How will these resources help you?

Following the Industrial Revolution in the mid-nineteenth century, the working population of cities, and London in particular, increased enormously, leading to overcrowding and poverty. Disease and early death were common. As a result, thousands of children were left without parents. Orphanages funded by rich philanthropists existed, but the uncomfortable truth is that conditions varied, and children who could not find a place had to live in a workhouse or on the streets. The orphan is a popular figure in Victorian literature, but few formal institutional records or first-hand accounts survive. 

The orphan in Victorian literature

Oliver Twist

by Charles Dickens, published by Wordsworth Classics, (2020), 9781853260124

The image of the orphan as the brave survivor, who maintains their moral integrity in the face of many challenges and eventually emerges to triumph, is a feature of Victorian literature. The famous tale of Oliver Twist is the prime example. The novel was first published as a magazine serial with the subtitle ‘A Parish Boy’s Progress’ with the intention of criticising the harsh new Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. The early chapters give a real sense of the grim reality of life for Victorian orphans.

Barnardo’s ‘Ragged School’

Barnardo’s: Our History

published by Barnado’s ‘Ragged School’, (2021)

Thomas Barnardo’s first encounter with homeless children in London made him determined to improve the appalling conditions they had to endure. He revolutionised the concept of orphanages and set up a chain of small homes known as ‘ragged schools’, where boys were trained in a trade and girls as domestic staff, offering them an alternative to crime and prostitution. Barnardo’s work laid the foundations for the way children are cared for today. The webpage gives a brief but very useful summary of the organisation’s history and ethos.

A first-hand account

Indoor Paupers: Life inside a London Workhouse

by ‘One of Them’ (anonymous), with a preface by Peter Higginbotham, published by The Workhouse Press, (2013), 9781482083989

This book is a unique full-length account written anonymously by a male inmate in the 1880s. It includes fascinating first-hand details about his life and there is an informative preface written by the author. Higginbotham is the author of several books about Victorian orphanages and workhouses. See Further Materials for a website that offers an overview of the British workhouse through history. It has many useful sections, including one on how the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act resulted in the construction of many purpose-built workhouses.

Audiovisual clip

A House Through Time - The Foundling Museum

published by BBC, (2020)

An insight into the reason why the Foundling Hospital was created.

Further Materials

The workhouse: the story of an institution by Peter Higginbotham Visit this website
Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London by Andrea Warren, published by Clarion Books, (2017), 9780544932609 Find this book
Orphans in fiction by John Mullan, published by the British Library, (2014) Read this article
Karen Wallace has written over 300 fiction and non-fiction books for children. Think of an Eel won the Times Education Award and the Kurt Maschler Award in the UK. It also won the Parents’ Choice Gold Award in the US. Her first novel Raspberries on the Yangtze was shortlisted for the Guardian Young Fiction Award.

Text © Karen Wallace, 2021.