The padrones carried out a terrible trade in child traffic. The padrones often had agents who would operate in small remote villages of Italy seeking out empoverished families with a brood of young children. The desperately poor and often illiterate parents were persuaded to sign an agreement whereby their young children were contracted to a padrone for a certain period of time. The unfortunate children were uprooted from the only life they knew and were transported to large cities such as London. They were commanded to obey and to never question their cruel masters, and, in short they became little more than child slaves. They were badly treated, lived in squalid cramped conditions, and were generally under-nourished.
Many were forced to work as wandering minstrels playing musical instruments such as: penny whistles, rustic bagpipes, harps, violins, drums, tambourines, and the accordion. They were given bright coloured clothes and were sent out in troops to perform around the streets of the city. There were also dancers, clowns, acrobats, tumblers, and some children could be seen exhibiting animals such as dancing dogs, monkeys, white mice, fortune telling budgerigars or parakeets. Others polished shoes, peddled plaster figurines or trinkets, while some unfortunate bedraggled little urchins simply begged. All their earnings had to be handed over to the padrone, and often they would be thrashed or sent to bed hungry if they dared to return having failed to earn their expected quotas. The Italian children thus became tied to their padrones, and despite the injustices, there was very little they could do to ameliorate their situation.
An excerpt from The Times Newspaper, dated 5 June, 1834, reported:
“Yesterday ten Italian boys were brought before Mr Alderman Atkins bythe officers of the Mendicity Society, for begging in various parts of the city. Mr Heath, the Sardinian consul, and Mr Capper, from the Alien-office, attended at the request of the magistrate. Mr Alderman Atkins said he had sent for those gentlemen to consult with them on the best means of putting an end to the nuisance of these boys begging about streets with their monkies (sic) and mice. He considered them objects of pity rather than punishment, for if they were sent to prison for a term, what could they do on being released to avoid repeating the offence? They ought to be dealt with as vagrants, because it was right to discriminate between parties who begged as preferring begging to labour, and parties who were foreigners, perhaps ignorant of our laws, deceived and lured to our country, and who might imagine they should starve if they did not beg. The difficulty was, how could these boys be protected, and the evil remedied? The Consul said none of these boys came from the state he represented, and he did not know that anything could be done beyond punishing them as vagrants,...”
Here is an extract from the publication Street Life in London by J. Thomson and Adolphe Smith of 1877 www.victorianlondon.org
"It was proved by undeniable evidence if I recollect rightly, on oath about three years ago, in one of our police offices, that certain parties, residing in the neighbourhood of Saffron Hill, had no fewer than about thirty beggars, chiefly Italian boys, living in one house; and that in order to insure a profitable result from the speculation the younger ones were threatened with exclusion from the house on their return at night, if they did not bring home a certain sum. It was established at the same time on the dearest evidence, that a trade had been carried on for some time by the same parties, in the importation of these boys, who pursued their avocation by means of a hand organ, a white mouse, or something else to afford an excuse for begging. it was stated, in April 1834, by an Italian gentleman named Lucioni, before Mr. White, one of the magistrates of Queen Square police office, that there were then no fewer than 4,000 of these boys in England, and that many of them were sent to beg through all parts of the country. The same gentleman also stated that the boys were most cruelly used by their masters. "The food of the poor lads," said he, "when they came home at night, and when the pence were taken from them by their masters, consisted of the very worst rice that could be procured, potatoes, and the rinds and scraps of bacon, bought at the cheesemongers', which are all boiled up together; they were then all huddled into a room to lay upon straw. Their masters," be added, "dress in the most fashionable style; wear gold chains, brooches, rings, &c., about their persons, and frequent the west end." I am assured that in several instances, these speculators in youthful mendicants, have made a fortune by the business and returned to their own country, where they have purchased small estates and are now living in independence. In a great many other cases parents make a trade by sending out their children to the streets, threatening to beat them if they return without a certain amount of money."
“Sir, - I desire to add my testimony in support of the facts given in your article upon Italian kidnappers, which appeared in The Times of to-day, As a result of close person inquiry, I am able to state that the number of Italian children at present kept in London and throughout the country for begging purposes is very large, and the sufferings they at times endure in the hands of their inhuman keepers can scarcely be described.
In a case which came under my notice two years ago, a girl of ten and two boys of eight and nine years of age were kept by a wretched Italian of the lowest class, in a miserable room out of Holborn. This man frequently beat them in the most horrible way if they returned with less money than he thought they should have obtained. These poor waifs could not speak a word of intelligible English, but the woman occupying the next room to theirs told me that on more than one occasion, hearing their shrieks and cries, she rushed into their room, to find that he had stripped the three children quite naked, and was chasing them round the room, striking at them indiscriminately with a strap!
Three Italian boys brought at different times before police magistrates in connection with the cruelty of their keepers were received into our institution, and at this moment one little fellow is there who, although but six years of age when brought to us, bore marks all over his head, face, trunk, and legs of the most savage treatment. The rooms in which these poor children herd with the men who live upon their earnings are generally beyond police inspection, not being in common lodging-houses; the evils of their forlorn condition are thus hidden from view until some unexpected circumstance draws attention to an individual case. These children are for the most part either kidnapped by or sold for a term of years to the men who keep them; and not a few succumb every year to the hardships of their life on the streets and the inclemency of our winter season.
The law should enable the police to bring before a magistrate any such children if found pursuing a street calling, irrespective of their age, or whether accompanied by an adult or not, and in every case clear proof of parentage should be obtained from the latter, lacking which a suitable punishment should be inflicted, while in any case the law relating to vagrants should be vigorously applied to adults and children, the latter being committed to some certified or voluntary school.
Stern measures should also be employed against those who import little girls for hire as artist’s models, a traffic which, I believe is unabated, and is, I need hardly say, pregnant with danger and degradation to those poor unfortunates who, being generally well formed and handsome, are by their personal attractions only the more likely to be eventually led into lives of irreparable shame by such experiences.
More than one such result following from such treatment has come under my observation within the past five years.
I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
THOMAS J. BARNARDO Home for Destitute and Neglected Children, 18 and 20 Stepney-causeway, London, E.”
Recommended reading :
A letter to the Editor of The Times, 5 October 1876, page 8, reads: