Rhyme and Reform

Victorian Working-Class Poets Elizabeth Barrett Brownings "The Cry of the Children"

I: Who Will Represent England’s Laborers?

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (EBB) opens The Cry of the Children by imploring her
“brothers” to pay attention to the crying children:

Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers

Who are these “brothers”? Perhaps EBB is especially thinking of men who can vote.
When EBB was writing this poem in 1843, the majority of England’s laborers could
not vote. Voter constituencies were divided unevenly to concentrate power in the
hands of wealthy landowners, and property restrictions barred most working-class
citizens from the vote. This inequity persisted despite the passage of the Great Reform
Act in 1832.

Prior to the passage of this Act, EBB wrote to her friend Hugh Stuart Boyd in 1831,
questioning if there is any justice and freedom for people who have no say or
influence in their own nation. Notice these questions in her letter below:

EBB returned to this same question when she wrote The Cry of the Children after realizing that working-class parents of poor child workers still could not influence any political change to improve the conditions of their children. Having read parliamentary reports (1842-1843) on the horrendous exploitation young children faced in factories, EBB gave voice to the cry of the children in this moving protest by appealing to her “brothers” who could cause change through their votes.


These excerpts (below) are from the 1842 Report of the Royal Commission on Children’s Employment in Mines and Factories that Parliament released after researching the conditions of factory children. Notice that all of these children went to Sunday school, but none of them could read or write. Young Thomas did not know who Jesus was. What do you think these children were taught at Sunday school?

Great Britain. Commissioners for Inquiring into the Employment and Condition of Children in Mines and Manufactories. Second Report of the Commissioners: Trades And Manufactures. London: Printed by William Clowes, H.M.S.O., 1843

 

Gustave Doré, Houndsditch, engraving, from London: A Pilgrimage, 1872.

 

Post created by Sakina Haji

ABL

erik_swanson • July 7, 2018


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