Primary History

Victorian Britain: Children at play

  • Where did Victorian children play?

    Although many children worked in Victorian times, they still had time to play.

    Outdoors, most Victorian children played in the street or in the fields and woods. Not many families had gardens big enough to play in, and there were no children's playgrounds. Rich families had playrooms or nurseries, but poorer children played wherever they could find space. With ten or more children often crammed into one or two rooms, play-space for poor families was a luxury. Playing outside was the usual escape.

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  • Street fun

    In street games, children shared toys like hoops, marbles and skipping ropes, with friends in the street, or in the school playground. They played chasing games such as tag and played catch with balls. If they hadn't got a proper ball, they made balls from old rags, and bats from pieces of wood. They also played hopscotch. Victorian children were able to play out in the street as there was less traffic than today. There were no cars until the 1880s. They crowded around street musicians, wheeling a barrel organ, which played tunes when the handle was turned.

    Sometimes barrel organ players had a monkey with them.

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  • Books for children

    Victorian children were often given books with improving moral lessons, about characters with names like Lazy Lawrence and Simple Susan. A favourite story was Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies about a badly treated chimney-boy. There were lots of books written specially for children, such as Treasure Island (about pirates) by R L Stevenson and Black Beauty (about a horse) by Anna Sewell. Perhaps the most famous Victorian children's book is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) written by Lewis Carroll.

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  • Children's games

    Children played outdoor chasing games such as tag (which had lots of other names, such as touch or tig), and others like Tom Tiddler's Ground, where one player (Tom) tries to catch anyone trespassing on his or her ground, shown by a line. They also played a version of musical chairs, using cushions or old rags to sit on. At Easter, children played 'Egg-Shackling'. In this game, everyone put an egg with their name on in a basket or sieve, which was shaken until the eggs broke. The last egg left unbroken won.

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Fun Facts
  • At country fairs, people chased a soaped pig. The pig was rubbed all over with soap (or grease), to make it slippery. Whoever caught it took the pig home.

  • Victorians liked toys with long names, like phenakistoscope! This was a spinning-picture toy. It made it seem you were looking at moving pictures.

  • Victorians liked silly rhymes, like the nonsense verses of Edward Lear, who wrote The Owl and the Pussycat.

  • 'Lewis Carroll', author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, was actually Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, an Oxford University maths teacher.

  • Girls in the country often wore sun bonnets, even when playing.

  • A quiet indoor activity was pressing flowers, and keeping them in a book.

  • Children did not have sticker books, but scrap books were much the same - only you had to cut out the pictures from magazines and stick them down with flour-and-water paste.

  • One game called 'Jack, Jack, Show the Light' was played in the dark - one player had a lantern or a candle, and had to show it when the other players called out. Then he or she could dodge or hide.

  • Another night game played in the dark was 'Fox and Hounds': the chasing 'Hounds' shouted out and the 'Fox' had to whistle or call back to give them a clue where he was.

  • Blindfold Wheelbarrow races made everyone laugh - the runners usually bumped into one another or fell over, tipping out the 'rider' in the barrow.

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Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

abacus
This was a wooden frame with beads on it. It was used to help children with counting sums.
agricultural gang
This was a group of workers in the countryside, doing jobs like weeding, sowing seeds, and harvesting crops. Often these gangs would include young children.
barrel organ
A musical instrument which was taken round the streets. It played music when the handle was turned. Often the owners of barrel organs had tame monkeys.
Band of Hope
Temperance organization which tried to stop people, especially children, from drinking alcohol.
boarding school
A school where children live during term time, coming home for the holidays.
Boys' Brigade
Youth organization started in 1883 in Glasgow.
British Empire
Countries ruled by Britain; later became the Commonwealth.
cane
Thin stick used by teachers to beat children who misbehaved.
census
This is the record of people living at a certain time. It records how many people there are, where people live, their age and what they do.
coal mine
A place where coal is dug from under the ground.
coal
Remains of prehistoric trees, burned in fires. In Victorian times, coal heated homes and provided steam power for machines, trains and ships.
contraception
Another term for birth control, or stopping unwanted pregnancies.
cotton
Comes from a plant. It is spun into thread then woven to make cloth.

E to G

dame school
A school run in her home by an elderly woman, known as a dame, where children were taught basic reading and writing.
diphtheria
Infectious throat disease that killed many children.
emigrated
To emigrate is to leave your own country to go and live in another.
empress
The female ruler of an empire, or the wife of an emperor.
factory
Building with machines for producing goods in large numbers.
factory commission
A group of men who travelled around Britain to investigate the working conditions of children in both factories and mines.
fire grate
The metal part of a fire and fireplace.
globe
A map of the world drawn on a sphere, useful in geography lessons.
governess
A woman who taught rich girls and young boys in their homes, as a paid, live-in servant.
grammar school
Boys' schools, started in the Middle Ages as an alternative to Church schools and giving free education to some boys.

H to L

hokey-pokey man
Icecream-seller, originally usually Italian.
hopscotch
A hopping game played in the street or playground.
hurdy-gurdy
A mechanical violin, played by a street musician.
industrial Revolution
The era of rapid and great change in industry and manufacturing with the growth of factories, beginning in the late 1700s.
ink well
A small pot for ink, used by school children.
logbook
Diary or record book of events.

M to O

magic lantern
A slide projector for showing pictures on a screen.
maypole
Tall pole with long ribbons, for dancing around on May Day.
moral
A lesson often in a story, about right and wrong.
music hall
Popular Victorian theatre with variety acts such as singers, dancers and comedians.
nanny
servant who cared for rich young children in their nursery at home.
nursery
A room or several rooms where rich children would play and sleep.
orphan
Child with no living parents.

P to S

parliament
Law-making body made up of elected Members of Parliament (MPs) and non-elected Lords.
piecer
A child who worked in a mill joining pieces of thread together.
population
The number of people in a country or city.
public schools
Fee-charging schools for children from richer families.
Punch and Judy show
A hand-puppet show which features Mr Punch and his wife Judy. Common at the seaside in Victorian times.
ragged school
A school for poor children in the early 19th century.
reformer
Person who seeks change for the better, to help others.
reign
The length of time a king or queen rules.
school board
A group of people who were responsible for the running of their local school after 1870.
scullery
Small room with a sink, for washing up.
shaft
Deep vertical hole leading down to the tunnels and underground workings of a coal mine.
slates
These were pieces of slate (like a flat stone), sometimes set inside a wooden frame, used for writing - with a special slate pencil. At the end of the lesson the slates were wiped clean with an old cloth.
smallpox
Disease causing fever and, in those who did not die from it, leaving 'pockmarks' on the skin.
steam engine
Engine driven by steam from water heated in a boiler, used to drive machinery.
slum
An area of bad housing, with poor hygiene and sanitation.
Sunday School
School to teach Christianity: the National Sunday School Union was founded in 1803.

T to Z

wages
Workers' pay.
wool
Comes from sheep. It is spun into thread then woven to make cloth.
workhouse
Place where people without means of support (usually the very poor, young and elderly) were sent to live; they got a food and a bed in return for work. Most Victorian towns had a workhouse.