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With its rollicking depiction of nursery life, Catherine Sinclair’s Holiday House (1839) is often regarded as a landmark text that shifted the focus of children’s fiction from instruction to delight. Classics like Edward Lear’s A Book of Nonsense (1846) and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) carried on this tradition. Mixing fantasy and realism, authors like Juliana Ewing, Mary Louisa Molesworth, and E. Nesbit painted a vivid picture of the middle-class nursery as a hotbed of hobbies: private theatricals, elaborate games, gardening, the composition of family magazines, and so on.

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Bristow, Joseph. Empire Boys: Adventures in a Man’s World. London: HarperCollins, 1991.

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Philanthropists, religious leaders, doctors, journalists, and artists all campaigned to improve the lives of poor children. In 1840, Lord Ashley (later the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury) helped set up the Children’s Employment Commission, which published parliamentary reports on conditions in mines and collieries. The shocking testimony contained in these reports inspired Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous protest poem “The Cry of the Children” (1844). Shaftesbury went on to become president of Ragged School Union, an evangelical organization which established hundreds of schools for the poor. Famous child-savers like Mary Carpenter and Dr. Thomas Barnardo taught in Ragged Schools before opening their own institutions for destitute youths. Dr. Barnardo described some of his missionary efforts in the Children’s Treasury (see ), while investigative reporters like Henry Mayhew tirelessly documented the dire conditions endured by many working-class families.

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The novels of Charles Dickens, the most popular author of the Victorian era, also reveal an intense concern about the vulnerability of children. When Dickens was twelve, his father was imprisoned for debt and he was sent to work in a blacking factory, an incident that haunted him his whole life. His novels are full of neglected, exploited, or abused children: the orphaned Oliver Twist, the crippled Tiny Tim, the stunted Smike, and doomed tykes like Paul Dombey and Little Nell. Like Barrett Browning, Dickens was galvanized by revelations of real-life horrors facing the poor. Oliver Twist (1837) was written in response to the draconian New Poor Law of 1834, which had been inspired by the theories of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. This law relegated the needy to prison-like institutions called workhouses, splitting up families and subjecting them to repugnant living conditions and hard labor.

Kincaid, James. Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

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Poor children who survived infancy were often put to work at an early age. In the 1830s and 40s, many children labored in textile mills and coal mines, where working conditions often proved deadly. Girls as young as five went into domestic service as nurses or maids to wealthy families. Rural children worked on farms or in cottage industries, while thousands of urban children worked as street hawkers, selling matches or sweeping crossings (see ). Child labor was not new, but as industrialization continued it became more visible, as masses of ragged, stunted children crowded the city streets.

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As children became more visible on the stage, the question naturally arose: did such work constitute labor? Considerable controversy arose over this issue in the 1880s. Educational activists like Millicent Garrett Fawcett insisted that children under ten should be banned from full-time theatre work as they had been from factories and workshops. Theatre people and other artists, including Carroll and the poet Ernest Dowson, strongly disagreed. Acting was not a labor but an art, they maintained, and children benefited from and enjoyed doing it.

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Victoria’s England was a child-dominated society. Throughout her long reign, one out of every three of her subjects was under the age of fifteen. The population explosion that occurred during this period was accompanied by a tremendous amount of industrialization and urbanization; by the end of the century, a vast majority of children lived in towns rather than rural communities. Families tended to be large, although the birth rate declined a bit over the course of the century as more information on contraception became available. The rapid growth of towns quickly outstripped affordable housing, leading to overcrowding and shockingly poor sanitary conditions. Coupled with infectious diseases and impure milk and food, these factors contributed to very high infant and child mortality rates.