115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Keeping Poor Boys In Sight: Surveillance in Victorian Representations of Poor Children

Kate Carnell Watt, University of California, Riverside

Surveillance of poor children pervades Victorian literature.  Whether the scrutiny comes from a policeman, a gentleman, a sinister adult criminal, or the child’s own sense of his visibility and the inevitability of punishment, poor children are a constant source of anxiety and therefore a constant subject of observation in Victorian novels written about or for poor children.


In Victorian literature for and about poor children, a profound fear of juvenile crime and of the kinds of adults these children might become is evident.  Children, especially boys, are surveilled by policemen, benevolent yet strict representatives of the middle class, and God.  On the other hand, they are being watched, assessed, and potentially chosen as apprentices by adult criminals (sometimes their own parents).

I propose to examine Victorian representations of poor children, particularly boys, as a site of surveillance and other forms of control.  Oliver Twist and the novels of Hesba Stretton (Pilgrim Street and Alone in London, particularly) will be central examples. 

I am also interested in the uses of education and the reformatory system to inculcate self-policing in poor children.  Just as Foucault writes that “the [criminal] must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so,” Victorian boys are made to say “I’m a wickid boy and I no God sese me,” while in the reformatories and schools for poor children the central lesson is always their visibility and their vulnerability. 

In both Oliver Twist and the lesser-known novels of Hesba Stretton and other Victorian writers, poor boys are the object of every gaze, the center of attention, the locus of concern, because good boys turn bad and bad boys grow up into bad men. Thus a poor boy must confess,  “I’m a theef [and] I’m going to be a wikid man,” while the surveilling policeman mourns that “he’ll be a thief like his father.”

Raymond Williams and other scholars have argued that Victorian fiction often reflected “imaginative working[s]-out” of “the fear of violence which was widespread among the upper and middle classes,” and in this light these novels declare that “the superstructure of society would stand a pretty fair chance of being burst up or blown to atoms” without the all-knowing, ever-watchful policeman.  A boy tempted into crime or a gin-palace would “see the shining hat and large buttons of a policeman coming up the street, [which] kept him in wholesome fear of being caught in doing wrong; and as one or another [officer] might be seen at every turn, he was delivered from much evil.”

The middle-class gentleman plays a surprising role in these novels, supplementing the policeman’s surveillance with sound advice and an almost supernatural ability to materialize when the boy is tempted or at a turning point.  The gentleman is praised for taking “the trouble of visiting, inquiring about, finding out about, and otherwise considering the poor.”   

And if these children are being watched by policemen, gentlemen, and God, they are also being watched by adult criminals.  From their own criminal fathers, assessing willingness to learn the family businesses of pickpocketing and housebreaking, to Fagin, who sends his boys into the streets to look for likely urchins to corrupt, the figure of the adult criminal hovers over these children as an alternative future, a threat to social stability, and a lesson in skills and attitudes antithetical to those of the middle class.