History of Children and Childhood, 1700-1800

By Mary O’Dowd

There were important changes in attitudes to children in the eighteenth century. Throughout western Europe and colonial America, there was a new interest in the education and formation of children. Philosophers and writers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, Mary Wollstonecraft and many others wrote about the rearing and education of children. There was also a new consumer market in children’s books and toys. We can see these same developments in Ireland.


Concern for the education of children became a fashionable topic of conversation among wealthy women.  Excited by the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, Emily Fitzgerald, Duchess of Leinster, for example, gave considerable thought to the education of her large family of sixteen children.  One story suggests that she tried to entice Rousseau to come to Ireland as tutor to her children but she had to settle for Scotsman, William Ogilivie whom she subsequently married.  The Fitzgerald’s summer house in Blackrock, on the outskirts of Dublin city was transformed into a private school where Ogilivie taught the children. 

Frascati House, Blackrock, Co. Dublin

In keeping with the advice of Rousseau and others, the Fitzgerald children spent a great deal of time out of doors working in the garden.  The children also swam and took other forms of exercise including swimming and taking walks along the seashore. Although their mother remained in the main family home of Castletown in Co. Kildare or in Leinster House in Dublin city centre, she received regular updates on the children’s progress from Ogilivie and through the letters that the children sent to her. Emily kept her children’s letters and they can now be found in the Fitzgerald family papers in the National Library of Ireland.

The concern with the education of children was not confined to Protestant Anglo-Irish families.  In the last quarter of the eighteenth schools for middle class Catholic children were also established in Ireland.  Nano Nagle, the daughter of a Cork merchant family, returned from her continental education determined to open a school for Catholic girls in Ireland.  She arranged for French nuns from the Ursuline order to open a school in Cork.  Although Nagle later became disillusioned with the Ursuline focus on middle and upper class girls, the school marked the beginning of a secondary-type education for Irish girls. The curriculum focused on teaching ‘accomplishments’ designed  to make the young women attractive wives who could socialize and engage in conversation at a dinner table in a knowledgeable (although not too knowledgeable) fashion. The school was initially established in Cork city but later moved to Blackrock on the outskirts of the town to avail of the sea air and enable the girls to take healthy walks not unlike the exercises undertaken by the Fitzgerald children.   

The male equivalent of the Ursuline school for middle class Catholic girls was Clongowes College, the Jesuit school that opened in 1814.  The first pupil to be enrolled was James McLorinan the son of a Dublin linen draper.  Like the Ursuline convent in Blackrock, Co. Cork and Frascati House, Clongowes College was also developed around a large estate house in a rural setting.  The school attracted pupils who in an earlier generation might have travelled to the continent for their education.  In 1791, for example, Daniel O’Connell and his brother, Maurice, were sent to the English College at St Omer and subsequently to the Jesuit college at Douai in France. Maurice was 16 years of age and Daniel was 17.   The boys moved to London when the anti-Catholic sentiment provoked by the French Revolution became too dangerous for two Catholic teenage boys.  Later in life, O’Connell was an enthusiastic supporter of the establishment of the Irish Jesuit College and enrolled his four sons in Clongowes.

Clongowes College, Co. Kildare

In addition to the new interest in the education of children from wealthy families, there was also in the eighteenth century, increasing concern about the education of poorer children.  Small, private charity schools were founded by wealthy individuals, often women from landed or aristocratic families.  Elizabeth La Touche from the famous banking family funded a school and orphanage on her family estate in Delgany in the 1790s. 

There were two main aims of education for the poor: to provide the children with a a religious education and to teach them useful or employable skills.  For the girls this usually meant needlework and training as domestic servants; for the boys, preparation for apprenticeships as shop assistants or training as weavers or other forms of work in the textile industry.  More benign philanthropists such as Elizabeth La Touche provided the girls with dowries that would enable them to marry successfully. 

The majority of the charity schools were Protestant.  As the Penal legislation against the establishment of Catholic schools was relaxed in the late eighteenth century, however, schools for poor Catholic children were opened.  Nano Nagle established a network of charity schools in Cork while Teresa Mulally opened a school for poor children in George’s Hill in Dublin. The curriculum focused on Catholic religious education but also, as in the Protestant schools, on training the boys and girls in skills ‘whereby they may be rendered useful to society, and capable of earning honest bread for themselves’.

