Children in the Victorian Era: Their Occupational Life

Children in the Victorian Era did not have the best of working lives. They lived during a time when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and many had to work to survive. Unfortunately, there was no protective, humane, or occupational societies to look out for a child’s health or welfare. This meant children were sometimes inadequately housed, fed, or clothed, or sometimes they were even worked to death. In the early 1800s, there were several feeble attempts to regulate child labor in England, but efforts were not fruitful until 1833 when child labor laws limited the hours a child worked to 12 hours a day. Unfortunately, that law applied only to child workers in the textile industry. It took another 14 years before labor laws applied to all occupations for children, and, at that time, work hours were reduced from 12 to 10 hours a day for both children and adults.

Some of the more familiar occupations for children in the Victorian Era include apprentice type jobs and thanks to Charles Dickens many people are familiar with what an apprentice job involved. Young children were often apprenticed by contract to a master, usually for seven years. During an apprenticeship, a child would learn a trade by helping the master and in return the master would provide shelter, clothing, and food, and sometimes low wages. Apprentice jobs included such things as a bricklayer, goldsmith, shoemaker, miller, weaver, baker, chimney sweep, tailor, or similar to Oliver Twist, who was apprentice to Mr. Sowerberry, a coffin maker. 

Weaver apprentices at their looms. Public domain.

As apprentices, children in the Victorian Era suffered all sorts of ills if they had an unreasonable master. Bad-tempered masters might not adequately feed them, or they might force them to work their fingers to the bone. Tyrannical masters might initiate corporal punishment, such as whipping, beating, or abusing apprentices who disobeyed or did not perform to their liking. Part of the reason that they could do this was the general belief that a master had the right to reasonably punish or inflict moderate punishment on an apprentice. This is demonstrated by a brief article that appeared in the Hertfordshire Express and General Advertiser in 1865:

“Thomas Allen of Eaton Socon, shopkeeper, was charged with assaulting Henry Barnes, his apprentice, by beating him with a stick, which produced in court, rather thicker than a common cane used by schoolmasters. Mr. Stimson appeared for the defendant, and submitted the law to the bench, that a master might inflict moderate corporal punishment on an apprentice. The boy stripped his arms, and the marks of the blows were slightly visible, though inflicted on the previous Wednesday. The bench considered the master had exceeded proper correction, and they inflicted the small fine of 1s and costs.”[1]

Even though moderate punishment might be allowable, masters sometimes were exceedingly cruel to children in the Victorian Era and its surprising that some of this masters did end up in Madame Tussaud‘s Chamber of Horrors. This was the case with a master printer named Albert J. Carolan. He began so upset at his apprentice, 16-year-old Albert Ernest Moore, he attacked him with hammer. Apparently, the boy had been slack in his work and when Carolan ordered Moore to get busy, the 16-year-old laughed at him. The Northern Whig reported:

“Albert Carolan, master printer, of Cromer Street, Gray’s Inn Road, London, was arrested at Windsor yesterday, charged with the attempted murder of an apprentice, named Moore. The latter was found by the neighbours in the prisoner’s house with fifteen wounds on the head, and is now in the hospital in a precarious condition. … The Press Association says: – Being irritated by some mistake the boy had made, Carolan attacked him with a hammer, causing a compound-fracture of the skull and severely injuring him on the hands and body. Some workmen, bearing cries, found the unfortunate apprentice locked in a back room.[2]

After the beating, Carolan left his shop and went to King’s Cross Station. From there he booked a ticket to Paddington by the underground railway. He then telegraphed a friend to find out the condition or Moore and if he was still alive. Carolan then traveled to Windsor, but the police learning of his location, “the police telegraphed and caused his arrest. The boys is not expected to recover.”[3]

Just like Carolan, numerous masters committed more than moderate punishment. However, it did not mean that justice was served when cases went before the court. That was the case when a cruel flogging of a parish apprentice resulted in her demise. According to court documents, Robert Courtice Bird and his wife, Sarah Bird, regularly beat Mary Ann Parsons. They then supposedly killed her with a single blow and were charged as indicated:

“On the first day of January in the year of our Lord 1850 with force and arms at the parish .. [did] feloniously wilfully wickedly and unlawfully and of their malice aforethought did make an assault and that the said Robert Courtice Bird with both his hands and the said Sarah Bird with both her hands the said Mary Ann Parsons to and against the ground … casting and throwing the said Parsons to and against the ground … and there gave … Parsons diverse mortal bruises in and upon the head stomach sides and back of her … of which … Parsons … did languish [until] … of the said mortal bruises died by the means aforesaid … [and] did kill and murder.”[4]

The Birds were found not guilty because Parson’s death could not “be imputed to either of the defendants.”[5] However, despite getting off the Kentish Mercury reported:

“The Observer states that Government has issued orders to have fresh indictments prepared against Robert Curtice Bird, and his wife, who were lately acquitted at the Exeter assizes under the direction of Mr. Justice Talfourd, on the charge of the wilful murder of Mary Ann Parsons … The indictments will be prepared for previous assaults on the deceased girl, as they cannot of course be tried again for murder.”[6]

Fortunately, after the Birds were charged with assault, they were convicted. They were then sentenced by the judge to hard labor for an additional sixteen months, the prisoners have already served eight months since their arrest. 

