Childhood Mortality

Childhood Mortality

by Mary Johnston

The issue of childhood mortality is written into the works of Gaskell and Dickens with alarming regularity. In Mary Barton, Alice tells Mary and Margaret that before Will was orphaned, his family had buried his six siblings. There is also the death of the Wilson twins, as well as Tom Barton's early death --an event which inspires his father John to fight for labor rights because he's certain his son would have survived if he'd had better food. In Oliver Twist, Dick's early death is typical of workhouse children who never recover from years of chronic malnutrition. And in Dombey and Son, Paul demonstrates that wealth does not guarantee longevity, as we watch him steadily weakened by some mysterious illness. Evidence is everywhere that Gaskell, Dickens, and many of their contemporaries, used fiction to chronicle a sad fact of l9th century life: Many children didn't live to become adults.

At the Newell Historical Burial ground in Attleboro, the stone marking the graves of the Stanley family reads:

Husband-- Seneca M. Stanley (1804-1877)
Wife-- Mary A. Stanley (1811-1896)
Children-- William Arthur (1837-1837)
  Joseph George (1840-1840)
  Lydia Ann (1840-1840)

Mary and Seneca lived long lives for the times, but William, as well as Joseph and Lydia, who might have been twins, were either stillborn or died before their first birthdays. If there were any other children who survived childhood, they were probably daughters who were buried in their husbands' family plots.

A typical grave from the mid-19th century is a husband's stone flanked by two or even three wives each but the last having died in her 20s or 30s. Certainly many of these women died in childbirth, because their death dates match the birth dates on the children's stones.

Several children might be named after the father. In one family plot with eight children, three were named John because only the third one survived the first year. At a time when the death of a toddler was as normal as this practice was quite common in both America and England.

While all of Dombey's money couldn't save his son from dying, little Paul's diet, lifestyle, and medical attention gave him every advantage available. The relationship between poverty and childhood mortality is unmistakable. In Boston's Irish Catholic slums, Lemuel Shattuck found that between 1841 and 1845, 61% of the population died before the age of five. (Woodham-Smith, p. 252) Poor English children didn't fare any particularly in the manufacturing towns of London, Sheffield, Leocester, Manchester, and Liverpool. Statistics from the Sheffield General Infirmary' between 1837 and 1842 reveal that of 11,944 deaths, half were children under age five:

Under 1:           2,983
Age 1:   1,511
2 to 4:   1,544
Total:   6,038

Health officials also attempted to determine the average age at death for different classes in 1842.

  Gentry Tradesmen Labourers
















Bethnal Green








Several factors contributed to high mortality rates among poor children, including vitamin-deficient diets and a complete lack of sanitation. These conditions were then worsened by overcrowded living conditions, and by some of the most unhealthy working environments imaginable. (See Deb Taft's paper on housing).

Poor nutrition greatly affected the health of the poor, and unusual choices were sometimes made in its distribution. In many areas of Ireland and Sweden, for example, food was served to boys and men first under a cultural norm called the "peasant feeding rule." This practice took place in poor rural and urban areas, and was based on the belief that females either needed or deserved less food.

Undoubtedly, some of the highest rates of childhood mortality in the mid-19th century followed the 1845 Irish potato blight. Families with children needed more money to emigrate than single individuals, resulting in a disproportionate number of children who starved to death. By 1847, when the full effects of the famine were being realized, children in rural Irish areas were described as skeletons, with sagging, wrinkled, flesh on their arms and skin taut on their empty, distended stomachs. Prolonged starvation even caused the hair on their heads to fall out in patches, while long, downy hairs grew on the forehead and temples. R.D.Webb of the Society of Friends was one of many who remarked that these starving Irish children looked like "monkeys." (How original!)

Even those children who didn't starve often suffered physically as a result of poor nutrition. Many lived on bread and tea, and the little meat which supplemented this diet was of poor quality and often prepared in the one contaminated pan the family owned. Such unbalanced diets were linked to the increased incidence of infectious disease in poor neighborhoods. Nutritional deficiencies stunt the production of normal antibodies, which raise the body's resistance and promote healing. And often, a vicious cycle would occur when infectious disease would set in, because it often reduced the appetite and caused an intolerance for food. These problems were then compounded by the poor physical conditions of the overcrowded slums where they lived.