Image of Nano Nagle (1718-84) by Charles Turner (1809).  For an analysis of this engraving  see https://nanonagleplace.ie/nano-nagle-in-picture-1809-turner-engraving/


Mothers continued in the eighteenth century to collect medical recipes to assist with the illnesses of children and other members of the family.  Increasingly, however, while herbal medicine continued to be used by poor families, wealthier parents were increasingly making use of professional doctors.  The writer, Mary Leadbeater, for example, had a manuscript collection of cures that she used to help with the illnesses of poor people in the village of Ballitore where she lived. A doctor from Carlow, however, attended Leadbeater when she gave birth to her six children and she regularly consulted the doctor when members of her family were ill.

Middle class families also began to use printed medical texts as guides to children’s illness.  William Buchan’s Domestic medicine: or, a treatise on the prevention and cure of diseases by regimen and simple medicines was very popular.  First published in 1773, ten editors of the volume appeared in the eighteenth century and eight editions were printed in Dublin.

The first chapter in Domestic medicine provided advice on the health of children. As a professionally qualified doctor, Buchan was critical of the traditional medicines administered by midwives and local ‘wise women’. He wrote his book in ‘plain’ language to guide parents through the most up to date medical advice for common illnesses. Buchan encouraged wealthy mothers to take a more active role in the care of their children and not to leave it to nurses and servants. Unusually, he was also critical of fathers who took no interest in the education of their children:

A gentleman of the first rank is not ashamed to give directions concerning the management of his dogs or horses, yet would blush were he surprised in performing the same office for that being who derived its excellence from himself, who is the heir of his fortunes, and the future hope of his country.

Buchan, like many doctors, recommended that mothers breast feed their own infants. Better off mothers, however, continued throughout the eighteenth century to rely on poor women to nurse their children.  Mary Leadbeater was critical of the practice of hiring a wet nurse. Her Cottage Dialogues consisted of imaginery conversations between two young women as they transitioned from employment as domestic servants through marriage and motherhood. In her dialogue entitled ‘Nursing’ Leadbeater warned against the danger to a baby’s life, if its mother acted as a wet nurse for another woman’s child. Leadbeater’s text, also, however, revealed the financial temptation to do so.  The wet nurse could earn a considerable sum of money.

Extract from Mary Leadbeater, Cottage Dialogues (1811) on the dangers of poor women abandoning their own infants to wet nurse a wealthier child. The volume was very popular and went through several editions.

Paradoxically, Leadbeater had six children but had difficulties nursing her first child, Elizabeth.  Her husband summoned a wet nurse and all of her subsequent children were taken to the home of a wet nurse within days of their birth.  The infants lived with their nurse for up to two years, often learning to speak Irish and retaining a life long affection for their nurses.  

Childhood and Consumerism

The fashion for more child-centered parenthood in the eighteenth century is evidenced by the expanding market in the eighteenth century of children’s toys and books. There was a strong demand for books that could be used for parents who were home teaching their children or private tutors.  Maria Edgeworth and her father, Richartd Lovell Edgeworth published a two volume guide for parents entitled Practical Education (1798). Books authored by English writers such as Anna Letitia Babauld, Lessons for Children of Three Years Old (1779) were also reprinted in Irish edition.

Women writers, including Edgeworth, also authored books for children. The Belfast teacher David Manson used very modern techniques to teach the children in his school (which included the United Irishman, Henry Joy McCracken and his sister, Mary Ann McCracken. He advocated teaching ‘without the use of the rod’. He also invented card games to teach spelling and improve the literacy of his pupils. His teaching methods were so successful that Manson authored a number of books that described the games. The cards were on sale in bookshops in Belfast.

Shops dedicated to selling toys for children began to open in the larger cities, particularly Dublin in the last decades of the eighteenth century.  We can get a glimpse into the pleasure which toys gave children through occasional references in letters, memoirs and diaries.   Dorothea Herbert who grew up in Carrick-on-Suir in the 1770s and ‘80s, recalled that she had a large alabaster doll which she had brought back from a trip to England with her parents.   Quaker sisters, Mary and Sally Shackleton invented courting games for their ‘babies’.  One of the best preserved eighteenth-century dolls in the National Museum of Ireland belonged to another Quaker girl, Anne Petticrew who was born in 1724. It is, however, so well-preserved that it may have served as an ornament rather than a play object.  Such toys were also expensive.

