Unlike these lucky children released from school, many children worked during the Victorian Era because the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and business owners needed help. All sorts of jobs were available for children, but no protective, humane, or occupational societies looked out for their 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, 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 during the Victorian Era follow.
Thanks to Charles Dickens many people are familiar with apprentice jobs. 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. In return the master would provide shelter, clothing, and food, and sometimes low wages. Apprentice employment included such jobs as a bricklayer, goldsmith, shoemaker, baker, chimney sweep, tailor, or similar to Oliver Twist, who was apprenticed to Mr. Sowerberry, a coffin maker.
As apprentices, children suffered all sorts of ills if they had an unreasonable master. Bad-tempered masters might not adequately feed them, or they might force apprentices 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. That was precisely the case for Egbert Allen, a 15-year-old apprentice who was flogged by his master, a baker named William Thomas Nash. Nash beat him head to toe and hit him in the face causing Allen’s eye to profusely bleed. Fortunately, Nash was punished too. He received a sentence of two months hard labor.
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 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, there was Manchester, which acquired the nickname Cottonopolis, because it was Europe’s international center for cotton and textiles.
Factories and textile mills were notorious places. 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 frequent caused by “the squeezing off of a single joint of a finger.” Puberty was also retarded in both boys and girls. Many children had “distortions of the legs, knees bent inwards and feet bent outwards, deformities of the spinal column and other malformations” caused by 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.
One of the worst places for children to work was the coal mines. Similar to apprentice and factory jobs, children who worked at coal mines worked long, arduous hours. They 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 were also forced to bend and stoop up to 12 or 18 hours a day, resulting in permanent spinal deformities. 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 was dreary. They 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. Moreover, there was no requirement for children to attend school. In addition, manufacturers often boasted of “having enabled the majority to read, but 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.”
- Education, on British Library
- Engels, Frederick, The Condition of the Working-class in England in 1884, 1892
- London Labour and the London Poor
- The Victorian Apprentice, on HRM Guide