The 19th century in England is also well known as the Victorian Period because of the long reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). The characteristic of this period was the changing of the economic, political, and social views as the result of the Industrial Revolution. The poverty and exploitation increased due to drastic changes in the demographics of England.
Amid the multitude of social and political forces of this age of democracy, it was an age of popular education, of religious tolerance, of growing brotherhood and of profound social unrest.
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The multitudes of men, women and little children in the mines and factories were victims of a more terrible industrial and social slavery. Child labour at the time was synonymous to slavery. Children were subjected to inhuman torture, exploitation and even death. These child labourers were forced to work in factories and workhouses at the insistence of their parents and workhouse guardians.
The reputation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning as a poet of liberal social conscience is chiefly based on her widely known ‘The Cry of the Children’. It is less well known that after the publication of that poem in 1843 Barrett Browning continued to champion social progress in England, the liberation movement in Italy, and abolitionism in the United States. While The Cry of the Children was a kind of poetical echo of Chartism. Child labour, in Victorian England, was part of a gruesome system which snatched children of their childhood, health and even their lives, which is picturized in the lines of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which is as follows:
Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers,
Ere the sorrow comes with years?
They are leaning their young heads against their mothers,
And that cannot stop their tears.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning uses a theme of politics along with rich imagery to draw her readers into the plight of the children forced into working in the mines and factories of industrial England. She writes to expose the horrific conditions under which these children are forced to live and die. The poem is a detailed description of the thoughts and wishes of the children paired with an outsider’s pleas with the public to change the lives of the children. The poet brings out her female perspective of child abuse and child labour in the work which is published in 1843 in the Blackwood’s Magazine, was written after she had visited an urban factory and was shocked at the children’s pitiful state. The poem was read in the House of Lords and influenced legislation to protect working children. It is obvious that the poem is a personal response to the exploitation of children as cheap workers, especially in factories and mines, and a call to the society for reform.
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