A wooden doll owned by Anne Petticrew (born in 1724) According to the Museum description the doll has enameled eyes and human hair.  ‘She is fashionably dressed in a silk brocade gown with a quilted silk petticoat, embroidered cotton underskirt, white cotton chemise trimmed with Valenciennes lace, green silk stockings, leather soled silk shoes, and a fine lawn apron.’ 
(Image: Copyright National Museum of Ireland). 

Like most children Dorothea Herbert also remembered that she and her siblings and friends invented their own games with home made toys:

There were six or seven of us almost always in Mischief – Tom invented  Pop Guns that often blinded us  – Fanny The Art of Dyeing by which we completely spoiled a set of new scarlet Stuff Gowns we had just Got – We then washed them, and when that was of no avail we threw them out to Bleach – peppering for fear my Mother or Mary Neal [the children’s nurse] should know any thing of It …

Poorer children also relied on their imagination to play. The drawings of Hugh Douglas Hamilton of Dublin street traders included images of small children playing with a stick and a knitting spool

A mother selling eggs while her child plays with a spool (Hugh Douglas Hamilton, The Cries of Dublin (1760) (Copyright: Private Collection)
A woman mending stockings for a living while caring for her child. The barefoot child is playing with a stick (Hugh Douglas Hamilton, Cries of Dublin, 1760 (Copyright: Private Collection)

Hugh Douglas Hamilton’s drawing also included images of other attractions of the market for children.

Two boys buying ginger bread and sweets from a street trader, (Hugh Douglas Hamilton, The Cries of Dublin (1760) (Copyright: Private Collection)

Among wealthy families, it was increasingly popular in the eighteenth century to include children in family portraits. In the early nineteenth century, Mary O’Connell chose to have her portrait painted with her son

Mary O’Connell with her son Daniel by John Gubbins.  Copyright: Office of Public Works, Derrynane House, Co. Kerry

Children at Work

Children worked at home, outside on the farm and in city streets.  Douglas Hamilton’s Cries of Dublin includes a number of drawings of young boys learning their trade through watching and assisting their master.

Boys were apprenticed to craftsmen from about the age of twelve.  The employer normally made the apprenticeship agreement with the boy’s parents.  The master acted in parentis locus and the agreement often laid out what the boy should not do.

A young boy assisting a cobbler in a Dublin market. Hamilton captured the sense of boredom of the young boy. (Hugh Douglas Hamilton, Cries of Dublin (Copyright: private collection).

John Tennent was fourteen years of age when he was apprenticed to a grocer in Coleraine.  In his diary, he gives an account of his time as an apprentice and his, at times, difficult relationship with his employer, Samuel Girvin. John was particularly upset that Girvin did not fulfil the terms of his contract to give him time to read or train him properly in the business of being a grocer. His journal suggests, however, that he may have learnt a great deal through his work in the grocery shop. John’s bordom comes through his description of his daily routine:

Monday rises at 7, puts up the sighns, cleans the shop. If not very busy sent to collect debts let the weather be ever so bad. Continually doing one thing or another for Samuel Givin but never sent to post any books for my learning, Nay I believe he did all in his power to prevent my getting any benefit from him, About 8 or 9 he goes out to drink. Shuts the shop & goes down to Robert McKinney to get my hair dressed for town. Can’t get it done in his house until the shop is shut. Goes to bed after supper of potatoes and milk, Rises as yesterday the same manner all untill Saturday & so on a continuous round of insipidity & vexation being obledged to keep company to a man I hate.

‘The Journal of John Tennent, 1786-90’. Edited by Leanne Calvert, Analecta Hibernica, no. 43 (2012), pp 80-81.

Tennent served an apprenticeship of four years and then went to work for his brother, William who was a wealthy merchant in Belfast.  Other boys held apprenticeships for longer – up to seven years. Household accounts of estate houses include details of the employment of teenagers as domestic servants and farm workers.  In farm houses where flax was grown and spun into yarn, girls were hired during the winter months as spinners. The engravings of William Hincks provide a visual record of how all members of the family contributed to the production of linen yarn.

