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Victorian Child Workers

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Awful labour conditions political cartoon

Awful labour conditions political cartoon

Plight of Victorian Child Workers

For most of human history, children have been exploited as cheap labour, but it was the Industrial Revolution from about 1760 to 1840 that saw an explosion in the number of youngsters forced into dangerous work for which they were paid a pittance.

Justification for Child Labour

Some factory and mine owners were just out-and-out scoundrels. They employed children because they could pay them less than adults and the kids were powerless to complain. Such business people did not need a moral justification for their actions.

Queen Victoria’s beloved husband, Prince Albert, noted that the working man’s “children are not only his offspring . . . but they constitute part of his productive power, and work with him for the staff of life.” His Royal Highness did not shed light on how his own nine children fit into this picture.

Prince Albert, Queen Victoria and their "productive power."

Prince Albert, Queen Victoria and their "productive power."

Religious Excuse

Some employers portrayed themselves as upstanding pillars of society, pious and moral exemplars of the standards of behaviour to which all citizens should aspire. These people needed some sort of fig leaf to cover up the exploitation of youngsters.

For such folks, the Bible could be enlisted:

  • “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.” Proverbs 13:24
  • “I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me." Exodus 20:5

So, God says it’s fine to abuse and exploit children and employers could tell themselves “It’s my Christian duty to do so.”

If more justification was needed there was the handy Law of Recapitulation. This was the creation of the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel, and said that the development of children mirrors the progress of the human species. So, the savage little monsters were akin to rough cave dwellers and needed to be civilized through harsh discipline.

Hannah More (1745-1833) expressed the prevailing mood of the time that the idea of children having human rights was ludicrous. Ms. More, an otherwise enlightened social reformer and opponent of slavery, could not bring herself to denounce the mistreatment of children.

Some Occupations for Children

In his book The Water Works, E.L. Doctorow describes children scavenging for a crust in New York City in the 19th century: “They ran the errands of the underworld, and carried the slops, and toted empty beer pails to the saloons, and hauled them back full to the rooms of their keepers, who might pay them with a coin or a kick as whim dictated. More than one brothel specialized in them.”

In the 18th century, the British upper classes developed a love for sugar and, in the absence of proper dental care, this led to a lot of rotting teeth. Desperately poor children were persuaded to “donate” healthy teeth to the rich for a small payment. The transplanted tooth might last as much as a year before another poverty-stricken urchin supplied another tooth without the benefit of anaesthetic.

Crossing sweepers cleared manure from the paths of the gentry in hopes of a tip.

Crossing sweepers cleared manure from the paths of the gentry in hopes of a tip.

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Read More From Owlcation

“Mudlarks” operated in London in the 18th and 19th centuries. They would scour the muddy banks of the River Thames at low tide for whatever they could scavenge. The Thames at the time was an open sewer littered with dead animals and, occasionally, dead humans. A treasured piece of cloth or rope that could be sold might be pried from the slime. A coin would be a special bonanza. The danger of the occupation was getting stuck in the fetid mud when the tide came in.

For about 300 years starting in the 1400s “Gong Scourers” were in demand. These were children, usually boys, who had to crawl into privies to shovel out feces. No more needs to be said.

Reform of Child Labour Laws

There were plenty of people who found the practice of making children labour for 14 or 16 hours a day odious.

Individual religious leaders spoke out against the exploitation of children but the church establishment remained largely silent on the topic. Secular philosophers and enlightened business people such as Robert Owen and Thomas Agnew took up the cause.

Slowly, politicians were nudged into action. In 1840, the Children’s Employment Commission under Lord Ashley made shocking revelations about the appalling working conditions in coal mines.

Graphic of working conditions in mines

Graphic of working conditions in mines

The Factory Act of 1833 and the Mines Act of 1842 enacted some protections for underage workers, but unscrupulous employers could easily find loopholes they could slide their child staff through. The exploitation was made easier by a lack of enforcement.

More laws were passed to little effect. Marah Gubar of the University of Pittsburgh notes that “As late as 1891, over 100,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 14 were still employed as domestic servants in England and Wales.”

The author Charles Dickens was immensely popular, and several of his novels gave graphic descriptions of the subjugation of youngsters. The writer himself was forced into factory labour when he was 12.

In 1843, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote The Cry of the Children, a lamentation about the plight of child workers:

For, all day, we drag our burden tiring,

Through the coal-dark, underground —

Or, all day, we drive the wheels of iron

In the factories, round and round.

By the end of the Victorian era, some real progress was being made. The Education Act of 1880 made schooling to the age of ten compulsory. This cut off the supply of very young workers and employers were dragged into the 20th century kicking and screaming that this would ruin them all and destroy every job.

These were the same arguments they made over the abolition of slavery, and equal pay for women, and continue to make today every time the minimum wage is lifted by a dollar an hour.

This cartoon by Frederick T. Richards appeared in the Philadelphia North American in 1913.

This cartoon by Frederick T. Richards appeared in the Philadelphia North American in 1913.

Bonus Factoids

  • George Edwards was born in 1850 and, at the age of six, went to work on a farm in Norfolk, England. He was paid one shilling a week and later recalled how his employer “never missed an opportunity to thrash me.” He said he wasn’t especially picked on, there was “no exception to the rule, all poor boys in those days were badly treated.” Edwards did not learn to read or write until he was an adult. He became a trade union leader, and then a Member of Parliament.
  • Giles Edmund Newsom was 11 years old and working at the Sanders Spinning Mill, Bessemer City, North Carolina, in 1912. A piece of the machinery he was operating fell on his foot, causing him to lose his balance. To steady himself, his right hand went into unguarded gears that tore off two of his fingers. Giles died from the Spanish Flu in 1918 when he was 18 years old.
  • According to the Child Labour Coalition, “Worldwide 218 million children between five and 17 years are in employment; 152 million are victims of child labour. Almost half of them, 73 million, work in hazardous child labour.”
Child labour is still present in some areas today

Child labour is still present in some areas today


  • “Children’s Rights.”, undated.
  • “The Victorian Child, c.1837-1901.” Marah Gubar, University of Pittsburgh, undated.
  • “Prince Albert’s Golden Precepts …” Prince Albert, Sampson Low & Company, 1862.
  • “The Cry of the Children.” Elizabeth Barrett Browning, The Poetry Foundation, 1843.
  • “Child labour.” Emma Griffin, The British Library, May 15, 2014.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor

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