If a child was not an apprentice, he or she might work at a factory or at a textile mill, as employment at such facilities was easy for children to acquire. Owners found it cheaper to hire them than adults, and, so, many children worked in factories and mills. Part of the reason employment was so readily available at factories and textile mills was due to the nineteenth century technological advances and the use of steam power. This resulted in areas becoming steeped in certain types of industry. For instance, Manchester acquired the nickname Cottonopolis because it was Europe’s international center for cotton and textiles.

children in the Victorian Era

Cottonopolis. Public domain.

Factories and textile mills were notorious places for children in the Victorian Era. Worksites were often dreary, rat-infested, and overcrowded. They offered nothing more than low wages and long hours. Jobs at factories and textile mills for children included operating machines, cleaning equipment, or hauling heavy loads. To keep production high, the young workers were frequently disciplined by overseers: They were cruelly “strapped” or dowsed with water to keep them awake. Sometimes weights were hung around their necks. A fierce system of fines was also imposed against any child who dared talk, whistle, or speak. Additionally, children were punished severely for leaving their station without permission or for unsatisfactory performance.

According to Frederick (sometimes spelled Frederich) Engels, author of The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844, factory workers suffered many health problems. Digestive and heart diseases were common, as was lockjaw. Lockjaw was one of the most common factory accidents and frequently caused by “the squeezing off of a single joint of a finger.”[7] Puberty was also retarded in both boys and girls. That was because of the long hours of stooping and bending over machines. However, compared to the fluctuating work available on a farm, factories and textile mills promised steady employment and wages, along with a roof over a child’s head.

Frederick Engels, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Frederick Engels. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One of the worst places of employment for children in the Victorian Era was the coal mines. Similar to apprentice and factory jobs, children who worked at coal mines worked long, arduous hours. Children working in mines also constantly faced the threat of accident or injury. They regularly suffered broken, crushed, and cut fingers, and equipment malfunctions or failures resulted in dozens of children being mangled or losing limbs. Sometimes children became lost in chutes, only to be found dead later, and, if that was not bad enough, children had to be constantly wary of cave-ins or rocks falling on them.

Besides injuries, children working in coal mines also experienced many health problems. They worked in blackened holes where they strained to see. This resulted in many children suffering permanent eye damage. Child coal miners of the Victorian Era were also forced to bend and stoop up to 12 or 18 hours a day, resulting in permanent spinal deformities as noted by Engels:

“Distortions of the legs, knees bent inwards and feet bent outwards, deformities of the spinal column and other malformations … [and] the assertion … made … not only by physicians, that a miner may be recognised by his shape among a hundred other persons. “[8]

children in the Victorian Era- Coal fields

Map of British Coalfields. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

They also could not avoid respiratory problems, as they had no choice but to inhale the coal dust that was constantly kicked up during the mining process. In fact, asthma or miner’s consumption was a common problem, and because mines operated at deafening levels, hearing loss was another constant health threat.

Life for children in the Victorian Era was dreary and as there was no requirement for children to attend school, they often worked long hours in unsafe conditions and suffered many abuses with no way to better themselves or their situations. When children worked, they could not attend school, and although there were some schools during the evening, children were either too tired to attend or fell asleep in class. In fact, there were numerous reports about how exhausted children were after a day of hard work:

“It is constantly happening that children throw themselves down on the stone hearth or the floor as soon as they reach home, fall asleep at once without being able to take a bite of food, and have to be washed and put to bed while asleep; it even happens that they lie down on the way home, and are found by their parents late at night asleep on the road. It seems to be a universal practice among these children to spend Sunday in bed to recover in some degree from the over-exertion of the week.”[9]

Despite all the hardship heaped upon children of the Victorian Era, manufacturers often boasted of “having enabled the majority to read.”[10] Yet, what little schooling the children enjoyed was lacking because “the quality of the reading [was] appropriate to the source of instruction … he who knows his letters can read enough to satisfy the conscience of the manufacturers.”[11] Moreover one Birmingham commissioner reported in 1844:

“In Birmingham … the children examined … as a whole, utterly wanting in all that could be in the remotest degree called a useful education. Although in almost all the schools, religious instruction alone is furnished, the profoundest ignorance even upon that subject prevailed.”[12]

Children in the Victorian Era - ragged school

Brook Street ragged school, the work room. Public domain.


  • [1] “Assault,” in Hertfordshire Express and General Advertiser,  8 April 1865, p. 2.
  • [2] “Attacked with a Hammer,” in Northern Whig, 27 January 1891, p 5.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] 1850 to 1851 by S.C. Denison, 1853, p. 230.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 211.
  • [6] “The Cruel Flogging of a Parish Apprentice,” in Kentish Mercury, 6 April 1850, p. 4.
  • [7] Engels, Friedrich, The Condition of the Working-class in England in 1844, p. 164.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 246.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 245.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 111.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Ibid., p. 112.

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