Young girls worked as part-time spinners in the winter months (William Hincks: The Linen Industry: A set of twelve sepia printed and coloured aquatints (1791)).
The prints of William Hincks which appeared in 1791 depicted the work of children to the household industry. (William Hincks: The Linen Industry: A set of twelve sepia printed and coloured aquatints).

Commentators on the poverty of Irish society in the eighteenth century praised the expansion of the linen industry because it provided employment for men and women.  Arthur Young, admired how mothers could tend to childcare and other domestic ‘trifles’ at the same time as they combed and spun the linen yarn. 

The poverty of women and children is revealed in the drawings of traders in Dungarvan and Waterford by Sampson Towgood Roche. Women came to the market to sell surplus produce and brought their children with them.

Other women came with their children to the market to beg.

HOYFM 66.2009.13 Sketch No. 17. Sampson Towgood Roch[e] 1759-1847, © National Museums NI Collection Ulster Folk Museum.

The Beginning of Institutional Care for Children

Before the eighteenth century, publicly funded welfare for orphaned or abandoned children was minimal. From the 1590s in England, the Poor Law provided for institutional care for children but this law did not apply to Ireland.  It was not until the eighteenth century that more extensive public welfare for infants and children was funded in Ireland.  The Dublin Workhouse opened its doors in 1704.  Initially, it was intended that the institution would provide accommodation for adults and children.  Within a few years, however, the workhouse was overwhelmed by the number of children being sent to it. It became, as the historian, Joseph Robbins wrote, the ‘national repository for the unwanted child’.  Initially, children between the ages of 5 and 16 were admitted to the workhouse but this was subsequently revised  to permit the entrance of infants and children under five.  In 1730, the name of the workhouse was officially changed to the Foundling Hospital and Workhouse of the City of Dublin to reflect the large numbers of infants being deposited there.  The children were brought the Foundling Hospital by single mothers and by poor families that could not afford to maintain them. The process for admission of an infant was a simple one.  There was a revolving basket and a bell attached to the outside gate.  The parent or who ever was looking after the infant, placed him or her into the basket and rang the bell.  The porter would then turn the basket inwards, lift out the child and carry him or her to the nursery.

The mortality rate in the Foundling Hospital and Workhouse was tragically very high.  In the first seven years of its existence, 4,025 children were admitted and, of these, 3,235 died. The death rate was partly due to the poor physical health of the children when they were admitted and partly to poor welfare in the institution. Successive parliamentary investigations reported on the appalling conditions in the Foundling Hospital.  The children were neglected by the staff, fed inadequately and packed tightly together in beds and cradles that facilitated the spread of disease.In order to reduce the numbers of children in the workhouse as well as to mitigate the rates of illness and death, women were paid to nurse the children in their own homes.  Most of the nurses came from the rural hinterland of Dublin city in Counties Dublin and Wicklow. The children often stayed with their nurse and her family for a number of years.  Some, subsequently, returned to the institution but many more disappeared from the institution’s records or were reported to have died.  More fortunate children were adopted by their foster mothers and were happy to stay living with them. When fourteen year old, Eliza Stroaker was brought back from her nurse’s home to the Founding Hospital, she was asked by a parliamentary enquiry if she was happier with her nurse, Margaret Burns or at the hospital, she replied:

I was a great deal happier with my nurse, I am always crying now.

Is there anything that vexes you in the Foundling Hospital at present? Yes: I cannot see my mother and I have not my liberty.

Do you call Margaret Burns your mother? Yes.

Do you think she was your real mother? No, but she is the best mother I have. I was only three days old when she got me and she had me fourteen years.

And was she always kind to you? Yes.

Cited in Joseph Robins, The Lost Children. A Study of Charity Children in Ireland, 1700-1900 (Dublin, 1980), p. 49)

Although the mortality rates in the Foundling Hospital declined in the early nineteenth century, the conditions in the institution continued to be criticised.  The Dublin Foundling Hospital and Workhouse of the City of Dublin closed its doors to new admissions in 1830.  The care of orphaned and abandoned children was incorporated into the 1838 legislation for the establishment of a national network of workhouse.