If you hate your job now, just thank your lucky stars that you did not work during Victorian times! Should you have had the bad luck to be born to a working class family during the Victorian era in Great Britain, you would have begun work at an early age- and no, this work did not entail mowing lawns or delivering newspapers. It was much, much worse.
So that we might all feel better about the conditions in which we work today, let us have a look at the sorts of jobs and work environments Victorian children encountered. From farms to factories, they sure had plenty of opportunities! Too bad most of them were horrendous.
Early Starts, Bad Conditions
Work given to Victorian children was usually menial and boring, and the conditions in which work was completed were often cramped, dark, and dangerous.
Of course, one's home environment would not be all that different- rooms were crowded, conditions were unsanitary, and the food was awful! Both to escape this life and out of sheer economic necessity, many children left school and started working at very young ages (it was not uncommon to begin working at age eight). Many other children dropped out of school but continued to work at home- their parents often made them do it because they needed the extra income.
Gender and Age Mistreatment
Most working girls were paid significantly less than their male counterparts- even though their work was the same. To make matters worse, children and girls were often chosen as workers because they could be given lower wages, which made their older (and male) colleagues particularly resentful of them. Talk about a hostile work environment!
Work as a Domestic Servant
Work as a domestic servant was the most common profession taken on by women working outside the home. Tens of thousands of young girls left home to work in the households of middle and upper class families.
Domestic servants worked long hours, were given low pay, and were not permitted to have boyfriends. What's more, many were harassed by their employers, denied time off, and constantly verbally abused.
That said, domestic servitude enabled a young woman to take on some semblance of an independent life by leaving home and making her own way. What's more, a domestic servant had the opportunity to work in a nice, upper class (or at least middle class) household, which is heaven compared to the major workplace alternatives at the time.
Many children (especially those living in more rural areas) left home to work in the agricultural industry. Work days were extremely long (fourteen hour days were quite typical) and employees were rarely given time to rest except for Sundays and extremely rainy days.
Some children worked in traveling farm work gangs. The labor with these groups was so hard that long hours in a cotton factory seemed like heaven by comparison!
Scotland was a shipbuilding center, hence many children living in the area would get roped into the local industry.
One of the common jobs given to small workers was the relay of molten rivets. Rivets would be heated up in a stove until they were red hot, then delivered to the right place in a ship's hull by being thrown from one child to another in a long relay line. The noise of all this metalwork inside ships metal hulls was deafening, and many young workers ended up deaf.
The Sweated Trades
Many children- especially girls- also worked in the sweated trades, which usually involved textile piecework and was often done in one's own home. One might think of sweated trades as early outsourcing.
Manufacturers would send out large batches of unfinished goods for girls and women to complete. The tasks were menial (e.g. stitching gloves, knitting, making lace, weaving straw hats...) and the amount a girl would be paid for each finished piece would be extremely low.
One additional downside of the sweated trades was that you would spend all your time- working, cleaning, cooking, and sleeping- all in the same miserable, cramped place. But wait- there's more! Because children (and adults) who made lace and other small, detailed objects worked for such long hours and usually worked in poorly-lit rooms, many suffered from deteriorating eyesight and blindness.
Work as a Laundress
Many etrepreneurially-minded older girls and women also worked as independent laundresses. This was work one would often take home. Essentially, one would pick up large batches of others' soiled garments, wash them without any of the modern machinery or detergents we currently enjoy, iron them with hot irons that would constantly be heated up and switched out over a hot stove, and then return them. As you can imagine, laundresses were exceedingly fit.
Work in a Cotton Factory
As industrialism spread during the Victorian period, more children took up work in factories, and thanks to the burgeoning textile industry, cotton factories were amongst the most common factory types.
In addition to long hours and hard work, children (and adult workers) working in cotton factories were subject to damp and hot conditions. The heat and humidity, combined with a great amount of airborne particulate matter, would exacerbate lung problems, and many cotton factory workers died of tuberculosis.
Many children also worked as matchmakers, which usually entailed dipping match sticks into a phosphorus compound.
Because workers were expected to produce the highest volume possible, matchmakers worked for very long hours (a typical workday lasted for 12 hours), were only afforded a short lunch break, and were expected to eat at their workbenches.
Workers therefore ended up consuming no small amount of the chemicals that they worked with, and matchmakers often suffered from a degenerative condition known as "phossy jaw," the symptoms of which include the swelling of one's gums, toothaches, abscesses in the jawbone, jaw bones that glow in the dark, and serious brain damage followed by death from organ failure.
