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Glad ur not... diseased | Life for children in Victorian Britain | Birmingham City Council

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Glad ur not... diseased

Babies born today are likely to live to 100, but children living in the 19th century would be lucky to survive beyond their 30th birthday. Often working for 12 hours per day, exhausted children would return home to a poor meal in a cramped, damp house in an overcrowded slum, where outbreaks of disease were commonplace. Scarlet fever, tuberculosis, typhus and typhoid are now quite rare but were untreatable killers 150 years ago. Living in such terrible conditions meant that poor children were weak, malnourished and unable to fight off illness.

If you were unlucky enough to have to go to hospital, you wouldn’t have received the kind of care you would expect today. There were no anaesthetics or painkillers and medical instruments were not disinfected. In the early 19th century there was very little understanding of the cause or spread of disease. Doctors would not have washed their hands after examining patients and infections spread quickly – you were probably more likely to catch a disease in hospital than outside! Doctors were expensive, untrained and had very little understanding of how the human body worked. Common treatments included draining your blood or having it sucked out by a leech, going away to breathe ‘better air’ or taking medicines that made you either violently sick or go rushing to the toilet! As many poor families could not afford to send for a doctor, tonics, pills and potions were widely available from the local apothecary or chemist and were by far the cheapest treatments available to the poor.

Because most of the treatments available to people just didn’t work, many thousands of people from all walks of life simply died. Death was all around and the funeral trade became big business in the 19th century. Catering mostly for the rich, undertakers would help arrange the funerals of those who wanted to put on a very public display of their wealth, as well as their grief. For the wealthy, extravagant funerals that spared no expense were in order. For the poor, avoiding the shame of a pauper’s funeral was their major concern.

Because people died so young, death was very much a part of life for the Victorians and not the taboo subject of today. Death was a common theme in children’s stories, pantomimes and singing games, such as Booman, Jenny Jones and Old Roger.