CHILD LABOUR IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
A Review of our November talk - by Rosemary Doman
Anna Alexander opened her talk on 25th November by identifying the differences in education and job opportunities for children of the upper/professional classes and those of the poor. The former were educated by private tutors and through the public school system - for the professions if boys, or for marriage if girls. Poor children, who were often working by the age of 7 or earlier, prior to the 1833 Factory Act, received minimal education, having to rely on church or benefactors' schools such as the School of Industry and Piety at Winwick. Here, the emphasis lay on inculcating 'Virtues' such as Good Nature, Meekness, Gratitude, Prudence and Carefulness and eliminating 'Vices' like Rudeness, Profanity and Idleness.
A child's working day was very long, 10 or more hours excluding breaks. The cotton mills gave employment to many poor children. The youngest were human sweepers, picking up cotton/fluff. Older girls worked as fustian cutters, cutting through loops to make corduroy. Age, which determined job skill and so pay, had to be verified by a doctor, and parents frequently pressured doctors into making this older. Anna showed us a slide of a Certificate of Age, 1863, for Margaret Eccles. Other children, better paid, worked for glass blowers. The plight of child sweeps had been highlighted by Jonas Hanway's book in 1773. As young as 4-6 years, climbing up narrow chimneys, their fate included being burnt or suffocated, lifelong deformities and 'sweeps cancer', which affected the genitals and led to a very nasty death. 1875 was the last recorded child sweep death, when campaigning led to abolition with Lord Shaftesbury's Bill.
Coal mining jobs involved pulling carts and opening/shutting doors for air. The work was thought to be immoral as most children worked semi-naked, boys next to girls, and this shocked members of the upper and middle-classes in the 1840s. Apprenticeships offered better opportunities, although pauper apprenticeships did not offer the same rights as full trade apprenticeships. Anna mentioned James Battersby, a trainee file cutter in 1839, who could earn up to 30-50 shillings weekly, once he was a skilled worker. The pin industry used children aged 5-6 years, operating a pedal machine to make a head from a coil of two tightly wound brass wires, pressed on by their tiny fingers. Paid by weight, they earned about 1s 6d weekly. Movingly, Anna showed a slide of an old document that she had come across, fixed using such a pin. Oakum/hemp picking from old rope was another child labour outlet. Destitute children housed in institutions such as the Liverpool Sheltering Homes, Myrtle Street, were sent to Canada.
Benefactors who worked to improve the lot of child labourers included James Cropper, a Quaker, who opened the Fearnhead Agricultural School in 1839, giving the boys a stake in the farm and basic education. He and other Friends supported children at the Penketh Quaker School with fee payment. William Stubs founded a school in Warrington, and Samuel Greg, owner of Styal Mill, offered slightly better paid pauper apprenticeships. The Kirkdale Industrial School, Liverpool, taught girls domestic skills to become servants, and equipped boys for jobs at sea. A slide of a barefoot 'match boy' in London, 1884, concluded this excellently documented and stimulating talk.