It is a sad fact of l9th century life that many children didn't live to become adults.
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.
The relationship between poverty and childhood mortality is unmistakable. In Boston's Irish Catholic slums, between 1841 and 1845, 61% of the population died before the age of five. Poor English children didn't fare any better particularly in the manufacturing towns of London, Sheffield, Leicester, 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
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.
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." 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. 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.
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.
For months, the only ventilation in the 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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
How beautiful it is to do nothing and rest afterwards...........