During the Victorian era, England saw many technological and economic changes and improvements that caused a separate group of people, the middle class, to evolve alongside wealthy aristocrats.
Sadly, there were many who slipped through the cracks—particularly the children without a family. These orphans were often abandoned in society by mothers who could no longer care for them. Most ended up in orphanages.
Many authors at that time, such as Charles Dickens, portrayed these orphanages as overcrowded and unsanitary, and most orphans were dirty and malnourished. Corporeal punishment was excessive. Often the people overseeing these facilities took a major part of the stipends themselves and spent very little on the children.
The mortality rate was atrocious. According to Dickens in Oliver Twist,
But some of the orphans placed in orphanages considered themselves lucky compared to other abandoned children. They were at least provided with food, clothing, and shelter and some minimal education. On the other hand, children sent to workhouses, were not so lucky. Life there consisted mostly of hard grind and no educational opportunities.
The ultimate goal for orphans was to be adopted or for a parent to return for them, but this did not occur very often unless a close relative came forward to take them on. Any adoption that did happen was usually on a very informal basis.
After the age of 15, orphans were expected to earn their own living in the world. As their education had been minimal, the only work available to girls was usually “in service” to the gentry as scullery maids. Boys from country orphanages might alternatively be hired on as farm laborers or gardeners.
Many orphans ended up as criminals living on the streets after the age of 15, doing menial work or begging for money in order to survive. Girls turned to prostitution.
Fortunately, some orphanages at that time actually helped children.
Two particularly philanthropic souls, the Reverend Edward Cridge and his wife, Mary, set sail from England in 1854 aboard the Marquis of Bute to take up tenure at Fort Victoria on the west coast of British Columbia.
Among their many contributions in the new world, including the betterment of education in Victoria, was the Protestant Orphans' Home, founded in 1873 to help the growing number of orphans who previously had depended solely upon the kindness of strangers to take them into their own homes. The Protestant Orphans' Home was officially opened in November of 1873.
Today, the Cridge Centre in Victoria still stands and continues the original work of hope and support for all vulnerable people, offering a women's transition house as well as children and seniors' services and a young parent outreach program.
The protagonist in my upcoming novel, Providence, begins life in a country orphanage in England in the 1840s, where I have depicted, with some poetic license, what life must have been like for those children abandoned in such places.
In my book, I have painted a more optimistic picture of life for those abandoned children who did survive, and when you read it, I hope you'll admire my heroine as she strives to overcome her miserable fate—at all costs.
In today’s world, she would have been a “Me Too” woman, encouraging other women to believe they were capable of anything— if they put their minds to it.
Let me know what YOU think.