For most human beings, children and adults both, the dominant consideration in life until modern times was purely, unrelievedly economic. In poorer households – and that is what most homes were, of course – every person was, from the earliest possible moment, a unit of production. John Locke, in a paper for the Board of Trade in 1697, suggested that the children of the poor should be put to work from the age of three, and no one thought that unrealistic or unkind.
Until well into the nineteenth century children received almost nothing in the way of legal protection. Before 1814 no law forbade the theft of a child, for instance. In Middlesex in 1802 a woman named Elizabeth Salmon, after abducting a child named Elizabeth Impey, was charged with stealing her cap and gown because that was the only part of the offence that was illegal. Because abduction carried so little risk, it was widely believed that gypsies stole children and sold them on, and there appears to have been some truth in that.
In consequence of the unrelentingly dire conditions, mortality figures soared wherever the poor congregated. In Dudley, in the Midlands, the average life expectancy at birth at mid-century had sunk to just 18.5 years, a lifespan not seen in Britain since the Bronze Age. In even the healthiest cities, the average life expectancy was twenty-six to twenty-eight, and nowhere in urban Britain did it exceed thirty.
There can be few more telling facts about life in nineteenth-century Britain than that the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals preceded by sixty years the founding of a similar organization for the protection of children. It is perhaps no less notable that the first named was made Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1840, a little more than a decade and a half after its founding. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children remains to this day regally unblessed.
Bill Bryson, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, 2010