The Bowes Museum > Exhibitions > 2014 > Victorian Childhood

Victorian Childhood

21 June - 7 September 2014

Offering up a flavour of childhood in the reign of Queen Victoria, this exhibition explored the way in which young lives were lived during this era depending on the social class each was born into. Using items from the Museum collection, it focused on the ephemera of pieces from daily life. 

The show was divided into various themes including: 

Queen Victoria – currently the longest serving monarch, who reigned over the British Empire, which at its height ruled a quarter of the world’s population.

Home life – Wealthy families had little to do with their offspring in their formative years, employing wet nurses, nannies and servants to oversee their upbringing. Children from rich families tended to be ‘seen and not heard’, presented to their parents for just a short time each day; while poorer children shared beds with parents and siblings as well as outside lavatories and water pumps with their neighbours. Although country folk were less well off than their town counterparts they often had a better quality of life, with clean air, and could expect to live longer.

School and work life – at the start of the Victorian era there were no laws forcing children to attend school, with education seen as a privilege for the rich, particularly boys, and working class families often unable to afford the penny a day needed to send a child to school. In 1891 education became compulsory and free for those aged 5-10 years, but there were sometimes 70-80 pupils per class, while the children of the wealthy were tutored at home by governesses. It was the norm for children from poor backgrounds to start work at a very early age to supplement the family income, but they were paid a lot less than adults for the same job.  

Clothes – elaborate clothes for the well-to-do were made to measure by seamstresses and tailors, with children dressed formally in miniature versions of adult styles.  Poorer children wore hand-me-downs, often of dark material so as not to show dirt, and often had no shoes. However, both rich and poor children tended to have a special set of clothes kept specifically for Sunday best.

Play and leisure – this was one area enjoyed by families regardless of circumstances. In the home families made their own entertainment with musical instruments, by singing songs, reading aloud or simply talking. Outdoor entertainment saw the rise in popularity of Victorian theatres and music halls, while the opening of many galleries and museums, including this Museum, introduced ordinary people to the wider world of art. Cheap railway transport also meant families could access the seaside for the first time. Victorian children from poorer backgrounds often played on the streets with homemade wooden toys, hoops, marbles and skipping ropes, as there was far less traffic and no television or computers, while well-to-do youngsters enjoyed toys of their own including dolls and lead soldiers..

Related Events

Victorians - Family Fun Day
19 August, 11.00 – 4.00, Free with Normal Admission

Come and join The Bowes Museum in this action packed day of drop in fun for all the family. Activities include writing like a Victorian – practise using pen and ink & slates; make a peg doll, create a performing shadow puppet, have a go at making a proddy mat & explore the Museum with a Victorian themed trail. Children must be accompanied by an adult, for whom normal admission applies.