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Harrowing images capture the plight of the poor in Victorian Britain

From bedraggled youngsters posing on the kerb to others standing around a fountain, this remarkable series of photographs reveals the desperate lives of poor children in Victorian Britain.

The recently unearthed images were taken across London in the 1880s and 90s by photographer Paul Martin, who was known to have had a fascination with the lower classes and capturing ‘ordinary’ people on camera.

One of the most striking pictures showed three children looking mischievous as they sat on the edge of the pavement in 1892 filthy clothes and their faces covered in dirt – with only one of them wearing shoes.

Mr Martin wrote in a caption to the image: ‘I called them human squirrels, for when they caught the sight of the school inspector, they were over a six-foot paling in a flash, and made off to Lambeth Walk.’ 

Another one of the remarkable photographs shows children dancing to Pas de Quatre, made famous by Swan Lake. Mr Martin wrote: ‘The dance entails plenty of leg twisting, which is restricted by the children’s clothing.’ 

Other pictures show sad characters, such as two people sleeping on a bench at St James’s Park, while a picture captured in the 1880s entitled ‘Old Surrey Tramp’ shows a melancholic-looking man sat on the River Mole. 

A further image shows three children larking around showing off for the photographer’s camera by doing head stands on a beach, while another picture documents how a street lamp became a maypole for other children.

The 19th century brought a population explosion in Britain, with London suffering from severe overcrowding and the poor living in cramped and filthy conditions amid a major housing shortage.

Many poor children survived by stealing and were unable to go to school because their families relied on them to bring in extra money to help. But by the 1870s education started to improve, with every child given a place.

However, this was only mandatory for children aged five to ten, although the leaving age was increased to 11 by 1893 – although many parents still stopped them going to school because they were making money working. 

This followed an earlier idea of Ragged Schools led by volunteers in the mid-1840s, which were the only chance of education for children from families who couldn’t get into charitable or church schools or pay for their entry.

Poor families living in a town in Victorian Britain would have spent most of their weekly budget on bread, milk, cheese and potatoes – and could generally only afford meat once a week, which would have been on a Sunday. 

Three children look mischievous as they sit on the kerb in London in filthy clothes and their faces covered in dirt in 1892 - with only one of them wearing shoes. Victorian photographer Paul Martin described them as 'human squirrels' in a note

Three children look mischievous as they sit on the kerb in London in filthy clothes and their faces covered in dirt in 1892 – with only one of them wearing shoes. Victorian photographer Paul Martin described them as ‘human squirrels’ in a note

Filthy-looking children stand around a street fountain in Battersea, South West London, in the 1880s. This photograph is just one of a remarkable series of recently unearthed images which reveal the desperate lives of poor children in Victorian Britain

Filthy-looking children stand around a street fountain in Battersea, South West London, in the 1880s. This photograph is just one of a remarkable series of recently unearthed images which reveal the desperate lives of poor children in Victorian Britain

A street lamp becomes a maypole for these children in London in 1892. This is among the images taken by photographer Paul Martin, who was known to have had a fascination with the lower classes and capturing 'ordinary' people on camera

A street lamp becomes a maypole for these children in London in 1892. This is among the images taken by photographer Paul Martin, who was known to have had a fascination with the lower classes and capturing ‘ordinary’ people on camera

Three street children pose for the camera on a street in London in 1892. Mr Martin wrote: 'I called them human squirrels, for when they caught the sight of the school inspector, they were over a six-foot paling in a flash, and made off to Lambeth Walk'

Three street children pose for the camera on a street in London in 1892. Mr Martin wrote: ‘I called them human squirrels, for when they caught the sight of the school inspector, they were over a six-foot paling in a flash, and made off to Lambeth Walk’

Children follow an ice cart along a road in Lambeth in 1892, as they collect the pieces that fall off. Ice used to be distributed around the capital having being stored in underground areas, until commercial electric refrigeration became widespread

Children follow an ice cart along a road in Lambeth in 1892, as they collect the pieces that fall off. Ice used to be distributed around the capital having being stored in underground areas, until commercial electric refrigeration became widespread

This street scene from 1893 was taken as part of the photographer's series called 'the children of the poor in the Nineties'. The recently unearthed images were taken across London by Paul Martin, who documented their desperate lives

This street scene from 1893 was taken as part of the photographer’s series called ‘the children of the poor in the Nineties’. The recently unearthed images were taken across London by Paul Martin, who documented their desperate lives

Street children play on Bankside in London, with St Paul's Cathedral visible in the background in 1893. The cathedral in its current form dates back to 1697, so had already been an established feature of the London skyline for two centuries

Street children play on Bankside in London, with St Paul’s Cathedral visible in the background in 1893. The cathedral in its current form dates back to 1697, so had already been an established feature of the London skyline for two centuries

Another one of the remarkable photographs taken by Mr Martin shows children dancing to Pas de Quatre, made famous by Swan Lake. Mr Martin wrote: 'The dance entails plenty of leg twisting, which is restricted by the children's clothing'

Another one of the remarkable photographs taken by Mr Martin shows children dancing to Pas de Quatre, made famous by Swan Lake. Mr Martin wrote: ‘The dance entails plenty of leg twisting, which is restricted by the children’s clothing’

A further image taken by Victorian photographer Mr Martin shows three children larking around showing off for the photographer's camera in 1893 by doing head stands on a beach at an unknown location that appears to be outside London

A further image taken by Victorian photographer Mr Martin shows three children larking around showing off for the photographer’s camera in 1893 by doing head stands on a beach at an unknown location that appears to be outside London

Other photographs show sad characters, such as these two people sleeping on a bench at St James's Park in the 1890s

Other photographs show sad characters, such as these two people sleeping on a bench at St James’s Park in the 1890s

A group of children speak to a man and woman at an ice cream vendor's cart in Lambeth in 1892, in this photo by Mr Martin

A group of children speak to a man and woman at an ice cream vendor’s cart in Lambeth in 1892, in this photo by Mr Martin

Victorian photographer Paul Martin (left) is pictured in the 1880s with a camera which was not the one he used to take his pictures

A picture captured in the 1880s entitled 'Old Surrey Tramp' shows a melancholic-looking man sat on the River Mole

Victorian photographer Paul Martin (left) is pictured in the 1880s with a camera which was not the one he used to take his pictures, including one in the 1880s called ‘Old Surrey Tramp’ (right) showing a melancholic-looking man on the River Mole

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