Page last updated at 12:02 GMT, Tuesday, 19 May 2009 13:02 UK

Long before the rod was spared

Street children

By Lucy Rodgers
BBC News

Concern about child welfare has risen sharply since a report into the death of Baby P last year. As one of Britain's leading child protection charities marks its 125th anniversary it's sobering to think when it started animals had more rights than children.

As anyone who has read Oliver Twist will know, Victorian Britain could be a pretty bleak place for a child not born into money.

Widespread deprivation meant children were often forced to work long hours in hazardous occupations inside factories, down mines and up chimneys. Poor diet, healthcare and sanitation coupled with overcrowding also meant disease was rife and mortality high.

A truly terrifying array of weapons used to punish children

Large numbers of children were also orphaned and ended up living on the streets. Some were forced into prostitution, while others sought shelter in sewer pipes.

In fact, by the late 19th Century, NSPCC records show young people's rights were so unrecognised that while specific legislation existed to protect animals from cruelty, a similar law to defend children did not.

"Whilst we have a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, can we not do something to prevent cruelty to children?" asked an outraged Rev George Staite in a letter to the Liverpool Mercury in 1881.

Landmark case

However, change was under way.

Unbeknown to the Rev Staite, some years before he put pen to paper, the same question had already been asked across the Atlantic, where an increasingly socially-conscious New York society in had been shocked by the case of Mary Ellen Wilson.

[Rev Benjamin Waugh] argued that in England, children were not as well protected by the state as animals
Phillip Noyes

Beaten by her adoptive family and scarred all over her body, the young girl was offered little protection until her case was taken up in 1874 by the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Court documents accessed by the American Humane Association show how the animal welfare organisation's founder, Henry Bergh, successfully petitioned the courts on her behalf arguing a child deserved humane treatment.

The repercussions of the case were felt worldwide and Mary Ellen's battle went on to prove to be a watershed in the history of child protection.

It not only led to the foundation of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, but in turn inspired the establishment of similar societies across Europe, including the Liverpool and London Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty for Children, which later became the now-familiar NSPCC.

Philanthropic movement

The growth of such organisations at the end of the 19th Century was all part of an increasing desire within late Victorian society to improve the lot of those less fortunate, explains Dr Louise Jackson, senior lecturer in modern social history at the University of Edinburgh.

NSPCC poster
Drumming up interest - note the knight with shield protecting vulnerable child

"In the 1830s and 1840s there had been huge amounts of poverty and ill-health, with poor sanitation, and very little action," she explains. "Then in the 1880s there were all sorts of calls for something to be done about it."

In most cases, people were inspired by a sense of religious duty "to rescue and help those who are worse off than themselves", she says. But, she argues, such philanthropy also flourished because of society's changing views of the family.

"Children were [previously] seen as belonging to parents. Children were legally allowed to work from a very young age, so there was a sense that this was discrete and separate from the state," she says. "But by the end of the 19th Century it was more acceptable for the state to intervene."

With societal attitudes advancing, many philanthropists were inspired to take action.

One of those was the Rev Benjamin Waugh, the founder of the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Children and one of the fathers of the NSPCC.

"He argued that in England, children were not as well protected by the state as animals," says Phillip Noyes, the NSPCC's director of public policy. "To make the point he paraded children in animal blankets - what would now be considered a photo call - to show the public that children were really suffering."

NSPCC founder Benjamin Waugh
The NSPCC was founded by Yorkshire-born minister Benjamin Waugh

From that day on, the NSPCC has campaigned for better child protection laws, starting with the 1889 "Children's Charter", which made child cruelty a specific offence for the first time.

This is a role the organisation still plays, with its expertise contributing to the 2002 Education Act, the Criminal Justice and Sexual Offences Acts of 2003 and the Children's Bill of 2004.

But unlike now, in the charity's early days it was also responsible for investigating suspected abuse cases, with the NSPCC's uniformed inspectors, known by many as "cruelty men", a familiar sight.

