Essay, Research Paper: Child Labor In Victorian England

Literature: Charles Dickens

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“The report described the children as ‘Chained, belted, harnessed like, saturated with wet, and more than half-naked, crawling upon their
hands and knees, and dragging their heavy loads behind them’” (Yancey 34).
This quote from Ivor Brown probably best describes the strenuous work preformed
by a child laborer during the Victorian Era. Child laborers played an important
part in developing the country’s economy. Children, one of the main sources of
labor in Victorian England, endured less than adequate living and working
conditions. During the Victorian Period children were good sources of labor.
Beginning work as young as six or seven employers saw many benefits to hiring
children (Yancey 33). Adolescents were a significant part of the labor force
because they could be paid lower wages (Cody). Also their naturally small and
nimble hands and bodies were easily maneuverable. Employers most often hired
children over adults because kids were powerless and would not revolt (Yancey
33). Economic conditions forced poor children into working, sometimes as hard
and long as their parents (Cody). Essential to the economy, Parliament supported
child labor saying a child was more useful to his family working (Altick 249).
Child laborers led very hard and grossly disgusting lives of filth. Generally
the living quarters of laborers were poorly built, rotting, even falling down,
with little ventilation. There was no indoor plumbing causing people to throw
human waste on unpaved streets. Houses were often crowded and rented by the room
or even by the corner. Dirty floors and leaky roofs did not stop people from
living in over crowded basements and attics (McMurtry 159). The majority of the
day of young workers was spent without their family. The factory system split up
families for as much as fourteen hours. The time they did have together was
either spent eating or sleeping. Young daughters developed no housewife skills
because they were working and their working mother was not there to care for and
teach them. The role or father was decreased since he was not the sole supporter
of the family (Harrison 74). The life of a child laborer was much like this;
thus they learned little about life (Harrison 74). Despite its major importance
education played a very small role in the lives of children. In the Victorian
Era there was a refined belief that education was not needed (Altick 249). Few
working kids had more then two or three years of schooling (Altick 250). In 1840
only twenty percent of the youth population had any schooling at all (Cody).
Then in 1870 the Education Act was passed stating that all children, ages five
through ten, must attend school. Yet, it was not until 1881before the act became
nation wide (Child Labor). Many children tried to avoid school mainly because of
the hot, noisy, odorous, and unsanitary classroom environment. School buildings
were inadequate along with schoolteachers. Most of the teachers were not
properly trained and were usually failures in life. Children often picked work
over school due to the fact that working earned them money while school earned
them nothing (Altick 250). There were many different indoor jobs a child laborer
could have during the Victorian Period. Two of the most commonly heard of jobs
included servants and sweatshop workers. Boys and girls became household
servants around ten or twelve. They would help around the house doing all sorts
of different activities and odd jobs. Children were required to follow many
rules around the family since they were of the lower class. Younger servants
could not even be seen, heard, or around the family or their friends (McMurtry
169). Sweatshops were very small makeshift factories, usually ran by poor
immigrants. The daily conditions of the shops were dirty, cramped, and
unventilated. Fire was a serious threat because escape routes were usually
narrow stairs that were hard to climb. Though most shops were illegal,
Parliament did not stop them since the economy’s stability relied on their
operation (Yancey 28). Two of the most popular jobs during the era involved
outdoor work; they were chimney sweeping and mining. One of the most brutal
forms of child labor was chimney sweeping. Many young boys would apprentice with
masters to be trained adequately. They learned how to climb inside chimneys to
clean off the soot and creosote. However, there were many dangers like burns,
falls, and suffocation. Mining quickly turned into the most dangerous of child
occupations (Yancey 33). People who worked in mines faced daily threats of
cave-ins and explosions (Yancey 27). Girls and boys as young as five worked
twelve to sixteen hours a day. Children were sent down to haul up loads of coal
from crammed passages (Yancey 33). Often accidents would occur when children
lost hold of mine carts causing them to run over them (Yancey 34). In 1833 a law
was passed limiting the amount of hours kids could work in textile factories,
and in 1842 the law was extended to child in mines. Finally in 1847 Parliament
outlawed females and boys under ten from working in mines (Child Labor). The
environment a child worked in during this time period was, at the least very
dangerous. Textile mills were crowded and poorly ventilated causing such
diseases as fossy jaw, black lung, and other fatal lung diseases. In the
factories candles were used for lighting. These easy to knock over light sources
were a huge fire hazard (McMurtry 155). Poorly heated, dim factories full of
unskilled workers put many innocent children in danger. The lack of knowledge
about machinery caused workers to be crushed, mangled, or beaten to death in
belts. Often polluted and unsanitary buildings caused much death and illness
(Yancey 27). During the Victorian Era children were often mistreated and
subjected to the poorest of working and living conditions. This time period was
characterized by the use of children to help develop the economy. Child laborers
received less than the essentials needed at home, school, and at work. The life
of a young worker was in essence a life of a slave.

Altick, Richard D. Victorian People and Ideas. New York: W.W. Norton and
Company, 1973. “Child Labor.” Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 99 (Electronic
Version), copyright © 1999 Microsoft Corporation, Seattle, WA. Cody, David.
“Child Labor.”
1987. Harrison, JFC. The Early Victorians 1832 - 51. New York: Praeger
Publishers Inc., 1971. McMurtry, Jo. Victorian Life and Victorian Fiction.
Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1979. Yancey, Diane. Life in Charles Dickens’
England. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books Inc., 1999.
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