Suffer little Children ...

At every turn of the newspaper page and in every newscast on television there seems to be something about the suffering of little children. Whether they are the refugees from war or ethnic cleansing, or floods or famine, the innocents of this world are subject of the most gross neglect and abuse. Sadly it seems that while time has provided many  examples from which to learn from mistakes, man has ignored the inhumanity to his own flesh and blood and merely  extended the stage upon which to play out their suffering. And suffer they did from the earliest times despite the best endeavours of the reformers to generate a social conscience and the practical ministrations of the kirk.

The practice of Christian charity in Scotland was promoted by St Columba who in one of his Runes or mystic sayings told of Christ the stranger who came to test the charity and hospitality of man. There were also efforts from the earliest times to alleviate the poverty such as the Hospital of St Mary of Lochleven, created by the Bishop of St Andrews in 1214. But the fundamental treatment of children, particularly of the peasant or working class, remained much the same despite Christian charity until late in the 19th century..

We might like to believe that there were times of elegiac life, with sun filled days , and healthy young cherubs about the family homestead feeding the hens, playing with the new born lambs, gathering seeds, herbs, mushrooms, flowers and firewood in the hedgerows. But these same hedgerows were also the only shelter for the homeless and the dispossessed, and the place where the body of the unwanted child might be caste for the scavenging fox or badger to devour.

Living in the crudest of sod homes , with little or no hygiene, fed on scraps and clad in rags a child was both a nuisance and a boon - a mouth to feed but a helper on the land - if they lived. In the absence of records we can only presume that life prior to the 15th century was exceedingly hard and such charity as there was came from the monasteries and the hopefully, benevolent, feudal rule of the laird. In Scotland there was legislation in 1424 that sought to contain vagrants and made the distinction between able bodied beggars and those unable to earn a living. This was important because from it stemmed the principle that there was a need to support the old and the infirm.

The proposals of John Knox for the structure of society as he saw it in 1561, included the need for education which " by touching the soul of the child may John Knox altogether avoid the sin " His credo recognised the need to take care of the deserving poor - the sick, the elderly, the widow and the fatherless child ( collectively called the " impotent poor " ) who should be given reasonable help in their home parish. He also proposed what was a major stumbling block, that the income of the churches from tithes and rents should pay for these provisions. Regrettably Knox`s aspirations came to very little; the post Reformation secular authorities saw a better need for the incomes of the church. Not least was the lining of their own pockets.

The Kirk Session , by an enactment of 1597, became responsible for the administration of Poor Relief in rural parishes. The focus therefore was on a strict morality that meant for example, that an otherwise healthy orphan aged 7 could be discharged from relief and made to go begging for his or her keep as they were deemed to be `able bodied` There was as a consequence of this approach to vagrancy the class of licensed beggars who would carry a metal medallion authorising them to beg; in Edinburgh there was a `blue gown` or cloak that identified authorised beggars,  thus they were legal and set apart from the itinerant scrounger and vagrant. Abandoned babies were a concern and there was great shame in having an illegitimate child. These instances caused the Kirk Session to go to great lengths to establish the father, encourage marriage and ensure the cost of rearing the child was not on the parish.

The fate of children of the poor to some extent depended on the category into which the parent fell. The populace were fearful that the children of beggars would become beggars themselves, thus in 1579 legislation provided that any heritor ( property owner) could take a pauper child between five and fourteen years into his service. Girls had to remain until they were 18 years old and boys until they were 24. It was not until 1617 that the law required that consent of the parents was needed for children under 14 and the consent of the child if over. But both boys and girls  were bound to the heritor until aged 30 and, moreover, any earnings they made had to go to him. Today we would probably call such an arrangement slavery, but in those times it meant relative warmth, comfort and security although the workday would always be hard and abuse probable.

In England orphans and abandoned children were also a cost upon the parish and Boards of Guardians under the Poor Laws actively sought means to reduce the burden. Thus as early as 1618 some 100 children were shipped to the Virginia Company in America and throughout the 17th century small groups of unwanted children were despatched to America and the West Indies. In the 18th century there was a different policy of punishment of convicted felons, and thus the liability to transportation of seven year olds and upwards.

In 1663 a law was introduced that allowed the seizure and employment of vagabonds for eleven years without pay and the Kirk Sessions were made to pay for their upkeep. In 1672 magistrates were ordered to erect work houses but most small towns and rural areas made do with existing buildings. In the bigger towns there arose over time some substantial ` Poor Houses ` such as the Edinburgh Charity Workhouse which in 1778 could house 480 adults and 180 children,  A very positive move was made by the burgesses in Edinburgh who recognised the need to help the less better off of their brethren, but not the common people. This saw the erection of charitable institutions such as the Merchant Maiden Hospital. Although called a hospital it was primarily a school for girls providing education and full maintenance of the girls in its care. It was founded on the bequest of Mary Erskine in 1694 and mirrored those for the care of boys  by George Heriot in his Heriot Hospital and School. Mary Erskine also founded two other girls schools and her example ( and funds) prompted the allied trades to found a Trades Hospital. These institutions were able to help the children in the burghs, but that still left a great void in the education of other children.

A salutory fact remains that by the mid eighteenth century over half the burials in Edinburgh were those of children. How many more there might have been simply buried under the hedgerows by the poor and the ashamed unmarried mother we can only guess. By the turn of the 18th century there had been improvement in diet with a wider selection of fruit and vegetables available and the humble potato making its impact in years of cereal crop failures. There was improved child care through the widely published hygiene guidance of Dr William Buchanan; and , the elimination of a major killer, smallpox. Smallpox was especially bad in Scotland in 1635, 1641 and 1672 Patsy1.jpg (43705 bytes)and was responsible for 20 percent of child deaths. The introduction of inoculation in 1733 only had limited success because it needed a stable and warm environment for the child to rest - which was not available to the most in need , the poor. As a consequence vaccination discovered by Dr Edward Jenner in England in 1796 was quickly adopted by Scottish doctors.

The number of children in a family also grew alongside a lowering in the average age of the population so that by 1821 nearly one half of the population was under 20 years of age; a quarter of the population was under 10 years. The number of children borne to a couple varied considerably but more generally varied between five and seven; some figures for 1834 give between seven and eight for cotton workers. So we arrive at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in Scotland with a young and relatively healthy but static population, which was ready to take advantage of the benefits that mechanisation and industrial expansion had to offer. Little did the children know what dire troubles lay ahead for them.

Next : The Industrial Revolution.

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