“Come away, O human child!’’ Reconstructing the early life history of the Industrial child through carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analysis of dentine collagen.


“There is one beautiful sight in the East End, and only one, and that is the children dancing in the street when the organ-grinder goes his round…. But there is a Pied Piper of London Town who steals them all away. They disappear…They die like flies, and those that survive, survive because they possess excessive vitality and a capacity of adaptation to the degradation with which they are surrounded.” (London, 1903:89-90).

Industrialisation during the 17th to 19th centuries in Britain brought with it changing environmental conditions, extreme population growth, migration to urban centres, and decreased standards of living. These factors contributed to a decline in child health and dramatic increase in mortality rates amongst infants and children at this time. The Bills of Mortality reveal that in early 18th century London, three out of four infants did not live past five years, accounting for almost half of all deaths in the city. Exacerbated by cramped living conditions, poor sanitation, and changes in feeding practices, many succumbed to measles, smallpox, scarlet fever and other diseases of childhood. Malnutrition meant that many children suffered from deficiency diseases such as rickets and scurvy, and were more susceptible to the predominant infectious diseases of the period such as tuberculosis, influenza, and cholera.

The voice of the individual child is something which is overlooked in heritage discourse. In a historical context, children themselves are often excluded from the written record. Unable to represent themselves, our documentary evidence about their lives is limited to administrative documents such as birth, death, or medical records, and accounts written from an adult perspective which frequently treat children as one solid demographic grouping, rather than as diverse individuals with differing life experiences. In an archaeological context, research into the experience of the individual child and their quality of life is limited by poor recovery and preservation of juvenile skeletal remains, and our understanding of their health is limited further as only specific diseases can be observed in the skeleton.

This gap in research motivated my interest in the use of scientific methods to investigate the impact of Industrialisation on child health and welfare in Britain. Recent advancements in the field of heritage science include the development of a form of carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analysis known as incremental dentine analysis. This technique involves the chemical analysis of small, successive sections of dentine formed during tooth development, and allows for the study of diet, nutritional status, and physiological health at measurable points throughout childhood (Beaumont et al 2013, 2015, Beaumont and Montgomery 2015). This novel method offers the opportunity to reconstruct individual life histories that span from birth until early adulthood, in which changes to diet, and periods of malnutrition and disease, may be observed at distinct periods.

My research utilises this cutting-edge technique to reconstruct the early life history of the child in Industrial Britain, addressing research questions such as how individual children in Britain experienced Industrialisation, the physical effect which it had on their diet, health, and identity, and how changing social conditions affected their quality of life. Employing a multidisciplinary approach, which will also engage with documentary and archaeological evidence, this research will provide otherwise inaccessible information about how social and cultural change affected these children’s lives.

This project seeks to further our understanding of how our development and modernisation as a society impacted our youngest and most vulnerable members, and inform how similar living and working conditions may affect the experience of childhood in developing nations today. Engagement with community and local heritage groups will help to demonstrate how science can be used to illuminate hidden aspects of our shared heritage, and provide an opportunity for modern children to engage with the narratives of children in the not-so-distant past.

Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic, 2015. Photograph by Solange Bohling.

I graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 2014 with a BA (Hons) in Ancient History and Archaeology/History of Art and Architecture. Following this I was awarded an AHRC Masters Studentship to complete my MSc in Human Osteology and Palaeopathology at the University of Bradford (2015).
This research background developed my interest in the use of scientific techniques to address questions about the past. I began my PhD research, funded by the AHRC Heritage Consortium, in October 2017 and I am currently based in the School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences at the University of Bradford. My supervisors are Dr Hannah Koon, Dr Jo Buckberry, and Dr Julia Beaumont (University of Bradford) and Professor Tony Webster (Northumbria University).