A London beset by impoverished young people in marauding gangs, so respectable women fear to walk the streets. Products of poverty-stricken homes where fathers have vanished, or no homes at all when parents were dead or couldn’t cope. Growing up in institutions or on the streets, victims of physical and sexual abuse. A broken society with broken homes producing unhappy children. This was London in the 1840s, a sad place, disfigured by vast disparities of wealth, income and life chances.
Its story is vividly conveyed in the novels of Charles Dickens, who had experienced some of it in his childhood. He tried to give practical help to some of the young female victims when in 1847, he established Urania Cottage in Shepherd’s Bush, financed by the wealthy Angela Burdett-Coutts, who was distressed about the women and child prostitutes who crouched on the steps of her house in Piccadilly. Dickens was less exceptional in this venture than Hartley suggests, one of many well-meaning Victorians who tried to mould excluded young people in their ways, understandably unconscious of how profoundly damaged they were. Dickens’s way was training in domestic skills, with education, music and poetry, provided that they obeyed the rules, until they were fit for emigration to the colonies, domestic service and marriage.
Hartley aims to explore the stories of the young women, but this is difficult since few sources survive other than scraps in Dickens’s letters to Burdett-Coutts. It seems that only about half of those Dickens sought to rescue stayed the course and many of the rest fled from surveillance when they reached Australia or South Africa. She is more illuminating on the ways that Dickens used his close observations of them to create some of his greatest characters. We learn more about Dickens than about these other sad lives.
Pat Thane is professor of British history, University of London