In the middle of the l9th century, medical experts and health officials were just beginning to connect germs with the spread of disease. Some of the wealthier sections of London had been provided with paved roads and a sewer system as early as the 18th century, but the neglected, muddy slums of the East End of London and the waterfront were ideal breeding grounds for bacteria. In some areas, polluted rivers which held refuse also supplied the residents' drinking water. E.P.Thompson noted that, "The industrial town-dweller often could not escape the stench of industrial refuse and of open sewers, and his children played among the garbage and privy middens." It's easy to understand how contagious diseases like measles, scarlet fever, and small pox, quickly became epidemic. Cholera, dysentery and other intestinal disorders were also easily transmitted by contaminated food and water, and these ailments were almost always fatal for their youngest victims.

Since so many poor lived in crowded basement apartments, they frequently experienced flooding due to the lack of planned drainage, and for the thousands who lived near the Thames River or the Atlantic Ocean, there was no escape from the moldy dampness. In 1849, Dr. Henry Clark described Half-Moon Place in Boston (behind Broad Street on the side of Fort Hill):

One cellar was reported by the police to be occupied nightly as a sleeping-apartment for 39 persons. In another, the tide had risen so high that it was necessary to approach the bedside of a patient by means of a plank which was laid from one stool to another; while the dead body of an infant was actually sailing about the room in its coffin. (Ware p. 13)

Many poor children were exposed to hazardous conditions in the factories, although by the middle of the l9th century, just breathing the air could be dangerous, depending on where one lived. The tuberculosis rates in Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, and Sheffield were twice as high for women and five times higher for men, compared to those who didn't reside in factory towns. This is partly due to the excessive burning of pure coal, to power the factories and heat the homes. In 1829, the consumption of coal in England and Wales was 3.5 million tons for manufacturing and 5.5 million tons for household use, and this was still just the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Tuberculosis was contagious, and further aggravated by the poor respiratory health common to the men, women and children who sometimes spent 14 hours a day in factories. And while T.B. was more fatal to young adults than children, the harbored bacillus in a child would usually cause a far more severe reaction later in life. Poor air quality also increased the incidence of childhood asthma.

The lack of ventilation in the factories meant that workers constantly breathed air poisoned with germs and chemicals. The report titled "Hygiene in Massachusetts," 'describes the winter environment of Lowell's Merrimac Mill in 1849.

...for four months when the windows are closed and generally double, each room has fifty solar lamps burning morning and evening, which assist not only in impuring the confined air, but also in raising the temperature frequently to ninety degrees before closing work at night. In all kinds of weather the operatives, with hastily adjusted dress, emerge from this atmosphere, to their boarding-places, partake of a plain but substantial dinner, and return to resume their labor in the space of forty-five minutes. (Ware p. 99)

For months, the only ventilation in this textile mill came from the opening of doors as workers came and went, and these people breathed the same, stale, fiber-filled air day after day. Many of those trapped inside these factories were children.

The concept of childhood is a relatively new one, and there were few laws protecting them from working alongside their parents in the mills. Before the Factory Acts of 1847 which stipulated that children under the age of nine could not work in the textile mills, children as young as four were employed to perform a simple task, and often, had even spent most of their unemployed infancies in the deafening, dirty factories. E.P. Thompson notes:

...Mothers, for fear of losing their employment, returned to the mill three weeks or less after the birth: still, in some Lancashire and West Riding towns, infants were carried in the 1840s to the mills to be suckled in the meal-break. Girl-mothers, who had perhaps worked in the mill from the age of eight or nine, had no domestic training: medical ignorance was appalling: the parents were a prey to fatalistic superstitions (which the churches sometimes encouraged): opiates, notably laudanum, were used to make the crying baby quiet. Infants and toddlers were left in the care of relatives, old baby-farming crones, or children too small to find work at the mill. Some were given dirty rag-dummies to suck, in which is tied a piece of bread soaked in milk and water, and toddlers of two and three could be seen running about with these rags in their mouths, in the neighborhood of factories.

Some of these toddlers were soon employed by the factories; there is even a report of a 20-month-old baby drawing lace in a factory. (Ginswick, p. 157) In Derby, England, silk twist boys were hired to run silk thread to be spun between hooks, and they usually ran at the rate of 5 or 6 m.p.h., covering more than 20 miles per day. In textile mills, girls as young as 5 or 6 would mend imperfections in manufactured lace, and black lace was particularly hard on the eyes. When combined with poor lighting, these conditions resulted in near-sightedness or even blindness. In Mary Barton, Margaret Legh demonstrates this particular occupational hazard when she loses her sight sewing mourning clothes. Luckily for Margaret, she is also a talented singer, so she can continue to support herself and her father, but one can only imagine the dismal fate for young blind women who couldn't even perform slopwork.

