Registered: Aug 2007
Posted 19-05-2009 15:32 IP
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.
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.
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.
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 Society 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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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.
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