Millinery was also a common profession taken on by children, especially those in towns and cities. With hat making, the hours were (big surprise) also very long and the piecework rates low. Hat makers also experienced high rates of madness due to their heightened exposure to mercury compounds.
Some regions of Britain are very well known for their pottery, and many young workers would end up working for local pottery producers (such as Wedgwood). Children who worked in the pottery manufacturing business used many lead based materials and therefore often suffered from lead poisoning.
Choose Your DOOM!
Other Occupations & Eventual Reform
Children also found work in coal mines, as street peddlers, and in a wide variety of other unpleasant positions. Basically, if it was a dangerous or particularly boring job that paid too low for an adult to accept, it would be given to a child.
As the Victorian age progressed, various reforms began to be enacted to mitigate the harsh conditions experienced by workers (especially women and children). Working hours became more carefully regulated, for example. and universal education was specified in the 1870s.
Thank goodness these positive trends continued and most of us were therefore able to enjoy less horrendous childhood jobs. Though many children throughout the world are still forced to work for long hours, for low pay, and in terrible conditions, one must still be impressed by the progress we have made thus far. Here's hoping we keep up the momentum!
h2o2 cures it on December 15, 2019:
It was indeed a very dark time for all workers especially children.
But the pendulum can swing too far the other way where children are not afforded the opportunity to work
Good work habits are an essential part of being an adult, Many children grow up not knowing how to
work through tough times and tough jobs.
America has many jobs today's youth will not do, instead
standing on street corners begging because they lack fortitude and knowledge to overcome a
obstacle in their life.
annonymous on September 30, 2018:
lol on November 28, 2017:
nice like the end :)
ketage from Croatia on March 20, 2013:
A truly Bleak picture of what life used to be like, Thank goodness we have come a long way from that kind of child exploitation. Some countries still do exploit children, but at least now we are aware of how wrong it is, and hold ourselves up to a higher standard. In time ( hopefully soon ) everyone will realize how wrong it is to exploit the greatest gift god gave us, Our Children.
Gail Louise Stevenson from Mason City on March 19, 2013:
I'm glad that things changed since then. Children shouldn't have to suffer like they did, and still do in other countries where they work for such low wages, and are too young to be working.
MrsBrownsParlour on March 13, 2013:
I really enjoyed reading this (and love any mention of Scotland, which is where my grandparents emigrated from). Thank you for the interesting topic, detailed information, and personalized perspective! I used to volunteer as a tour guide for a Victorian museum and I *loved* telling the school groups what life would have been like for them then, chamberpots and all. They were horrified and fascinated---which is just the kind of thing to make history exciting. :-)
Bernard J. Toulgoat from Treasure Coast, Florida on October 10, 2012:
Very interesting and superbly documented hub. It'd be nice to think humanity has come a long way, but unfortunately, there are still some parts of the world where child labor is a way of life.
ami on October 07, 2012:
Russ Moran - The Write Stuff from Long Island, New York on July 02, 2012:
Amazing Hub Simone. Charles Dickens would be jealous. Voted up and awesome. Do you have a history degree?
moonlake from America on June 30, 2012:
Even in America....On census records.....When I go through the census on my family. I would find children missing but I would find them somewhere else working for some family. At least as young as 12. Many children had a very hard life for a very long time. I know my grandmother worked in the cotton fields most of her young life. She died in 1989 at 100. I enjoyed reading your hub. Voted Up
Tamara Wilhite from Fort Worth, Texas on June 28, 2012:
Any kid who complains about their chores should read this hub.
Alastar Packer from North Carolina on June 28, 2012:
Very good subject to write on and well done. Children were literally looked on as 'little adults' by the industrialized countries back then. There were hundreds of government and other pro photos taken of the child workers in the cotton mills around here and they're quite stark and poignant. "phossy jaw" is a new work induced ailment here- all so tragic in many cases.
Joana e Bruno from Algarve, Portugal on June 28, 2012:
Hi, Simone, OMG the poor children, I mean we catch a glimpse of the thing in some movies and we talk about it at school, but reading about it all in one go, one after the other... Now we really can't complain... Voted up and interesting and sharing!
Tamara Wilhite from Fort Worth, Texas on June 20, 2012:
Servant work might be preferable to field work because of the better food available, safer working conditions and rare opportunity to marry up.