Poor families needed everyone to contribute support, and while the factory was known to be hazardous to health, these dangers paled beside more immediate needs as hunger. In Mary Barton, for example, Mrs. Davenport is angry about the new child labor laws. She wants to lie about her son Ben's age to the factory manager, because if he doesn't work he'll starve. (p. 129)

But the worst exploitation of children was as coal mine laborers and chimney sweeps. Because they were able to fit into small spaces, girls and boys were sent into the coal pits as "trappers." Naked to the waist to slide through the tunnels easily, they'd squat for 12 hours, often in complete darkness, ready to close the doors behind coal putters. When the upper classes learned of this, some were appalled --not so much because children were performing this dangerous work, but because of the "unchristian" manner of dress in a coed working environment.

As a chimney sweep, a child six, seven, but sometimes as young as four, was sold to a master sweep by the parent or whoever happened to have custody of the child at the moment. (In Oliver Twist, Mr. Bumble tried to sell Oliver to Mr. Limbkin for this purpose, but a sympathetic magistrate refused to allow the arrangement--p. 42-5). Chimney sweeps, like many trades, apprenticed for 7 years, but unlike other careers, most sweeps had no marketable skills at the end of their training because they grew too big to fit in the 9" or even 7" chimneys. They usually worked naked, both to save room and to allow them to slide' more easily, and knees and elbows were scraped and bleeding until they eventually callused. Children afraid to go up into the dark holes were coaxed with fire, slaps, pole prods or needle pricks on the soles of their feet. At the end of the day, the workbag of soot doubled as a soft bed to sleep on.

These children suffered twisted spines and kneecaps, deformed ankles, eye inflammations and respiratory illnesses, and were only allowed to bathe a few times a year. An ailment known as "chimney sweep's cancer" commonly appeared on the scrotum from the constant irritation of the soot on their naked bodies. Many sweeps were maimed or killed after falling or being badly burned, while others suffocated when they became trapped in the curves of the chimneys. In 1847, the Factory Acts were passed to offer (minimum) protection to women and children in the mills, but using children as sweeps was not outlawed until 1870.

Poverty indirectly caused many childhood deaths in the tenement slums, but children living on the streets with their single mothers were even less apt to survive into adulthood. In Voices of the Poor, Henry Mayhew interviewed many women who worked as prostitutes, often after being widowed or abandoned by their husbands and discovering they could not support their children on slop workers' wages. One woman, who'd been widowed for 7 years, told Mayhew a story which was unfortunately, quite typical of women living on the street:

...I have no children alive. I have buried three. I had two children alive when my husband died. The youngest was five and the other was seven... After his death I was penniless, with two young children. The only means I had of keeping myself and little ones was by the slop work; My eldest boy died of scarlatina. My second boy has only been dead five months. He died of the whooping-cough. I loved him as I did my life; but I was glad he was took from me, for I know he's better now than I could have done for him. He could but have been brought up in the worst kind of poverty by me, and God only knows what might have become of him if he had lived." (p. 86-7)

Accepting workhouse charity was considered an even worse alternative than prostitution for many of these women: not only would they be separated from their children, but many believed these institutions were more lethal than the streets. One woman who was homeless with one child while pregnant with another, told Mayhew,

...I was without a home. I worked till I was within two months of my confinement, and then I walked the streets for six weeks, with my child in my arms. At last I went into Wapping Union: my child was taken from me, and there (bursting into tears) he was murdered. I mean he was torn from me, and when I next saw him he as a mere shadow. I took my discharge, and took him out, dying as he was. I took one in my arms, and my boy, dying as he was, and we wandered the streets for two or three days and nights. I then went back to the house. The matron said she would not take my child from me. She said he was dying, and he should die beside me. He died eleven days after we went in.

I took my discharge again. I tried again to get a living, but I found it impossible, for I had no home, no friends, no means to get work. I then went in again, and the Lord took away my second child...(p. 100)

In Oliver Twist, Dickens often presents Mr. Bumble making jokes about feeding the workhouse children as little as possible. But after reading several other Mayhew interviews which tell of mothers losing children to the workhouse, it's obvious that Mr. Bumble wasn't kidding at all.


Dickens, Charles, Dombey and Son, New York, Penguin Books, first published in 1848.

Dickens, Charles, Oliver Twist, New York, Penguin Books, first published in 1838.

Eversley, D.E.C., Social Theories of Fertility and the Malthusian Debate, London, Oxford University Press, 1959.

Gaskell, Elizabeth, Mary Barton, New York, Penguin Books, first published in 1848.

