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‘In My Protection’: The Life of a Child on the Streets of Victorian London

“Cheer up, lad. No good ever came from moping.” – Sergeant Drake

(Deborah Goren – Played by Lucy Cohu)

In Episode 2 of “Ripper Street,” The Vigilance Committee, distrusting of the H Division’s job in protecting the people of Whitechapel, gather together to accuse a young boy of murdering a toy maker, though the boy denies all charges. We later find out that the boy is Jewish, and seeks protection in a small orphanage run by Ms. Deborah Goren, a Jewish immigrant who runs a shelter for abandoned children.

“This world is a wicked one. But save one life, and you save the world entire,” Ms. Goren tells Inspector Reid, quoting The Talmud, which is second only to The Torah in Judaism.

(The Talmud)

The boy is sent to court, found guilty, and sentenced to hang. But Inspector Reid keeps him in his protection, awaiting a way to prove his innocence. The boy, we find out, is being held captive by a merciless gang run by what citizens in the court call a ‘Fagin.’

Someone who is referred to as such was known for being a teacher of pickpocketing, along with other various tactics on how to break the law. He was traditionally of Jewish background. This term came from the novel ‘Oliver Twist,’ by Charles Dickens, who wrote countless tales of how difficult it was to be a child during this time period.

Life expectancy for children was no higher than merely 10 years old and child labor laws were non-existent. Not unlike the main character in ‘Oliver Twist,’ boys without parents or guardians were often sent to workhouses, which provided food and shelter in return for hard, and harsh work.

Londoners often died of diseases like cholera, measles and scarlet fever at a very young age, and daily conditions for both rich and poor were far from sanitary due to lack of medical knowledge and hygiene.

The Museum of London states that “In London slums, more than half of all babies died before their 1st birthday.”

oil on canvas - The Crossing Sweeper

(‘The Crossing Sweeper,’ by William Frith – 1858 -Museum of London)

Most children in Whitechapel would not have been able to go to school, as they would have had to work to help support their families. Boys would work as chimney sweepers, newspaper messengers, or find a gig making matchboxes. Boys and girls would also act as ‘crossing sweepers,’ as it was risky just crossing the street in Victorian London, due to horse muck. Rich people did not wish to soil their clothes, so they would give tuppence to children who swept the way for them. In the 1850s, one in nine girls over the age of 10 worked as domestic servants for well-off households.

photographic print - Returning from the pawnbroker

(Photograph of a young man returning home from work – Museum of London)

Due to the lack of free time on their hands, these children likely didn’t play much with toys, nor were they much treated like children, but little adults. Girls would sometimes make rag dolls out of old laundry, and boys would play with marbles or tin drums, all made from whatever they could scrounge from the streets.

But for children like the accused gang member in “Ripper Street,” he’d be lucky to find a safe place to sleep and food to eat, let alone find time to play.

For more on this topic, check out Anglophenia‘s article ‘Five Filthy Things About Victorian London.’

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