How can we find out about the life of a Victorian child using family sources?
History books are often full of the lives of king and queens, famous leaders and thinkers. What about ordinary people? These people are also our ancestors or distant relatives in the past. They lived through the times in history that we now read about. Can we find out about their lives? With a bit of work, the answer to this question is yes!
Every time somebody is born in the UK, a record called a birth certificate is made. It contains facts such as the baby's name, where and when they were born, the name of their parents, and what the parents do for a job. We all have a birth certificate if we were born in the UK.
Marriages and deaths are also written down in the same way. Making these records is called civil registration. It began in England and Wales in 1837 when Queen Victoria came to the throne. There should be a record of everyone who lived after this date.
The Victorians used another set of records called the census to collect information. The first census records began in 1801 as a simple count of the number of people who lived in each house throughout the country. This was done every ten years. We still carry out the census today.
From 1841 onwards, the name of every person was written down. After 1851, other facts were added such as the age of each person, their relationships within the family (wife, son, daughter), occupation (job) and place of birth. These facts can tell us quite a bit about the Victorian family.
Complete the following tasks to build up a picture of the family history of William Robert Towers, a young Victorian boy.
- When was William born?
- Who were William's parents?
- What was William's mother's last name before she married?
- What did William's father do for a living?
- Where did the Towers family live?
1. William Towers was born when Queen Victoria was on the throne. His birth certificate gives us important facts about his family.
- Where did William live?
- What did William's father do for a living?
- How old was William's mother?
- Where was William's mother born?
- How many brothers did William have?
- Where was William's sister born?
2. You can find out more about William and his family from the 1871 census return.
Each column in the census tells us different things. The first column gives the address of the family. Reading from left to right, you can find out the name of the person, their relationship to the head of the family (usually the oldest man), if they were married or not, their age, occupation (job) and place of birth.
- What was William thinking when he carried out his crime?
- Why do you think William stole the rabbits?
- Do you think he wanted them for pets or might the family have another use for them?
- When William was caught, how do you think he felt?
- What do you think it would have been like to be put in prison for one month, without seeing your family?
- Do you think William was too young to go to prison?
- What do you think 'hard labour' means?
- How do you think he felt when he came out of prison?
- Where did the family live in 1881?
- Do you think they moved because of William's crime?
- What job did William do?
- Were any of his brothers working?
- How do you think William felt now?
3. Source 3a shows us why William was sent to prison in 1872.
Victorian Britain was a tough place to grow up in. Many people lived in crowded cities, with large families and not much money to buy food. Crime was a problem. Punishments were hard for people who broke the law, even if they were children.
Source 3b is the census return for 1881. It shows that William was 20 years old in 1881 and lived with his family. He worked as a bricklayer with his father. The family had left the area where they were living at the time William went to prison and moved to Battersea.
Write a story about William's crime and what happened after he was let out of prison. Use the points below to plan your story.
William sent to prison:
William set free:
What happened to the family next?
Transcript of 1881 census return (20.50 Kb)
- How many rooms did William's family have?
- How many children did William have?
- Did any of William's children work?
- What jobs did they do?
- How old were his children?
- Why do you think these children were working?
- What does this tell us about their family life?
- Do you think William's family was rich or poor? Give reasons for your answer.
4. This is the census return for the Towers family for 1901. This date marks the end of Victorian times, as the Queen died that year. By this time, William had married and had children.
Transcript of Census return 1901 (18.50 Kb)