Life of an Orphan

Cobalt Fairy

Alright, reading about royalty during the Regency era is fun. Who doesn’t love the hot Earls and the alluring Dukes? But here’s something that’s not as spoken about; the slums, the poor and the orphans. 

Privilege, much to our chagrin, is something we’re mostly born into. You’re born into a specific social class and a lot of the time, it’s impossible to ever escape it. 

So what was the life of an orphan? In fact, what were their rights, and what could they not do? 

Well, my sweeties, we’re here to find out 😀


Let’s make it clear that adoption, sadly, didn’t exist back then. Adoption as we know it just wasn’t how they worked. (It came into use as a practice sometime during the 1920s)

One option was for a family in the village, to take the child to live with them. If that was the case -and assuming these people were willing to treat the child justly- the kid could be an enormous help and make a couple happy.

There wouldn’t be any official procedures like today, so everything would move fast and smoothly. But of course, that would be a happy ending for the child!

The much happier choice would be for a relative to take in the child. An uncle, a grandma, an in-law. Assuming they wanted the child, it was possible for them to claim the inheritance of their -now- adoptive parents once they died. But once again, that’s assuming the parents wrote that in their will! Always a loophole 😛

The Less Happy Solutions

In case no one wanted to take them in and there was no available relative, things turned a bit ugly. 

The parish would take the child in and put someone in the position of their carer. What that meant was that they were required to satisfy the child’s basic needs (like feeding, clothing). Love wasn’t on that list. 

If that carer was a kind-hearted person, they treated the child with care and as their own. Buuuuuut, not everyone is always as they seem. And that’s what happened back then too. 

When the kids ended up in the hands of a shady carer, they were usually treated as a means to make more coins, which led to them being overworked and treated harshly. A child. Working. It’d be deemed as abuse today, but there wasn’t any way to make sure that didn’t happen. Sadly, the work wasn’t as we imagine it. It could be dangerous and kids could die.

The Asylum 

The New Asylum for Female Orphans 1826 from The History   and Antiquities of the Parish of Lambeth by T Allen (1827)

This was for girls only actually!

Girls were admitted into those from the age of nine to twelve and they were educated. After that, they became housing servants at the age of fifteen. 

When I say educated, I don’t mean the education we assume today. The girls were taught to clean, to sew, to make clothes, to cook, wash and so much more! Depending on who you ask, that wasn’t the most exciting of lives. But at least they weren’t neglected 🙂

So, after their first round of education, they moved on to become apprentices. If everything went well and they didn’t end up in some wrench’s care, they were awarded good behavior and were paid 5 British coins (that was the equivalent of 5 pounds today by the way). 

If it didn’t and they were left unsatisfied with what the girls had to offer, they were forced to become apprentices once more. But, this time they had to pay. The maximum would be 10 coins, actually, but I say that is still unfair.

victorian orphans - Google Search | Painting, Art, Victorian

I find these things deplorable. The law wasn’t as bad and they had their own set of rights, but the loopholes that could occur were too many and too easily manipulated. That way, anyone who was looking to exploit orphans was free to do so. 

Yes, people were trying to protect them and yes, there were options for them. But who really checked their safety and assured they had the care they needed?

I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts 🙂

Maybe I’m being biased, so I’d love to hear from you too!

-Olivia Bennet

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