Victorian Britain witnessed urban growth unprecedented in human history. Nowhere was this more evident and alarming than in London, whose population grew from about 850,000 in 1800 to just under 5 million by 1890. The social costs of such rapid growth were paid in large measure by children of the poor and by women.

By 1850 over half of London's children were in the work force in order to keep their families from starvation, some beginning to work at the age of 5. In the building trades, they worked 52 hours a week in winter and 64 in summer. Domestic servants worked 80 hours a week year round.

Some children who couldn't find employment became "toshers"- scavengers who fought off rats in London's foul and collapsing sewers. Then there were the "mudlarks," who nourished themselves on scraps of bread from garbage heaps or on meat left on discarded bones.

Girls of 7 and 8 tramped the streets as vendors of watercress. Many would become tramps in another sense, moving on to a less reputable but more lucrative profession by their early teens. In 1857 The Lancet (Britain's leading medical journal), estimated that London had some 80,000 prostitutes, a huge portion of working-class females.

By the tens of thousands, the poor crowded into urban slums, where they were forced to rent space in overcrowded and overpriced tenements; some even paid for the privilege of inhabiting the crawlspaces under buildings. Until mid-century, they lined up at communal pipes once a week for their water, most of which came from the River Thames, which itself was one enormous open sewer.

Understandably such conditions were of enormous concern to social commentators, political activists, and British Christians.

Multifaceted missions

The most influential social ...

Subscriber Access OnlyYou have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Already a CT subscriber? for full digital access.