Friday 15 April 2016

London Labour and the London Poor

"Mother bides at home, she is troubled with bad breath, and is sair weak in her body from early labour.  I am wrought with sister and brother, it is very soar work; cannot say how many rakes or journeys I make from pit's bottom to wall face and back, thinking about 25 or 30 on the average; the distance varies from 100 to 250 fathom.  I carry about 1 cwt. and a quarter on my back; have to stoop much and creep through water, which is frequently up to the calves of my legs." 
(Isabella Read, 12, coal-bearer)

Child labour was the norm in Victorian era Britain.  British children worked long hours in dangerous jobs for low wages.  Families were large, parents often died young and children were expected to help with the family income.  Rather than attending school (only 20% in 1840) the majority went out to work (

Jobs taken by British children, which often involved entering tight spaces where adults couldn't fit, included:

  • coal miners
  • cotton bobbins
  • chimney sweeps
  • mudlarks
  • ratcatchers
  • costermongers
  • errand boys
  • crossing sweeps
  • shoe blacks
  • flower girls
  • matchmakers
  • prostitutes (majority were 15 to 22 years of age)
  • builders
  • cotton mill workers
  • hatmakers
  • domestic servants (over 120,000 in London in 1850)
Working hours were stretched to the limit:  builders worked 64 hours per week in summer and 52 in winter; domestic servants worked 80 hours per week.  Many children worked 16 hour days.  A Royal Commission in 1831 recommended that children 11 to 18 should work a maximum of 12 hours per day, those 9 to 11 should work eight hour days and under 9 should not work.  However, this commission just oversaw the textile industry.  An 1847 act limited child labour to ten hours per day, but many employers still ignored the new law. 

Working conditions were atrocious:  lack of light caused a constant strain on coal miners' eyes.  Coal dust settled into their lungs resulting in respiratory diseases.  Coal miners, who started working as young as five, usually died by the age of 25 (

Chimney sweeps defied the Mary Poppins' image.  Starting as young as 3, they climbed up and down chimneys where their arms and legs received constant scrapes.  After washing their wounds in salt water, the boss would send them down another chimney.  The danger of falling was ever present; a few sweeps who fell were forgotten and died in the chimney.  Chimney sweeps were sometimes underfed so that they would still fit in the tight spaces.  Even though children grew too big for the job by about 10, the soot damage to their lungs was already evident.

Children worked in textile mills for a fraction of the price of adults.  Girls worked for even less than boys.  Some factories employed more children than adults.  The dirtiest jobs wee given to the children.  Sometimes they were ordered to clean under machines that were still running.  Few safety measures existed in Victorian times and many injuries or deaths resulted.  Employers beat or fined children for making a mistake, falling asleep or arriving late.  

Child labour remained the rule in Victorian era Britain.  For more information, read Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution by Professor Jane Humphries


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