The Victorian Child’ – Liz Carter

Liz opened her talk by saying that every one of us has a Victorian child in the family tree, possibly even three or four generations of children. She then outlined the material she planned to cover: mortality and survival; children at work and play; education and the workhouse.
The statistics relating to the death rate of children were truly horrifying: in the 1840’s 153 children per 1000 died within the first year of life and in the 1890’s this figure rose to 163 per 1000 because of epidemics. Between 1860 and 1870 half of all deaths of children under 5 were attributed to diphtheria, a disease which is no longer heard about as all children are inoculated against it. In the 1890’s half of all deaths of children under 5 in industrial areas was caused by TB – this disease was almost eradicated but is worryingly making a return in the modern world with some a strains being antibiotic resistant One of the most distressing statistics was the fact that in the 1900’s in Liverpool 507 children died per 1000 because of overcrowded living conditions in a very densely populated city, lack of sanitation and clean water, poor food and generally poor living conditions.
From research that has been done it is possible to identify the commonest causes of death in small children (apart from disease). The Isle of Ely Coroners records from the 1840’s contain evidence of all the following causes of death. These include: failure to thrive which is sometimes recorded as atrophy (it is impossible to determine whether a child was born with a genetic condition or failed to thrive as result of the mother being unwell or poorly nourished herself); overlaying – this may be genuinely accidental as it was normal to keep the baby close to the mother but it is not unusual to find an illegitimate child or the youngest of a large family has died as the result of overlaying.: burns – very common at a time when heat and light were open fires or candles and washing was dried indoors; malnutrition – general living conditions were poor and there was no understanding of the nutritional needs of infants and the breadwinner would be first in line for food; opiate overdose – again very common as opiates were readily available and it would have been easy to give an infant too much when it was important to keep the child quiet in overcrowded living spaces.
[Margaret Lake ]

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