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
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.

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

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.

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

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
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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