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  • Missing Children in Nineteenth-Century London June 2, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback

    missing children

    Like all parents Beach worries about his children’s safety: he has developed ‘child vision’, the ability to constantly keep his daughters in peripheral vision in a public place; and the moments they are out of sight or hearing of an adult even in a domestic setting stand at seconds rather than minutes. Yet at the same time he is concerned by the way that his children’s freedom is being curtailed. When he was eight, Beach often used to walk a mile and a half home from school on his own – having various important adventures along the way; and he remembers being left in the house alone for several hours at about the same age (he once electrocuted himself pretending to be Dr Who). When he talks to those in his grandparents’ generation they describe being left alone through the daylight hours in ragamuffin groups; and their wild adventures in the countryside round about belong to a now impossible age… It was with these concerns in mind that Beach ran up against the following early nineteenth-century announcement (1830) from London, perhaps the largest city in the world at this date, with about one and a half million human ants scrabbling through it.

    If persons who may have lost a child, or found one, in the streets, will go with a written notice to the Royal Exchange, they will find boards fixed up near the medicine shop, for the purpose of posting up such notices, (free of expense.) By fixing their notice at this place, it is probable the child will be restored to its afflicted parents on the same day it may have been missed. The children, of course, are to be taken care of in the parish where they are found until their homes are discovered.

    From the success which has, within a short time, been found to result from the immediate posting up notices of this sort, there can be little doubt, when the knowledge of the above-mentioned boards is general, but that many children will be speedily restored. It is recommended that a bellman be sent round the neighbourhood, as heretofore has been usually done.

    Persons on receiving this paper are requested to fix it up in their shop-window, or other conspicuous place.

    A few points. First, in a rural area, this would rarely have been a problem. A child might have been able to stray five or six miles from home, but the efficient ‘Dales Telegraph’ (wandering sheep farmers) or equivalents in other parts of the country, not to mention the fact that people in different villages knew each other meant that there was a strong net of protection. The only danger was that the child would die out in the countryside: and, in fact, in the missing children cases from the country known to Beach from this period (when you study changelings you come across these things), usually the whole village turns out to beat the bounds.

    Second, it is shocking to find yourself back in a world where there was no efficient central state apparatus able to deal with something as appalling as a missing child in a city. But how could they have? There was no internet, no  telephone, no photocopier, no fax machines, though London’s postal service was extremely efficient. The metropolitan police were still in their baby months: they had been founded a year before in 1829. In a sense the bellman being sent out through the neighbourhood was an attempt to try country methods on the mean streets of the capital. London had got so large by 1830, that it was pioneering problems…

    Third, in densely populated London there may have been cases where a toddler child strayed three miles from home and never saw his parents again, despite efforts on the part of parents and new guardians to reunite bairn and mother. Presumably the parish churches would have provided another point of reference, but much of the poorer population simply avoided Sunday service; in fact, for many a distinct advantage of being in London was not having to go and sit behind the squire for communion.

    Fourth, we live in a world that is, regrettably, salted with unpleasant people. But there can be no question that should your four year old somehow stray in central London today, they will be many hundreds of percent safer than had they gone missing in the early 1800s in the same place. The Fagins looking for child apprentices for a life of crime, the evil washer woman who wants someone to sweat for nothing in her sinks, the horrors of child prostitution… Today we are just left with murderers and pedophiles, who are thankfully a tiny percentage of our communities.

    Fifth, one of the most effective guards against children being taken in 2013 is simply that we no longer accept the idea that children can walk around on their own. If you see a four year old strolling down mainstreet without an adult you will look for the parents and, if you don’t see them, stop the child and hand him over to a proper official. If you were back in 1800 you would assume that the child had been sent out by his parents to buy gin or that he was on his or her way to work. Only if the child was well-dressed would you have been concerned and, as we know from nineteenth century records, in the poorer parts of the city, the concern would have been over how much the little child’s clothes would have been worth; not concern for the child themselves.

    Finally, Beach had a recent conversation with his stepmother where she berated him for not getting his children (2 and 5) to learn their address off by heart. Beach found this rather quaint. Could it ever be useful for a child to know their address in a village where everyone knows everyone (at least by sight) and where the possibility of said child going missing in a city, they rarely visit, is practically zero? Then even if a son or a daughter did go missing the hysterical parents and the well-meaning local police would soon, it is hoped, rush the child back to its bed and toys. And if they didn’t a mere address probably wouldn’t be much of a guard against predators… But having read this he began to understand why knowing an address could, even forty years ago, have made an enormous difference: in an urban area it could still be useful today. And some atavistic urge is telling him he should probably spend his afternoons teaching the little Miss Beaches the name and number of their house, bribing them with meringues.

    Any other early precautions against child loss: drbeachcombing AT yahoo COM

    PS Just realised, while googling, that the always interesting Two Nerdy History Girls got there before us: sorry girls!