Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire

Beyond Her Benny: Reimagining the ‘Street Arab’ in Victorian Liverpool

Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire (2017), 166, (1), 75–92.

Abstract

Popular conceptions of nineteenth-century street children in Liverpool tend to begin and end with Silas K. Hocking’s much-loved Her Benny (1879), and scholarly treatments of the city’s Victorian ‘street Arab’ population are decidedly sparse. Paternalistic paradigms created the largely caricatured, often dehumanised Mersey waif from the mass of official statistics, proselytising missionary literature and ‘pulp fiction’ of the period. There have been no attempts to construct a history from below, giving human voice, shape and colour to this intriguing local urban demographic. Yet the source material does exist for such an undertaking. This article draws on alternative, largely untapped contemporary sources, and suggests that it is possible to reach a more nuanced, more balanced – and essentially more constructive – understanding of the ragged youngsters dubbed ‘Nobody’s Children’, who swarmed throughout the ‘Second City of Empire’ during its richest-poorest heyday.

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Author details

Kilfoyle, Lucy