Ford Madox Brown has invented a whole story around this family at the centre of his painting. The mother has died and the father neglects the children in favour of drinking beer.
The urchin girl is dressed in hand-me-down clothes and has to act as a mother to her younger, potentially mischievous, siblings.
There were thousands of poor children living on the streets at this time, or in squalid conditions. Many of these were orphans who had to look after their siblings. Street children, or urchins, may have worked to afford food. They sold flowers, matches or lace, or cleaned shoes and swept the streets for rich people. Some, however, would have turned to pick-pocketing to find money for their next meal.
Many urchin children died at a very young age, often from diseases spread through dirty water, such as cholera.