Young Victorians: Childhood in Elmbridge 1837-1901

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Children's lives in Victorian Elmbridge may seem unlike those today, but through these artefacts we can see similar experiences of home, play and school.

What do we mean by the Victorian era? The period is defined by the 64 year reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901. Life for a child born at the beginning of this period would have been different to one born at the end.

During this time industrialisation led many families into towns and cities. Initially, there was a decline in living conditions, and workers had little political power to change unfair practices. However, by the end of the period life expectancy had increased by ten years, workers had organised into unions, and the right to vote had been partially extended.

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By looking at the lives of children throughout this timeframe, we can see the radical changes that not only took place during the reign of Queen Victoria, but also since her death. Many aspects of everyday life, such as regularly attending church, have lessened since the nineteenth century, but it will be shown how certain childhood traits such as play have always had a place of the lives in children.


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Before direct intervention by the state in the 1870s, many children only received a basic education. Schools were run on charitable basis by individuals that wanted to help educate the very poor.

Ragged Schools and Dame Schools were charitable organisations. Ragged Schools were larger than Dame Schools and were set up in industrial cities. Dame Schools were run by an individual female and were usually based in her home. Parents would give the teacher a small weekly fee for the education of their child. There were Dame Schools all over the local area; however, up to 1870 and the introduction of compulsory education, the teaching standards of Dame Schools varied significantly, from day care to good foundational education.

A sampler is an example of needlework skills stitched into a piece of fabric. Victorian schoolgirls used samplers to learn and practice new needlework techniques.

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Ellen Watkins, a student at East Molesey School, produced this sampler in 1872. As well as the alphabet and the numbers 1-5, it has a verse that reads "to speak the truth is always right". Often, samplers were used as educational tools that also contained moral or religious passages.


MP Francis Drake, of Esher, founded a Dame School in Weybridge in 1634 - one of the first schools in the borough. The Old School Cottages in Baker Street was the site of the school from 1650 onwards.

The British state had imposed The Factory Act since 1833 which stipulated that employees had to provide part-time education for workers under the age of 13. This law, however, was easily bypassed. Breakthroughs came in 1870 when Government funded schools could be built across the country, and again in 1880 when education for all children was made compulsory up to the age of 13.

Victorian school slate
Victorian school slate



Victorian schooling probably leaves its biggest legacy in literature. Charles Dickens' novels paint a very grim picture of school life for a child living through the nineteenth century. Dickens visited schools in London and wrote on school systems. He said of Field Lane Ragged School, which was typical of the era, that it was just "two or three...miserable rooms, upstairs in a miserable house".




'English Struwwelpeter' by Heinrich Hoffmann. Elmbridge Museum
'English Struwwelpeter' by Heinrich Hoffmann

The Ragged School Museum, in London's East End, shows what a Victorian Ragged School would have looked like. The original school was opened in 1877 by Dr. Barnardo, and was the largest of its kind at the time.


 Victorian children's literature

Falling between education and fun, books became progressively more available throughout Queen Victoria's reign. Not only was this due to the fact that more of the population could now read, but rapid industrial and infrastructural growth meant that books were cheaper to produce and to transport.

Moral and instructive literature, such as the stories by Heinrich Hoffmann collected in Struwwelpeter, was a staple of educational life for Victorian children. However, their appeal lay in the fact they were also incredibly entertaining.



Boys Own Annual 1887, cover (left) and open (right)
Boys Own Annual 1887, cover (left) and open (right) On the inside cover there is an illustration of a tiger

Boys Own, a weekly paper also published as an annual, was set up not only to encourage young boys to read, but also to instil religious values in its readers.

Romantic writers were keen to make didactic and moral tales the butt of all their literary complaints; claiming that they limited the young readers' imagination.

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Fantasy was also a popular genre throughout the Victorian era but even these novels became tinged with moralistic undertones over time. Stories were written that involved talking animals with human-like family setups.

Alice in Wonderland, a fantastical Victorian classic, celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2015. The story has close links to the local area with Cecil Hepworth producing the first feature-length film adaptation of the book in 1903 at his Walton studio, two years after Queen Victoria's death.

 The Victorian moral story has long been parodied and mocked but this illustrates how much of an institution these stories were. Edward Gorey, the twentieth century American writer and illustrator, often located his work in Victorian settings but inversed the traditional morally instructive model. The majority of the children in his books, instead of learning from their mistakes, usually bring about their own demise.


Victorian Anchor Stone Blocks. Elmbridge Museum
Anchor Stone Blocks



This set of construction bricks is a fine example of Victorian era building toys. Because of the Kindergarten system, many of these toys, including this specific set, originated in Germany. Anchor Stone Blocks were produced using precisely moulded quartz sand, chalk and linseed oil and came in three colours (brick red, limestone yellow and slate blue) to make them as true to life as possible. Famous people such as Max Born, Albert Einstein and Walter Gropius all exercised their creativity by playing with Anchor Stones.