Shasta Matova from USA on June 19, 2012:
Ok, for the rest of the day, I will not complain about my work. But I reserve the right to continue tomorrow! This is great information and certainly does put things into perspective. I'm not that old, but I have done some piecework for a storeowner that might fit under your sweated trades category as a child.
Dan Human from Niagara Falls, NY on June 19, 2012:
It's a wonder that anyone survived to have any children of their own. This reminds me of Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper," "That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack /
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black." Quite sad times for our industrial age. Well done!
Karla Iverson from Oregon on June 19, 2012:
Excellent information, Simone! I first heard about Victorian child labor in the 9th grade when my English teacher was preparing us to read Dickens. She read an article to us about little chimney sweeps and the terrible lives they led, being poked up hot chimneys and getting cancer from the soot. I never forgot that. It's sad that the world can't seem to stop exploiting our children.
Mary Hyatt from Florida on June 19, 2012:
I won't give my age here, but in my childhood, we children toiled in the fields picking cotton (I wrote a Hub about that) in the hot sun, and did lots of other jobs that would be considered child labor now.
Sad to say, we have child slavery in the world today, especially for sex. Mankind exploits children and always will because the children have no recourse. Great Hub, very interesting. I voted it UP, etc. and will share to my followers.
Blurter of Indiscretions from Clinton CT on June 19, 2012:
This hub is incredible. You did a lot of research, I loved the video!! Wow. Hubbing on a WHOLE other level! Thanks for inspiring me :)
Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on June 19, 2012:
Wow, this hub is fascinating, well-written and sooo sad! I've always been interested in this time period, maybe because of reading a lot of Charles Dickens when I was growing up. Awesome hub, Simone! I don't know how you find the time to do everything you do. : )
Sushmita from Kolkata, India on June 19, 2012:
The Victorian age was a change over of times- from Agrarian society to the Industrial society. Child labor was a fall-out of that change. As was the stratified society of urban poor and urban gentleman class, and immense social vices. The images in the Hub are interesting, seem mostly like the illustrations from Dickens's works. Interesting.
Woody Marx from Ontario, Canada on June 19, 2012:
You really know how to make Hubs that read well and have great videos to boot. I love 'em.
In spite of all the hardships of child-labour, we wouldn't have an Ebeneezer Scrooge or Little Dorrit or many other beautifully-drawn characters that sprang from Dickens' hardship in the factory-world of Victorian times.
That in no way implies that I am in favour of child-labour as it existed and as it still exists in India and other countries I hear.
I am only saying some light did come out of such darkness, to try to put some positive spin on it. Most great Victorian writers did not come from the child-labor arena I'm sure, so Dickens was probably unique. He did have relatives in high-places too, (his uncle gave him his first job as a reporter) so perhaps he was not all that indicative of the masses of others who existed on a more hopeless level.
Just some thoughts. :)
DigbyAdams on June 19, 2012:
I live near Lowell, Massachusetts which was a heavy industrial center during this time. They have made the textile mills a National Landmark and you can take the "Mill Girl Tour" to see the life of girls who left their families for the factories. So desolate. It really was a depressing life.
Andrew Spacey from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK on June 18, 2012:
It's interesting to think about these times and how we treated certain children - often orphaned or poor or both - was it outright exploitation or a form of welfare? You've highlighted areas of work that many children did to keep the wheels of colonialism oiled and in large cities like London, Manchester and Liverpool this was taken to the extreme.
Times do change and we have made progress in some areas. Mistreatment of young ones still goes on however, on a massive scale, and it'll be the historians in the future who'll have to put it into perspective - could we have tried harder? Or are we just like the Victorian slave masters who were more interested in their profit and loss accounts?
Thank you for sparking a conscience!!
alliemacb from Scotland on June 18, 2012:
Great hub, Simone. It's good that we've come so far in our treatment of children since the nineteenth century but scary to think that there are so many parts of the world where children still have to work from a young age and in appalling conditions. Voted up and interesting.
Patty Inglish MS from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on June 18, 2012:
My UK ancestors came to America in different waves to escape Victorian conditions you describe, Potato Famines of Scotland and Ireland, and earlier situations. Too bad that conditions came to Ohio with them - one began full-time farm work at age 8 just as you say, and his siblings and cousins worked in the pottery factories and coal mines about the same age. They were often pretty sick.
Rated Up and Awesome and shared.