Victorian Child Labour

By Guest Author: Anne Lesley

Victorian Children’s lives covered a wide spectrum of experience, from wealthy to poor, so no one image will suffice.

Wealthy children were always under pressure to learn and from an early age they would be taught etiquette and manners, and their lives would revolve around an endless stream of nannies.

Once they reached ten years of age the boys would be sent off to public school to learn estate management among other things. These schools could still be harsh and brutal and being wealthy didn’t necessarily mean you would be treated well.

The girls on the other hand would rarely be sent to school and would be taught in the home by a governess. Again their learning would be mainly how to manage a household, not schooling as we know it today. Even the daughters of wealthy people did not often receive a good education with regards to reading and writing.

Some wealthy children would rarely see their parents, maybe just once a day to possibly say goodnight and there would be very little parental affection. The nannies often became the surrogate parent and this is where most of the children’s affection would lie.

Then there were the poor children who would live in filthy slums and would have to work to support their families. These children rarely, if ever,received any education at all.

It was rare that either a wealthy or the poor child could be thought of as having had a happy contented childhood.
But here we concentrate on the lives of the poor and the work they were forced to do.

Poor Victorian children would live in very cramped houses rarely of more than a couple of rooms, and many of these properties were tenement buildings.

Many children shared these rooms with their siblings, sometimes as many as ten along with other family members, and there was very little if any privacy at all.

Children could be sent out to work from as young as three years old and there were a wide variety of occupations available.

There was little time to play and enjoy life – it was a case of making money just to survive.

Poor women would often have many children and it was believed that the more children they produced, the more money there was to be made. However, it also meant more mouths to feed.

In Victorian slums more than half the babies born would die before they reached their first birthday.

Disease was rife at this time including scarlet fever, tuberculosis, measles, rickets and cholera for which there was no known cure and the death toll from these diseases was high. As if the harsh working conditions they had to endure were not enough.

Child Labour was a very lucrative business in Victorian Times.

Here I will concentrate on some of the more dangerous jobs.

Chimney Sweep

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Children as young as 3 years old would be made to climb chimneys. Their small size made them ideal for clambering inside the narrow flues, and some bosses even half starved them to keep them skinny as they got older.

Very often their skin would be scraped red raw by climbing in the confined space affecting areas of the body such as their arms, elbows, legs and knees. These would be washed with salt and water but there would be no time to rest and recover being sent up the next chimney as soon as possible.

The Master Chimney Sweep was there to make money not be care about the welfare of the children in his employ, and there would always be others to take their place.

The risk of death was high in this profession as well as in many others. The most common form of death was falling or getting stuck in the chimney and suffocating but there were also the long-term effects of lung disease with the breathing in of all the dust, and very few chimney sweeps ever made it to middle age.

Factory Workers

There were many different types of factories including Textile Mills, Paper Mills, Iron Foundries and Match Foundries.

Charles Dickens worked in a Blacking Factory aged just 12 while his parents were in a Debtors Prison.

Employing children in factories was big business for many reasons and some had more children working for them than adults. After all, children had no rights, didn’t complain, and were cheap labour compared to adults.

victorian cl cott mill ske x

Children would be made to work long hours, sometimes up to 18 a day, 6 days a week. They would be given hard and dangerous jobs. These would include cleaning the machines by crawling underneath them into very confined spaces and many would die as a result by getting mangled in the workings and crushed to death as they were expected to do this while the large machines where still operating.

Too much money would be lost if the machines were turned off merely to clean them. Also the risk of death or injury was high due to fire, especially in the textile mills and again lung diseases were rife from the breathing in of oil, soot and dust.

Making money was more important than a child’s life.


victorian cl2 mine x

Children were again attractive to mining companies due to their size for they would be able to crawl through small, tight spaces of the mine-shaft that adults could not.

They could then drag the coal carts through these spaces but knowing that if they lost their grip the carts could fall back and kill them, and there was always the risk of a cave-in or explosion.

Again the hours were long and the pay minimal.

There were also many health issues including breathing problems, spine deformation due to having to constantly stoop in the mine, and poor lighting caused permanent eyesight problems. The areas they worked in were also rat infested.

A tragedy was always likely and one such incident took place in Yorkshire on 4th July 1838.

This was the Huskar Pit Disaster.

It was in the mining community of Silkstone, near Barnsley, where the afternoon shift had just started when at about 2 pm a fierce storm broke.

A warning was sent to the miners to evacuate the pit and some tried to exit via a drift in Nabbs Wood. Sadly a stream near the entrance had swollen and burst its banks.

A torrent of water poured into the drift and 26 children, aged between 7 and 17 years were drowned in seconds.

victorian cl2 husker pit did fun x

The loss of 26 young lives shows how dangerous this work was but despite great sadness few questioned the continued use of unregulated child labour.

Children were often treated badly by their masters and could be beaten for many reasons including making mistakes, not working quickly enough, falling asleep or being late amongst other things.

Children were in the main treated little better than slaves, but not all Masters in Victorian times were harsh and brutal.

One pioneering Master was Robert Owen.

robert owen x

In 1799 Robert Owen purchased the New Lanark Mill and the stone built mill workers housing from his father- in- law Daniel Dale.

Robert Owen’s management of these mills created a caring and humane regime which was little known elsewhere at the time. He tended to the needs of his employees, reduced the hours of work, and instigated many social and educational reforms.

He believed that if people had happy and contented lives at home then they would perform better at work.
New Lanark had the first Infant School for poor children in the world, and evening classes for adults.

It also provided a creche for working mothers, free medical care, and organised leisure activities such as concerts and dancing.

Children under 10 were also not permitted to work in the mill.

Robert Owen also employed his own inspectors to guarantee the mill houses at New Lanark were kept clean.

The workers that lived there were also provided with a set of rules and regulations and these houses were regularly inspected by the ‘bug hunters’ as they were known.

Robert Owen was inspirational in his thinking at New Lanark Mills and created a model that it was a shame others did not follow.

The treatment of children in the workplace was to improve over time with the implementation of the various Factory Acts, though initially these were hard to enforce.

lord shaftesbury x

The first major change came following the intervention of Lord Shaftesbury, the social reformer who had earlier played a role in the abolition of the slave trade.

He now wished to improve the lives of Victorian children but was strongly opposed by the business owners who believed that any restrictions made on their trade would affect their profits.

With the help of Lord Shaftesbury the first restriction on child labour to become law was The Factory Act of 1834 which banned children under 9 from working.

It also limited the amount of hours that could be worked: children aged 9 to 13 could work no more than 9 hours a day while those aged 13 to 18 could work no more than 12 hours a day. They were also to receive daily schooling.

The only problem with this Act was that it had only 4 inspectors assigned to it and it also only related to textile factories, but it was a start.

Further Acts were to follow, however:

The Coal Miners Act of 1842 stated that women and children were not to work underground.

The changes in rules and conditions would improve over time but nothing was ever a quick fix.
The Ragged Schools Union was established in 1844, which set up schools for the poor and Lord Shaftesbury became the Chairman of it.
There were many other jobs that were done by children, some more dangerous than others, but the conditions in all were very harsh. They included:

Street Sellers

Farm Worker

Domestic Servant

Hat Making

Boot Blacks

victorian cl2 pickpockets x

Some children were forced into a life of crime from an early and gangs of child pick-pockets were commonplace.

As also was prostitution for young girls who had no other means of support. .

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