Child Labour in Victorian England

30 / 12 / 2013 | S.A. Degueurce

Queen Victoria was Britain’s Queen from 1837 until 1901. She gave her name to the age of her reign.
In those times, there were huge inequalities between the different English social classes. Children from rich families could go to school or had some lessons at home but children from really poor families had no choice. Their parents sent them to work to earn some money and they worked so hard that they did not have time to go to school, which was too expensive for them anyway.
Through this report, we are going to try to understand how children from the working class lived in Britain in the 19th century.

Several jobs existed for children :

Plenty of them worked on city streets as shoe-shine boys for instance. This work consisted in polishing people’s shoes. Some of them were ragmen : they sold rags on the street. Some others sold flowers. Children could also work on farms. The ones who did it helped for fieldwork. In homes, children worked as housemaids or houseboys. They had to take care of the house.

However, these jobs were not the worst ones.
Some children worked in coal mines. For children, two kinds of jobs existed in these mines. First, there were the putters. Putters had to push trucks of coal along mine tunnels, which was really hard work since the trucks were very heavy. Then there were the trappers, who had to open and shut the wooden doors in order to bring some air into the tunnel. In some testimonies, we may read that child trappers used to stay in the dark for hours with a candle and no one to talk to.

Many children also worked in factories. With the Industrial Revolution a lot of machines made their appearance and the jobs that people used to do at home were now being done in factories so these factories needed more workers. Children were employed in these factories because they represented cheap labour, did not complain as adults would do and since they were thin and small, they could crawl under the machines.
In factories, children were scavengers or piercers. Being a scavenger or a piercer was extremely dangerous : first, it was dangerous to your health because you had to breathe in toxic gas and fumes which escaped from the machines and it could make you sick.

Dr. Ward from Manchester was interviewed about the health of textile workers on 25th March, 1819 :

« I have had frequent opportunities of seeing people coming out from the factories and occasionally attending as patients. Last summer I visited three cotton factories with Dr. Clough of Preston and Mr. Barker of Manchester and we could not remain ten minutes in the factory without gasping for breath. How it is possible for those who are doomed to remain there twelve or fifteen hours to endure it ? If we take into account the heated temperature of the air, and the contamination of the air, it is a matter of astonishment to my mind, how people can bear the confinement for so great a length of time ».

Secondly, accidents occurred frequently : scavengers had to pick up the cotton on the floor, fallen under the machine while it was working. Piercers had to walk next to the machine and to catch up the broken threads. For example ; if you got too close to the machine you could get your arm caught in the machine, and loose it.

Actually, it was so dangerous to work in these factories that accidents happened every day.
Here is an extract from an interview which shows how violent these accidents were :

« John Allett started working in a textile factory when he was fourteen years old. Allett was fifty-three when he was interviewed by Michael Sadler and his House of Commons Committee on 21st May, 1832.
Question : Do more accidents take place at the latter end of the day ?
Answer : I have known more accidents at the beginning of the day than at the later part. I was an eye-witness of one. A child was working wool, that is, to prepare the wool for the machine ; but the strap caught him, as he was hardly awake, and it carried him into the machinery ; and we found one limb in one place, one in another, and he was cut to bits ; his whole body went in, and was mangled

Children were ill-treated. Indeed, punishments were extremely harsh. They worked between 12 and 17 hours a day and the hours were not regular (sometimes they started work at 1 a.m.) with short breaks during the day (they had to eat while they were working), and if they were tired, they were dipped into a water cistern by the legs !

This is an extract from a child worker’s book which deals with his experience in a factory :

« In reality there were no regular hours, masters and managers did with us as they liked. The clocks in the factories were often put forward in the morning and back at night. Though this was known amongst the hands, we were afraid to speak, and a workman then was afraid to carry a watch ».

Frank Forrest, Chapters in the Life of a Dundee Factory Boy,1850.

Jonathan Downe told Michael Sadler and his committee in 1832 :

"When I was seven years old I went to work at Mr. Marshall’s factory at Shrewsbury. If a child became drowsy, the overlooker touches the child on the shoulder and says, "Come here". In a corner of the room there is an iron cistern filled with water. He takes the boy by the legs and dips him in the cistern, and sends him back to work."

If they were late, money was deducted from their salary (which was about 15 shillings a week at best), and the boss beat them with a strap.
Joseph Hebergram says : "if we were five minutes too late, the overlooker would take a strap, and beat us till we were black and blue."

The ones who wanted to run away were kept together naked in a closed room for hours or days.

Some of the children who worked in factories came from the workhouse. A workhouse was a big house where people who needed a job and a house lived. The advantage of these houses was that they provided food, clothes, training for a job and above all free education for children. They worked in the house to earn their money.

At the workhouse, there were also orphaned and abandoned children. That is why factories used to pick some of them there. They were from really poor families and they needed money to survive so these children were the perfect candidates for factory bosses. This is revealing of the fact that upper class people were very materialistic and despised poor people. They just wanted to make money at their expense. It confirms the idea of a divided and conformist society.

Fortunately, some thinkers struggled against child labour.

Here are some of their names :

  • Lord Ashley
  • John Wood
  • Michael Sadler
  • Richard Carlile
  • John Doherty
  • Robert Owen

Michael Sadler and Lord Ashley were probably the most famous of them :

Lord Ashley, by his real name Anthony Ashley Cooper was the eldest son of a family of 6 children. He was born on 28th April, 1801. He was very involved in social issues and was interested in child labour. He continued Michael Sadler’s work. As a politician, he introduced bills to improve the conditions of working children.
In March 1833, he introduced a bill meant to restrict children’s work to a maximum of ten hours per day. Though this proposal was rejected, the government understood that laws were needed to protect children. Lord Ashley had taken the first step towards the abolition of child labour.

Michael Sadler, the youngest son of James Sadler, was born on 3rd January, 1780.On 9th July, Michael Sadler discovered that at least six of the workers who had testified in front of the parliamentary committee, had been fired for telling the truth. He now focussed on interviewing doctors who treated people who worked in textile factories.
Sadler’s report was published in January 1833. The information in the report shocked the British public and Parliament started thinking about creating new laws to protect the children working in factories.

William Blake, a poet who was also concerned with these issues, wrote two poems entitled « The Chimney Sweeper » in his two works Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience to protest against child labour :

The Chimney Sweeper

Songs of Innocence

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ’weep ! ’weep ! ’weep ! ’weep !
So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.

There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved : so I said,
"Hush, Tom ! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair."

And so he was quiet ; and that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight, -
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.

And by came an angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins and set them all free ;
Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.

Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind ;
And the angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father, and never want joy.

And so Tom awoke ; and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags and our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm ;
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.

Songs of Experience

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying "’weep ! ’weep !" in notes of woe !
"Where are thy father and mother ? Say !"—
"They are both gone up to the church to pray.

"Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

"And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise Yaweh and his priest and king,
Who make up a heaven of our misery."

Some Laws to protect working children were passed and implemented :

  • The 1841 Mines Act ruled that no child under the age of 10 was to work underground in a coal mine.
  • The 1847 Ten Hour Act stated that no child was to work more than 10 hours a day.
  • The 1874 Factory Act ruled that no child under the age of 10 was to be employed in a factory.
  • The 1891 Factory Act prohibited employers from employing women within four weeks after confinement.

Through this report, we have learned what the conditions of working children were like. Horrible things happened to them during the Victorian era. We also looked into the history of the laws that some men struggled to introduce. We may conclude by saying that even if people’s beliefs produced such a thing as child labour, it is other people’s way of thinking which led to suppress it. As far as we are concerned we wish such a thing had never existed.

Fanny et Dyklan