In 1900 children were legally viewed as little adults; they could smoke and drink alcohol but could also be sent to adult prisons. In poorer families, they were often obliged to work. A 1900 survey into child labour in London showed 25% of all children aged 5-13 had part time jobs or worked at home making goods like brushes or paper flowers. Children from poorer families often missed days from school to work. Girls in particular, were needed at home to care for younger siblings. It was legal for children to start full time work at just 12.

The 1870 Education Act obliged local authorities to provide primary education for all children aged 5 to 11. The 1902 Education Act established Local Education Authorities that also provided secondary schools. However places were limited and fees charged, so few working class children attended. For children of the upper and middle classes, school was already a fact of life. Dame Schools taught younger children reading and writing. Fee paying grammar schools offered lessons for older boys. Girls whose families could afford it were usually educated at home. Lessons were often limited to languages, music, sewing and house-keeping skills. The sons of the upper classes usually attended public schools like Eton and Harrow, before going on to university at 18.

The 1908 Children's Charter enshrined childhood to the age of 14; children under this age were legally minors. However, many children still finished their education aged 11. After school, poorer children worked in semi- or unskilled jobs. For boys, factory work was common, for girls it was domestic service. This was particularly hard as they would live away from home and not see their families for months at a time. Programmes of social reform after the First World War and a trend for smaller families improved life for poorer children. There was more time for play and in some neighbourhoods the streets were filled with children.

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