Today, I’m delighted to be hosting a guest post from Sue Wilkes. Her latest book, Tracing Your Ancestors’ Childhood, delves into the experiences of childhood at home, school, work and in institutions, especially during Victorian times.

Sue has very kindly written a post about the child shoe-blacks who were on every busy street in Victorian cities, eager to shine shoes for a fee.

When you’re visiting Victorian England, your shoes will get very mucky because of all the filth in the streets. If you need to cross the street, watch out for a ‘crossing-sweeper’ – a poor boy or girl who will sweep a clear path across the road for you for a penny or two. Road crossing sweepers earned a few extra pennies by holding gentlemen’s horses for them. Middle-class reformers were worried that street children like these were a menace to society.

John Leech cartoon for Punch (Bradbury & Evans, 1863). Sue Wilkes’ collection

But if your shoes need cleaning in a hurry, perhaps because you are on your way to dine with friends, a shoe-black will shine your shoes for a small fee. The shoe-black brigades, founded in 1851, were an offshoot of the ragged school movement. The brigades helped boys earn money as shoe-blacks so that they could save up enough funds to emigrate and begin a new life abroad. The boys earned up to 8s 6d per week. A proportion of each boy’s wages were paid into a savings account for him; he was given some pennies for pocket-money and a few pence of his earnings repaid the Shoe-Black Society for kitting him out.

Shoe-black boy. Illustrated London News, 24 May 1851. Sue Wilkes’ collection.

Thanks, Sue! So when you’re on your visit to Victorian England, look out for the shoe-blacks and child crossing-sweepers, and don’t forget to throw them a few coppers.
Sue’s book, Tracing Your Ancestors’ Childhood is out now. You can find out more about her work by visiting her website and her Jane Austen blog: You can also follow her on Twitter (@SueWilkesauthor).