arabs” who lived in “Darkest England” and a threat to the middle-class family, the nation and the English race.

Neglect was a form of both physical and moral harm, rendering children dirty when they should be clean and disgusting when they should be pure.

The emphasis on stench and putrefaction recurs in descriptions of the poor by inspectors from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). This organization had been set up in 1889 under the patronage of Queen Victoria. Modelled on the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) and the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the NSPCC was formed by the merger of local societies such as the Liverpool Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (founded in 1883) and the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (founded in 1884).

It quickly became one of the most important and influential non-governmental agencies working for the welfare of children, pushing for both legislative change and intervening directly within families. It appointed its own quasi social workers in the form of inspectors to investigate cruelty to children and parental neglect. These inspectors were quick to equate the reek of poverty with the smell of moral decay.

In 1898, one NSPCC inspector wrote, “When patrolling various slums, I discovered the four children of Thomas P… They were all sickly, pale faced and greatly distressed in appearance… I examined them and found their clothing filthy and bloodstained. Their bodies a mass of bites and full of eruptions. The house (two rooms) was foul and filthy with dirt.” In the same year, an NSPCC colleague in York reported on another family. “The downstairs place is always in semi-darkness, damp and filthy… Upstairs is a kind of loft which contains straw bundles and loose straw, but no covering, whatsoever. The place is filthy and smells foul.” Elsewhere, an inspector found a baby dying of pneumonia, his face “bedaubed with mucous and dirt,” lying in a cradle next to a shared family bed “in a wretched dirt state.”

The association of dirt, pollution and neglect became even more pronounced in the twentieth century. By 1914, 80 to 90 percent of child cruelty cases identified by the NSPCC were classified as neglect, compared with 7 to 10 percent for ill-treatment and assault and less than one per cent for sexual offenses. Disgust at the dirt and the stench of some children’s homes pervades these reports. A 1909 report on “alleged neglect” in the Green family of Cardiff describes the living conditions of four children aged between one and thirteen.

The woman and two youngest children were at home, but for more than twenty minutes she refused to open the door, she simply cheeked me through the window. But, when she did open it and I went inside the hot musty and dirty stench drove me out again and I had to have the back door open too. The woman and two children were as black as tinkers… When I got home, I had caught 26 fleas. I had to have a bath and change all my clothing. I even had a flea in my hair.

Neglect in this instance is not only disgusting but polluting, infecting both the children and the social workers alike.

Fifty years later, the conflation of neglect and the pungency of the “hopeless home” remained as strong as ever. The authors of a 1961 history of the NSPCC wrote:

It is almost impossible to describe the conditions of acute neglect, filth and degradation and stench in which many of these children exist. No descriptive writing can bring to mind the air of total disorder, the lack of warmth or comfort, or the smell of the saturated beds, unwashed people, absence of feminine hygiene, and putrefying food that add up to the truly neglected household.

The most important criterion used in classifying a neglectful home was: “The Smell. Easy to pass to it but much more hard to convey its character in writing. It is a curious mixture of dirt, ill-ventilation, bugs and body excretions. No one can accurately describe it. It is very slightly sweet, yet almost acrid, and invariably revolting. More than the mere smell of poverty, it was the smell of deviance, of failure to conform to social norms and raise children in the socially appropriate manner with the right values and the right behaviors.”



Excerpted from Familiar Violence: A History of Child Abuse by Heather Montgomery. Copyright © 2024. Available from Polity Books.

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