Ginkswick, J., Ed. Labour and the Poor in England and Wales, (1849-1851), London, Frank Cass & Co., (originally published in the Morning Chronicle, 1849-1851), 1971.

Ginsberg, Caren A. Sex-Specific Mortality and the Economic Value of Children in Nineteenth Century Massachusetts, New York, Garland Publishing Inc., 1989.

Kay-Shuttleworth, James, The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working-Classes, 2nd ed.

Mayhew, Henry, Voices of the Poor, London, Frank Cass & Co., (originally published in the Morning Chronicle 1849-1850), 1971.

Murmi, Martin K., Blake: A Collection of Critical Essays.

Preston and Haines, Fatal Years, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1991.

Thompson, E.P., The Making of the English Working Class.

Ware, Norman. The Industrial Worker 1840-1860, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1924.

Woodham-Smith. The Great Hunger.

Yasuba, Yasukichi. Birth Rates of the White Population in the United States, 1800-1860: An Economic Study, Baltimore, John Hopkins Press, 1962.

Yelling, J.A. Slums and Slum Clearance in Victorian London, London, Allen & Unwin, 1986.


When  A Child Dies

  All heaven was in mourning,
  The day that young man died,
  When He closed His eyes, they said,
  Ten thousand angels cried.

  The angels shed their many tears,
  Because He was God's Son,
  But there is a special sadness,
  When God takes the very young.

  At times like that, I question God ,
  Why let a child die?
  I cannot understand it,
  And I need to ask Him why

  I, too, have heard the angels cry,
  I've heard them cry first hand,
  For I, too, gave up a child,
  And I've tried hard to understand.

  Yes, I received God's comfort,
  Though I'm grateful, I  want more,
  I want reasons; I want meaning,
  I am a parent who's heart-sore.

  God can give, and God can take,
  I am well aware of this,
  But, why my baby - why my child?
  Why did God put him on His list?

  Did I love my child too much?
  Was he too good for this old earth?
  Had his purpose here been filled?
  Was that why he was taken first?

  I awake each day with questions,
  I fall asleep at night, the same,
  So many times I ask God why,
  I'm both saddened and ashamed

  But then, in reflective moments,
  When my prayers are most intense,
  One word keeps going through my mind,
  Patience - patience - patience.

  Maybe now is not the time,
  To explain this great heartache,
  Even if I knew God's reasons,
  What difference would it make?

  Can't I just be grateful,
  For any time we had?
  Accept God's action without question?
  Why is that so very bad?

  What's my hurry - why my pressure?
  Is my faith not strong enough?
  God will explain it when He's ready,
  Surely I can trust that much.

  God understands my broken heart,
  He, too, gave up a Son,
  He knows the pain of one lost child,
  He weeps with me, and we are one.

  Just as I talk to God each day,
  I talk to my precious child,
  I blow him kisses, and I say,
  "See you, honey, in a while."


Author, Virginia Ellis,
(copyight 2000, used with permission)
Ginny's Place


he paintings use to make these graphics are by artist
ęGreg Olsen and used
with his permission.





Up Victorian Children Child Etiquette Raising the kids Breastfeeding Childhood Mortality

Philadelphia, November 1850


BY L. J. W.

"THE twilight stars are dark to-night,
The heavens are clouded o'er;
The moon will not come out as bright
As she has done before.
The wind is sweeping mournfully,
I hear it even now-
I feel its fingers softly touch
My hot and fevered brow.
"I list the sighing of the breeze,
And almost catch the tone
That whispers with the forest leaves,
And echoes to their moan.
The streamlet dances playfully,
In its unfettered flow,
And never did its gushing seem
So musical and low.
"But oh, my heart is sad to-night!
What means this wild unrest?
My mother, come and lay my head
More closely on thy breast;
And place thy soft, familiar hand
Upon my burning brow-
'Twill calm the wildness of my brain,
That beats so madly now!
"But hark, my mother, what bright forms
Are those that float around,
With snowy robes and golden wings,
And starry brightness crowned?
With softened eyes and sunny smiles,
And looks of heavenly love,
They call me all their angel child,
And beckon me above!
"And Willie dear, who went to sleep,
And never waked again,
Is with me now with a sunny brow,
And he harps an angel strain;
And he calls to me with a silvery tone,
And a look of melting love,
To come and take my golden harp,
In the beautiful land above.
"Oh, kiss me, mother, and let me feel
Thy soft hand on my hair,
And I will go with the angel band,
And pray for thy coming there!"