Child labour existed in rural Britain long before industrialisation. However, with new factories, mills, and mines rapidly springing up across the country during the early nineteenth century, there was a lot more work available that adults thought suitable for children. Not only were children a cheap source of labour, due to their size and agility they were very useful to industry. Young children were able to climb amongst machines in the cotton mills and crawl into tight spaces in the coalmines, for example. It could be argued that child labour was necessary for Britain’s early industrial success with around 49% of the workforce under the age of 20 in 1821.<fn>”Introduction.” The Workhouse: Story of an Institution. http://www.workhouses.org.uk/intro/.</fn>
In the poem that accompanies the “Farmers Lad” image above, little Joe is praised for his hard labour:
“Toil on my lad with smiling face–
brave honest toil ne’er brought disgrace–” (460).
Industry and Trade
Children worked in most areas of industry. Some were apprenticed to a trade and others laboured in the workhouses, which were increasingly prominent in cities and town throughout Britain. Child labour carried on throughout the nineteenth century. In fact, it took until 1901 before legislation raised the minimum working age to 12 years. The school leaving age was not raised to 15 until 1947.
With no health and safety regulations in place all workers but especially children were at serious risk of injury or death. A short poem in issue 25 (1857), “The Pit Boy,” features a child miner heading to work knowing that he might be injured or killed, as his father was:
“The bell is tolling loud, mother,
The breeze of evening chills.
It calls me to the pit, mother,
My nightly toil to share;
One kiss before we part, mother,
For danger lingers there.” (99)
“Cheer Up, My Lad!” in issue 33 (1857) tells the story of a boy injured by a printing machine: “On hastening to the machine room, I found one of the printers very tenderly binding up with his apron the bleeding and mangled thigh of the poor boy. The wound was indeed a fearful one, caused by the boy having placed his thigh too near the cog-wheel by which the flesh was cut down to the bone” (132).
There are many other references to child labour in the British Workman. An article in issue 23 (1856) refers to the Chimney Sweepers’ Festival at Leicester. The magazine deplores the employment of ‘climbing boys,’ causing a moral stain on this “honourable profession” (90). The piece refers to a seven-year-old boy who suffocated after chimney soot ignited. The article reports that temperance supporters raised funds to acquire new sweeping machines to persuade master sweepers to refrain from employing ‘climbing boys.’ Yet, three years later, it is apparent that approximately 3,000 ‘climbing boys’ were still employed outside London. A reader writes in to appeal for Lord Shaftesbury’s ‘Climbing Boys’ Act to be enforced.
According to “The Chimney Sweeper’s Festival at Leicester, unscrupulous chimney sweeps gave ‘climbing boys’ gin to stunt their growth: “[N]ot long ago a gentleman enquired of a chimney sweeper in Knutsford–‘How is it that your little boy does not appear to grow–he seems the same size as he was three years ago?’ ‘I do not want him to grow–I give him gin in a morning to prevent him growing, small boys suit our purpose best,’ was the reply” (90).
The Poor Law reforms of 1834 meant that people living in extreme poverty were offered a place in the workhouse rather than being provided any financial assistance. Workhouses were designed to be as unpleasant and uncomfortable as possible, so that people would only choose to stay there if they had no other option. Conditions were very basic. Inmates slept in communal dormitories, and meals mostly consisted of gruel, a thin porridge. Families were separated on entering, including children over seven years, who got to see their parents for an hour once a week.<fn>”Apprenticeship of Workhouse Children.” The Workhouse: Story of an Institution. http://www.workhouses.org.uk/education/apprenticeship.shtml.</fn> A few hours of schooling were provided, but to earn their keep children were expected to work. Girls were given tasks such as spinning and carding wool; boys were sometimes given training in the workhouse workshop. Arrangements for workhouse children to be matched up for an apprenticeship were also common. A Royal Commission in 1842 reported that workhouse boys in South Staffordshire were being sent on apprenticeships as young as eight to work at the mine carrying baskets of coal.<fn>”Child Labour.” Citizenship: A History of People, Rights, and Power Exhibition. National Archives. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/citizenship/struggle_democracy/childlabour.htm.</fn>
Child Labour in British Workman Fiction and Nonfiction
The workhouse features strongly in a serialised story by a regular contributor to the magazine, Clara Lucas Balfour, entitled “Perseverance; Or, Sketches from Real Life.”<fn>C.L. Balfour’s “Perseverance; Or, Sketches from Real Life” serial appears in numbers 13 (page 51), 14 (pages 54-55), 15 (page 59), 17 (page 67), 18 (page 72), 19 (page 75), 20 (pages 78-79), 21 (page 83), 22 (page 87), 23 (pages 90-91), and 24 (page 94).</fn> The story centres around a young girl called Patience or Patty, an eleven-year-old with a permanently deformed shoulder from nursing heavy children. She is rescued from an abusive, drunken step-father by a doctor attending to her dying mother. After the mother’s death, the doctor deposits Patty in a workhouse. He believes she will be much better off there than in a home destabilised by alcohol. Patty becomes a popular inmate at the workhouse, kindly tending to patients in the infirmary. She notes and is vexed that ‘two thirds of the girls who went out to place as servants or as apprentices, came back to the workhouse giving a dismal account of their treatment.’ Patty is determined, however, to start her own life outside the workhouse and is eventually employed at the age of 13 as a servant responsible for the six children of a family that ran a small shop:
“Patty was up the first in the morning, making the fires and clearing up the house; then she had to wash the children and get them ready for school, and to run errands, nurse, and clean all the day long, and until late in the evening, and when, at length, she sat down for a minute she would be so drowsy, that she often dropped asleep eating a bit of bread….” (British Workman 17 : 67)
We are also introduced to Patty’s brother Tom, who was already involved in criminal activity at the age of eleven. Patty thinks Tom is at risk of harm if he is left idle. She implores a Sea Captain to take her brother on his fruit-trading merchant ship so Tom will “be out of harm’s way,” and learn how to earn an honest, if a laborious, livelihood.
Tom is not the only child sailor who appears in the British Workman. In an article entitled “Sailor Boys” from issue 61 (1860), a pious captain complains that ‘ungovernable boys’ are often sent to sea. He remonstrates that captains do not want the bad lads but the good ones.
The image above is a section of a Henry Anelay illustration entitled “The Railway Station; Or, The Power of Kind Words,” which appears on the front page of issue 120 (1860) of the British Workman. The accompanying story tells of a young boy called William Lee, who ran away from the workhouse to go to sea as a cabin boy.
Children Selling the British Workman
Children were also involved in the distribution of the British Workman. In “A Hint to Booksellers” in issue 33 (1857), a bookseller writes that he contacted the proprietors of large mills in Cockermouth to see if they would allow him “to send a boy to ‘hawk’ these papers amongst the workpeople at the time they are receiving their wages” (130). He reports that he did not receive a single refusal.
CLICK HERE to view a gallery of images of child labour from the British Workman.