Changing attitudes

But as the decades passed, the NSPCC handed responsibility for child protection to the state, and during the 1970s the charity's function changed, with research and campaigning becoming central to its work.

The following decade it pushed for recognition of sexual abuse and battered baby syndrome and most recently launched its Full Stop campaign, which calls on all sections of society to take responsibility for ending child abuse.

NSPCC ambulance
At one time, the NSPCC ran a children's ambulance service in London

And progress has been made, the NSPCC says, with the public now regarding such cruelty unacceptable and as an issue that the government should tackle.

"The question really has become how much money should be spent and not whether it should," says Mr Noyes, who sees the ChildLine helpline as key to the future fight.

But, the NSPCC argues, while conditions have improved for British children over the last 125 years, there are still "unacceptable levels" of child poverty and abuse - a fact highlighted by the recent case of Baby P.

So, it seems, the charity's late founding father the Rev Waugh's aim of "justice for all children" still remains a long way off.

Anyone with concerns about a child or young person, can call the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000. Children and young people can call ChildLine confidentially on 0800 1111.

Here is a selection of your comments.

Speaking as a 17 year old who only last Thursday moved out of his mother's home to live with his father due to unacceptable behaviour on her part, I can only sing the praises of those who go out of their way to support children who are being abused or exploited in whatever way, whether or not they're being paid for it - because no matter how much they're paid, it can never be enough. My feeling throughout the entire experience has been that the entire world is united behind me, and that no matter what unpleasant things my mother tried that they'd see that I was protected.
Daniel, United Kingdom

You only have to compare the length of prison sentences handed to paedophiles and child abusers with those guilty of fraud to see that children are still not protected or valued as they should be. If we can catch and fine people who commit fraud through down loads, why can we not do it as easily with online paedophiles and their pornographers?
Stephen, Carrickfergus

The picture caption reads: "A truly terrifying array of weapons used to punish children." Some are, but most are just straps and canes used for smacking. How much more terrifying that street corner teenage gangs are now killing one another, and innocent passers-by, safe in the knowledge that adults can't touch them?
Mick Mahone, Halifax, UK

As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse in Canada, I can say that animals continue to receive better care and protection than children. When animals are found in "difficult" circumstances, they are immediately removed, provided state-of-the-art medical care, proper shelter and diet.

When children are found in similarly insulting circumstances, they sometimes become wards of the state, housed in youth detention centres, provided basic care, and sometimes, not given access to education. Other times, the parents receive a reprimand in family court, the children remain in their "care" and the abuse continues, as it did in my case until I was old enough to move out on my own.
Sonia, Canada

First of all, people should only have children when they are financially and emotionally able to care for them, then they should be psychologically analyzed to see how they relate to children. Defenceless children should not be left in the hands of unstable people. Unstable people who have children must be monitored and psychologically treated and taught parental skills. Children are precious and grow to be adults. If mistreated, society nor the grown child do not benefit. Abuse becomes generational. It must be stopped. "We reap what we sow."
Judith Young, Logan, USA

Sadly there has been a rise in child abuse to such an extent that the almost routine murder or abuse of children reported on a weekly basis no longer raises anger. Underlying almost all is the effect of substance abuse by the adults and the availability of child pornography.

I was interested to see that a proposal for illegal file and movie downloaders would have their connection removed. Why is the same not possible or suggested for those using child pornography? When BT prevented such material to be downloaded via its service in one month there were 28,000 attempts to do so. Surely this would be the first step in saying that abuse of children is a heinous crime which will not be tolerated.
Dr Michael Murray, Glasgow

Interesting story, but you might have mentioned that Scotland had a Children's protection agency (the RSSPCC) before England. Now known as Children 1st, the Scottish body looks after children in Scotland, while the NSPCC operates south of the border.
Iain Macpherson, Crook of Devon

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2020 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific