Exploring historic houses can give us a glimpse into the past – houses can be ‘read’ as a series of clues that tell us about how people lived, what they ate, how they entertained themselves and even how they thought!
At Strokestown Park we are lucky to have a collection that tells us a lot about the rearing of a child in the Victorian era. The child in question is Olive Pakenham Mahon who was born in 1894.
Olive was from a wealthy family – as you can see from the size of the house she lived in.
Poor children often had to work from the age of five or six but Olive’s parents could afford to give her the luxury of a ‘childhood’ - although it was very different to one that a child today might experience.
This module will help you discover more about what life was like for Olive in Strokestown Park.
Toys, games, childcare, education, discipline and the occasional illness were things that Olive would have experienced – just as children do today.
But there were also huge differences – especially in the way children were regarded and treated.
The first part of your task is to investigate the Victorian childhood of Olive Pakenham Mahon and contrast it with your early childhood experience.
The second part of your task is to compose a piece of writing or create a mood board – with images and illustrations - comparing your early years with those of Olive.
You can search the web using a keyword search linked to subjects mentioned in this unit. Just to get you started we have put in quite a lot of links relating to these topics.
What’s a mood board? Learn about them by clicking here.
You can use notes and photographs that you take on your visit to Strokestown Park. Here are a few images that you might find helpful:
We suggest you choose three themes for your task. To help you each of the following pages looks at a particular topic and has links to sources of information on the web (all links open in a new tab/window).Next Step
In 1899 more than 16% of children did not survive to their first birthday and even minor illnesses like measles or diarrhoea could cause death.
This was also partially because very strong or unsuitable medicines and alcohol were given to small children. The cure was often worse than the illness!
A sick child was often given an emetic, to cause vomiting and expel the illness. An emetic is something given to induce vomiting and was thought to get rid of the poisons that were causing the illness. If you read the first few lines of this article you’ll get an idea of how dangerous some ‘cures’ were.
However so much of what we take for granted today in terms of medicine for minor illnesses and the diagnoses of these was not available or known about. Read here about just how high childhood mortality from illness was.
Compare today’s painkillers and medicines to those that Olive might have been given. Think also about the fear that an illness as simple as measles might provoke. Child mortality – or early death - was an accepted part of life when Olive was a child. When she was 11 she wrote this will.
It was generally thought if a child led an orderly well regulated life with plain and wholesome food it would prevent illness – not a bad idea!Next Step
When Olive was born in 1894 it was a time when wealthy children lived a strict and ordered life that centered on the nursery. The nursery was a place where they were confined until they were judged ready to enter into adult society.
Shortly after birth children of the upper classes were sent out to a wet nurse, and then they moved to the realm of nannies. Later boys had tutors and girls had governesses.
Nurseries were often situated far from the social hub of the main house – some were even placed in the attic and give us an indication of the secondary status of children.
As a space nurseries were quite cosy and full of playthings; toys would not have generally have been allowed in the living areas of a well to do house.
As an only child Olive’s education was quite solitary and must have been lonely at times, though she did have friends to visit, like her friend Marjorie, shown above.
Nonetheless as the only child in the nursery she would have got a lot of attention! Think of today’s classrooms. How many were in your class when you were six or seven?
Also bearing in mind the many hours Olive spent in the nursery it is not surprising that the character of a nanny could have an enormous impact on her.
While Nannies often provided support and love, sometimes they were authoritative and strict.
What about childcare today?
Many of today parents have to go out to work. They also have to leave their children in childcare or crèches. What do you think are the differences and the similarities with a crèche and a Victorian nursery?
"Why not cover the walls of nurseries with illustrations telling of the glories, and, if you please, horrors of war - teaching peace and good will by illustrating the anti-type." From The Decoration and Furniture of Town Houses (1881)
Everything a Victorian child did or came into contact with had an educational message ... even the wallpaper in the nursery! What effect do you think wallpaper with war scenes might have had on a young child? To see some historic children's wallpaper click here.
Few concessions were made to childhood as we know it today and much was expected from children as they were taught to be morally upright and responsible from a very young age. Also education could be very repetitive and boring. This text book from the school room at Strokestown shows pages and pages of repetitive dictation.
Boys went outside the family at an early age: they went to boarding school at about the age of seven, and later on to university or work. Girls generally did not enjoy the same freedom or level of education.
What do you think of Victorian schools? Why?
Girls of Olive’s social class – that is the upper classes or gentry - were less likely to leave the shelter of the nursery until they were in their teens and didn’t leave home until they married.
Before WW1 girls had very little freedom and couldn’t go out alone without a chaperone.
What is a chaperone?
Their days were strictly controlled by the family and governess or nurse. The major role in life for an aristocratic or upper class girl was to marry well – that is to someone of equal or higher social status than hers. A career or study was rarely an option - so the level of their education was often far behind that of boys. Was this fair?
Olive’s first marriage took place in 1914 however her husband Edward was killed in the Battle of Ypres in WW1 a few months later when Olive was expecting her first child Lettice. She was married, widowed and had a baby in one year. This image is of her second marriage in 1921 to major Stuart Hales – her daughter Lettice is also in the picture.
Why do you think people put their children in nurseries in the past?
There is no doubt that Victorian parents loved their children – however in that era children were thought of in a different way than we have come to expect today.
One of the most noticeable aspects of this was that Victorian children in wealthy families lived separately from their parents – even though they occupied the same house.
Parents knew very little of the daily routines of their children and saw very little of them; in some cases they met for a only few moments each day. At these times the children were supposed to be on their best behaviour, and were fed, happy and dressed up and children were expected to greet their parents with great formality and respect.
Why do you think parents saw so little of their children?
Look at this to get more info on Victorian families – it also looks at life for poor children...grim!
Happily there has been a shift in the last one hundred and fifty years from a parent centered universe to our own child centered one. But when Olive was born households were run by adults for adults. Children were expected to be ‘seen and not heard’! How does this compare to today?
In the late 19th Century a Mrs. Panton wrote in her book From Kitchen to Garret: ‘Children should have rooms where they do not interfere unduly with the heads of the establishment.’
It was a time when large numbers of servants were available to look after the children. With the support of servants, parents were able to carry on with their lives regardless of children.
Toys such as doll’s houses, tea sets, toy cars, dolls and prams, rocking horses, masks and dressing up costumes are all preserved in the toy room at Strokestown Park.
Think about the toys Olive owned and compare them to those you played with when you were younger.
What has changed?
What has remained the same?
The golden age of children’s books came in then Victorian era and the range of books and toys available to children like Olive from a wealthy family were vast.
However playing and reading had a serious purpose and books had a high moral tone. Even the popular game of snakes and ladders had the aim of teaching children about the rewards for virtue and the consequences of vice.
Playing with doll’s houses was considered a good way to introduce young girls to household management and the art of war could be learned by boys by playing with toy soldiers.
Typical books had a moral or educational element with religious overtones that encouraged Bible reading and good works in the young. Read here about Victorian Children's books and here for descriptions of Victorian children's games.
Nursery Rhymes sounded pleasant but often had a darker meaning.
Victorian toys and games are now collector’s items and we are lucky to have so many at Strokestown Park – indicating how wealthy and pampered Olive was.Next Step
Upper class children lived a strict and orderly life in the nursery – where they were ‘trained’ and ‘disciplined’ to be obedient, honest and hard-working.
Parents felt they had to give their children a sense of morality. Some thought that discipline could not begin early enough and young babies were fed at stated hours rather than on demand as it was believed that this taught infants the benefits of ‘order and punctuality’.
In the past it was believed that children benefitted from a strict and ordered life, as it made them a better person. If they weren’t obedient, children were punished by being locked in dark cupboards, by beatings or by being sent to bed hungry.
In this blog you can read about discipline in Victorian schools ... or is it abuse? The author says that some young people think that a small amount of corporal punishment would be a good idea today? What do you think?Next Step
This box contained an early baby’s bottle. Note the comments on the box about it: “Without the manifold defects of the old fashioned tube feeder, it is most easily cleaned”, British Medical Journal. “We know of no better feeder, so simple, so easy to keep in order”- The Practitioner
How does the wording differ from advertisements for today’s baby products?
Even children’s clothes give us an indication of what life must have been like for Victorian or Edwardian children. For everyday wear Olive would have worn starched pinafores, stiff fabric dresses with elaborate buttoning and complicated undergarments. Here we can see her dressed up in a silk dress with lots of frills.
Look here at the layers of clothes a Victorian girl would have worn.
Children were dressed like small adults a lot of the time – have a look at these boys shoes.
Boys wore the same clothes as girls for their first few years – yes dresses! - read about it here.
Then as they reached about three or four they were given suits to wear – these looked a bit like fancy dress and boys were dressed like miniature soldiers, sailors and gentlemen – here is an image of a 'mini sailor'.
It was only after WW1 that items such as the romper were introduced for young children and this was mainly due to the fact that fewer servants were available to dress children.
But clothes also indicated a person’s wealth and even social status. Think of the most comfortable item of clothing you own - is it a hoodie? Sweat pants? Do your clothes indicate your social rank? What about your school uniform?
Now that you have investigated a Victorian childhood, use the notes you took during your visit to Strokestown Park and any photos to build up a picture of Olive’s life. No doubt you have spotted the similarities ...what about the differences?
Here are some things to think about:
It might appear that Olive’s family wealth would have protected her from life’s dangers. But what about illness and death? These had no respect for social status or wealth in Victorian times. What about today?
What types of toys did you play with when you were younger? Were they battery powered, did they use electricity? In 1894 very few houses had electricity!
Has education changed much? Think about this WebQuest and compare it to dictation!
There are loads of topics to choose from for your analysis of life today and in the past for children – good luck!Next Step