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The ‘pathology’ of childhood in late nineteenth-century London

Using the records of children admitted to the Church of England-sponsored Waifs and Strays Society as its principal source material, the chapter constructs a new paradigm that seeks to better understand the lives of poor and disabled children, youngsters who were thought to be beyond the clutches of state improvement and impervious to the evangelical efforts of reformers and rescuers. It does so by exploring nineteenth-century ideas about childhood disability, and how these reinforced and challenged perceptions of what it meant to be a ‘modern’ child in nineteenth-century England. The key years in establishing the pathologically different childhood as a distinct conceptual entity were, the chapter shows, between 1870 and 1914, which was the height of child rescue efforts. Detailed examinations of family testimony and institutional responses during this period demonstrate that the romantic desire to ‘protect’ children, which was imposed on urban, working families by an evangelical and reforming middle class, was the very impetus that created the notion of the ‘imperfect’ youngster who did not, or could not, conform to the enlightenment ideal of modern childhood.

in Progress and pathology