Hazardous “Toys”

3 Jul

cover image for seriesThis is the beginning of a series of mini blogs examining the hazards of “toys” and play in the homes of the Victorian poor. The aim of this series is to not just examine the dangers of these objects, but to also explore the range of toys available to the children of the poor and their ability to find entertainment in everyday domestic objects.

The Doorway Swing

In the Snelling’s home in Vernon Street, Ipswich, an 1865 coroner’s inquest records that there was ‘a swing fixed from the doorway leading from the back room to the kitchen…The swing had been in the same place and used by the children for two years past, but had frequently had new ropes.  New ropes [had only recently been] hung…and were considered by the parents of quite sufficient strength’.  Unfortunately, however, we only know about this swing fixed in the backroom/kitchen doorway for the Snelling’s children to play upon because in June, that year, Frederick Snelling ‘was amusing himself’ on the swing ‘when suddenly the cord gave way and he fell to the ground and was hurt, and died about two hours afterwards’.  At the inquest into his death, the jury returned a verdict of ‘Accidental death from concussion of the brain’.[1]

This inquest reveals a number of things in regards to childhood play in the homes of the Victorian urban working class.  Play appears as an acceptable encroachment on the family’s indoor living space.  This case is not isolated – my research has illuminated numerous instances of children playing in the family’s living space (a topic that is going to be returned to latterly). Secondly, it provides an example of the make-shift toys children experienced. For many Victorian children, manufactured toys were not widely available or affordable.  Instead, toys, such as the doorway swing, were improvised by parents.  However, what I find most poignant in this particular case is the obvious care and recognition of a child’s need to play by the Snelling parents, and their attempts to meet these needs within the relative safety of the home away from the hazards of the streets.

[1] Ipswich Journal, 10 June 1865, p. 5.

Playing School

During the colder months, the indoor space of the home became the playground for young children and while for some there were toys to play with, many other children had to utilise their imaginations to entertainment themselves and their siblings.

In March 1879, an inquest was held on the body of nine-year-old Caroline Parker.  The Ipswich Journal, reporting on the case, stated that ‘on the morning of [Friday] 28th [February] the mother of the child left her in charge of two other children to visit her mother, and had been gone about ten minutes when a neighbour (Mrs. Hutson), hearing a loud scream, went to the window of the house… and there saw the child screaming, her clothes having been ignited by the fire’. Despite the neighbour ‘immediately extinguish[ing] the flames with a hearthrug’, Caroline was ‘dreadfully’ burnt.  Before her death, ‘she told her mother that as she was playing school with the other two children her dress, as she was standing with her back to the fire, caught fire’.[1] Unfortunately, the inquest does not clarify why she was playing school, rather than being at school.


[1] Ipswich Journal, 22 Apr 1879, p. 2.

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