"burnt off their legs and sent them begging"

During the Victorian era, huge poverty amongst the population of inner-city London meant there were a great number of beggars, many of them children. The extremely poor faced two options in the nineteenth century: the workhouse or the streets, and due to the harsh conditions in the workhouses, many opted for the streets as they had just as good a chance of survival there.

There were also a huge number of orphans in London, many of whom were snatched up by professional criminals to form gangs of pickpockets or beggars. Treated extraordinarily badly, it was not uncommon for the orphans to be disfigured in some way so that they would look more pitiful to passers-by. Organisations such as the Foundling Hospital attempted to care for some of the parentless children, but it was too great a problem to combat. Sometimes known as ‘The Great Waif Crisis’, the issue of London’s orphans was brought to attention most notably in Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, in which the title character runs away from the workhouse as a young boy and falls in with a gang of child pickpockets run by the master criminal Fagin.