Children of the Revolution (The Urchins’ Parade)
“Love sending forth indiscriminately, yet with purpose, his missile of kindness.”
In eighteen hundred and thirty-three, A great procession we shall see, of poverty. And there’s the Earl of Shaftesbury. The champion of philanthropy and charity. He did so much to help the poor. He tried so hard to make their voices heard. Chimney sweeps and young shoeblacks, Guttersnipes and water jacks will breathe again. Mudlarks, finders, flower girls, Tumbling boys with leaps and twirls across the Wen. Foundlings, orphans, waifs and strays, Ragamuffins, workhouse runaways. Our greatness and prosperity And our superiority provided by Not the navy, not the bank, But here’s the lot we have to thank, the bitter cry: Three hundred thousand little girls Who’ve made the journey down from Lancashire. Organ grinders everywhere, Harps and hurdy-gurdy fare, and sing-along. See the old professors stride From the workhouse where they died. And later on … Everyone will go to see The famous Punch and Judy show once more. Somerstown, the Old Nichol, The Holy Land, the Mint, the Hole, the Wretched Mile, The Dark Abyss and Seven Dials, The rookeries of old St Giles and Jacob’s Isle. Ghosts of ghetto children gone Echo through the years of buried grief.
As one of London’s great meeting points, Piccadilly Circus is the perfect place to start our journey. Strictly speaking, it’s not a ‘circus’ anymore, as a new one-way system allowed the old roundabout to be reclaimed by the pedestrian.
The world’s first neon-lit city centre, the Circus marks the dynamic convergence point of four bustling London districts: Mayfair, St James’s, Soho and Covent Garden. Day or night, the place is a vibrant vortex of human activity. Indeed, when the Londoner wants to convey a notion of heavy traffic congestion, they will often exclaim, ‘It’s like Piccadilly Circus round ’ere!’
The winged statue that adorns the landmark’s plinth is a monument to the philanthropist Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury (1801–85). Sculpted by Albert Gilbert, it was erected in 1893. It has never really been clear which figure the statue actually depicts; although it is commonly known as Eros, some claim it to be Anteros, the god of selfless love, and others refer to it as the Angel of Christian Charity. Alternatively, as it is portrayed having just fired an arrow, the figure may be a simple rebus: ‘shafts bury’.
Cooper was one of the great radical contributors to modern society. Building on the work of reformers such as Robert Owen, Michael Thomas Sadler and Richard Oastler, he ceaselessly crusaded for government acts in all aspects of social and industrial life in nineteenth-century England, including mines, collieries, factories, working hours and climbing boys (chimney sweeps). He was also a leading campaigner for children’s refuges (helping Dr Barnardo), ragged schools, cabman’s shelters, the protection of animals, the protection of ‘lunatics’ and the abolition of slavery.
Cooper’s unceasing determination was driven by a battle for political reform within Parliament. For a brief impression of the appalling and scandalous mistreatment of children during the Industrial Revolution in England, we need only look at the concessions Cooper worked to secure in the 1833 Factory Act, painfully extracted via parliamentary inquiry and a royal commission: no workers under nine years old; a maximum working week of sixty-nine hours for thirteen-to-eighteen-year-olds; no workers under eighteen to work between the hours of 8.30 pm and 5.30 am. The Act also called for an ‘inspectorate of factories’, but policing was inadequate, and so the Act was widely evaded. Nevertheless, Cooper persevered, and managed to force through several more reform acts over the next fifty years of his life.
One of Cooper’s supporters, the MP William Cobbett (1763–1835), shamed Parliament into silence when he stood up and addressed the Commons while Cooper’s bill was being debated:
Hitherto, we have been told that our navy was the glory of the country and that our maritime commerce and extensive manufactures were the mainstays of the realm. We have also been told that the land had its share in our greatness and should be justly considered the pride and glory of England. The bank also has put in its claim to share in this praise and has stated that public credit is due to it; but now, a most surprising discovery has been made, namely, that all our greatness and prosperity, that our superiority over other nations is owing to 300,000 little girls in Lancashire.
Despite his huge achievements in helping a vast swathe of the population, Cooper remains relatively unknown compared to other nineteenth-century social reformers. His philanthropic contemporaries William Wilberforce and William Booth both made it into the 2002 100 Greatest Britons BBC poll. Cooper did not.
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