Child Labour in Victorian Britain

A lot of tut-tutting goes on today when the horrors of child labour are exposed in the developing world. However, it’s not so long ago that the factories of the Industrial Revolution brought in young people, barely more than toddlers, to work in foul environments that often sickened and killed them. For the owners of cotton mills, mines, and factories the children came cheap and helped to pad profits.

Greg Wright reports in The Yorkshire Post that, “In the early 1800s, many children worked 16-hour days in atrocious conditions alongside their parents.

“Child labour was not confined to mills but also rife in the coal mines (where children began work at the age of five and usually died before they were 25), gas works and shipyards …”

At Anton Rippon continues the narrative by explaining that children were “Regarded as public nuisances to be disposed of as quickly as possible, they were sent out to work as soon as possible by families trying to exist on wages that were below starvation level.”

Being tiny, children could scramble up or down the chimneys of upper-class Victorian houses; some were as young as three years old.

The job of a chimney sweep was to brush off accumulated soot in the chimney. Of course, they wore no protection against the rough brickwork, so their knees and elbows would be sliced and bruised until they developed calluses. Then, there was all the soot they had no choice but to inhale causing lung damage.

One master chimney sweeper said “I have two boys working for me. After work their arms and legs are bleeding so I rub them with salt-water before sending them up another chimney.”

Occasionally, the boys would get stuck in the narrow passages of a chimney. The boss’s solution was simple; light a fire to encourage them to wriggle free.

Sometimes, this led to suffocation. One eight-year-old boy said “I never got stuck myself but some of my friends have and were taken out dead.”

The boys who did this work were often taken out of workhouses and “apprenticed” to chimney sweeps, who frequently beat them to terrorize them into doing the dangerous work.

Charles Dickens, who drew some of his material from real living conditions in Victorian England, gave an unflattering picture of one such gentleman named Gamfield, to whom Oliver Twist was to be apprenticed. But the boy was saved from this fate by a magistrate who remarked that, “Mr. Gamfield did happen to labour under the slight imputation of having bruised three or four boys to death already.”

Other children were sent down into the coal mines at the age when today’s kids are starting kindergarten.

Hurriers and fillers were small children who loaded trucks with coal by hand as it was pried from the coal face by older men.

Other children would then drag the trucks of coal along passageways often no more than three feet high. Many children developed a permanent stoop as their spines deformed. Then, there was the ever-present danger of cave-ins and explosions.

Trappers were employed to open and close ventilation doors in the passages as the truckloads of coal were hauled to the mine shaft. The trappers worked in total darkness in shifts of between 12 and 18 hours a day.

Payment was a few pennies a week to add to the meagre earnings of families that lived in absolute squalor.

During the second decade of the 19th century campaigns to end the worst abuses began to gather support.

After a great deal of pressure from reformers a royal commission was set up to look into the issue of child labour.

In 1832, one of the reformers, Richard Oastler, gave testimony to the commission in which he described the awful conditions of child labour and mentioned an occasion on which he was in the company of a slave master from the West Indies. Oastler said the man compared the system of slavery with that of mill workers in Yorkshire.

He quoted the slave master as saying: “… well, I have always thought myself disgraced by being the owner of black slaves, but we never, in the West Indies thought it was possible for any human being to be so cruel as to require a child of nine years old to work 12½ hours a day; and that, you acknowledge, is your regular practice.”

Oastler went on to describe boys and girls of 10 and younger being brutalized for minor transgressions of the harsh rules surrounding their work.

“I know many cases of poor young creatures who have worked in factories, and who have been worn down by the system at the age of 16 and 17, and who, after living all their lives in this slavery, are kept in poor-houses, not by the masters for whom they have worked, as would be the case if they were negro slaves, but by other people who have reaped no advantage from their labour.”

Many of the youngsters the commission heard from were quite stoical about their situations.

One young boy working in a printer’s shop said “The overseers sometimes give us a cut with their sticks when we are not attentive.” However, he added that despite the violence he “would rather stay here than at home.”

That tells us a lot about Victorian living conditions for the poor. Large families were forced to live in overcrowded hovels without heat or sanitation. A commission inspector in Dublin found a family of 14 living in a room that was 12 feet square.

Personal hygiene was next to impossible and the slums in which people lived were infested with vermin. In these conditions, of course, disease was rampant.

So, for many children, the awful circumstances of the workplace were a better option than being at home.

Eventually, the campaign to improve the work environment for children got results.

BBC – Primary History lists some of the meagre gains:

  • “1841 Mines Act – No child under the age of 10 to work underground in a coal mine.
  • “1847 Ten Hour Act – No child to work more than 10 hours in a day.
  • “1874 Factory Act – No child under the age of 10 to be employed in a factory.”

Conditions in factories, mills, and mines were still atrocious by today’s standards, but they were something of an improvement.

In July 1838 a violent thunderstorm broke over the Huskar Colliery in Yorkshire. The heavy rainfall caused a stream to burst its banks and water poured into a drift that 26 children were using to get out of the mine. The children died in the flooded drift, among them James Burkinshaw aged seven and Catherine Garnet aged eight.

Chimney sweep bosses underfed their child workers so they would be thin enough to go down chimneys.

In the United Kingdom the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was formed in 1824. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was not created until 67 years later in 1891.

  • “Life in the 19th Century.” Galway Educate Together, undated.
  • “Evidence of Richard Oastler on ‘Yorkshire Slavery.’ ”, 2002.
  • “Living and Working Conditions.” BBC Primary History, undated.
  • “Beaten and Bullied, Victorian Child Workers Remained Uncomplaining.” Patrick Barkham, The Guardian, September 7, 2007.
  • “Victorian Child Labour and the Conditions They Worked In.” Paxton Price, Victorian Children, March 2, 2013.