Monday, 19 June 2017

Uncovering the story of Manchester’s destitute children

Now in the story of child care in the later 19th century the term “street arab” or “gutter children” are very emotive.

Boys admitted to the Refuge, date unknown
And perhaps, even more so for those of us who can trace a descendant back to one of the destitute and abandoned children who roamed the streets of all our big cities.

Children like William who was admitted to the Refuge in Manchester on January 1 1870.

He was fifteen years old, both his parents were dead and he had “been living in the streets and sleeping in boiler houses.”* 

Nor of course was he alone, for there was cases of children much younger sleeping under railway arches on beneath the stairs of tenement blocks.

That this should happen in one of the prime cities of the Empire where wealth was made in the huge Exchanges, and the myriad of factories, iron works and textile mills is and was appalling as of course were those two descriptions.

The terms refer to “children who are wanderers from place to place without any fixed dwelling or guardianship; who grow up in ignorance on the streets, and who manage to exist each day without any visible means of support.”**

This was a description much bandied about by the press but one which was rejected by some of those directly involved in helping young people and mainly because it was inaccurate.

True there were those like William, and three others admitted to the Refuge in 1870 who lived on the streets and the Chief Constable’s reports for the years 1870, ’71, and ‘72 pointed out that on “average 1,063 boys between the ages of 10-16 years of age were apprehended on the streets of Manchester.”

To which Mr Gilbert speaking to the Manchester Statistical Society in 1888 added that “I cannot estimate them at less than 700, .......... Of these probably 600 will be over ten years of age, and 100 will be under ten years of age; 500 will be boys and 200 girls.”***

Emma, 1913 at admission
But the evidence from Manchester suggests that most that were encountered on the streets, had homes, went to school and had parents.

“Only a minority, are actually homeless, and very few are orphans; a considerable number are the off spring of vice, and illegitimate – ‘not wanted,’ and, therefore, uncared for, at any rate until they are of some commercial value, and bringing in a ‘trifle;’ and their homes, in many cases are little more than places in which to creep for shelter, like a dog kennel- a considerable portion not even getting meals in them.”

At which point it is important to stress that whether they were destitute or had a sort of home, the experiences of these children was awful.

But the evidence from Mr Gilbert is damming.  The Refuge had tracked 50 children “from their streets to  their homes, 33 were over, 5 and under 10, and 17 over ten and under 13, 34 had both parents living and the remaining 16 had one parent, and out of this total of 50 only 9 could in any degree, be said to be so poor as to need the slight addition to weekly income afforded by street hawking.

The survey had been conducted almost a decade earlier by the Refuge and published in their pamphlet Street Arabism Its Cause and Cure by the secretary Mr Shaw.

He too, rejected the term “street arab” and went on to argue for a series of measures to combat child street hawking.

The alternative was for many a slide in to criminality and in the case of girls, “”early and utter degradation.”****

Emma after admission
So the work with these “street hawkers” was important and the Manchester and Salford Boys’ and Girls’ Refuge played an important part, both as an organization which took parents to court on the behalf of neglected, and abused children but also in arguing for measures to combat the worst excesses of child exploitation for commercial gain through new legislation and a more an extension of the powers of the School Board and Industrial Schools.

And it was in part a success.

So that Mr Gilbert could report in 1888 that “one day last week a party of workers systematically searched the streets at 7.45 p.m., with the following result.  

In the whole of the city ...... there were under 60 children’apparently under the age of 14, out for the purpose of gain.  

Previous to the passing  of the Corporation Act of 1882 we counted five times that number an hour or two later.”*****

Location; Manchester

Pictures. courtesy of the Together Trust,

Next; the Corporation Act of 1882 and the work dome to challenge street hawking.

*Admission records for the Manchester & Salford Boys’ and Girls’ Refuges, 1870

** Street Arabism Its Cause and Cure, L.K. Shaw, 1880, Manchester, page 6

***Facts and Figures Relating to Street Children, Mr Gilbert and R Kirlew, Manchester Statistical Society, Session 188-89, page 44

**** ibid Mr Gilbert, page 44

***** ibid Mr Gilbert, page 46

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