“The Street Children of Dickens’s London” by Helen Amy

Published by Amberley Publishing PLC – Reviewed by Gary Corkill.

This book gives a brief but detailed outline of conditions in which street children lived in London during the nineteenth century and provides a picture of the appalling circumstances of their lives.

Based, in part, on the writings of authors and those who sought to address the issues, the book gives an insight into the misery and poverty of children in London during this time.

Whilst authors (such as Dickens) and philanthropic persons attempted to bring the conditions under which children survived to attention, it would seem (at least up until the 1860,s) they had little impact on Government to take meaningful action.

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was enacted to make the poor responsible for their own misfortune. The only available help for the poor was ‘indoor relief’ in workhouses, where conditions were made deliberately worse to discourage ‘the idle from seeking relief’. It was this type of workhouse that Oliver Twist experienced – although it might be noted that the novel was first published in 1838, four years after the Act was introduced.

With regard to prostitution among these street children, there is no reference relating to males – the concentration is on females. Yet, Slater (Charles Dickens 2009) surmises that in the ‘real world’, some of Fagin’s gang of male children would probably have been “rent boys”.

The question of educating these children, according to the book, does not appear to have been adequately addressed until the late nineteenth century when it was seen as the way in which children could get themselves out of the never-ending cycle of poverty and hardship. Of course, in earlier periods many so-called educators took advantage of the system – e.g. The Dotheboys School in Nicholas Nickelby.

For those interested in Dickens, this book gives an insight into the conditions endured by street children in London, which he raised in Household Words, the Uncommercial Traveller, well as some of his novels.

It is interesting to speculate whether our society has progressed much further given the press articles and concerns of Police detailing the poverty, crime, prostitution, drug abuse amongst street children and youths in our own suburbs and aboriginal communities.

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