“The report described the children as ‘Chained, belted, harnessed like
dogs…black, 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
difficult 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,
suffered 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 years old, 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 children were powerless and would not revolt (Yancey 33). 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 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). It was not until 1881 that schooling became required of all children. 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 age ten or twelve. 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 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). 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.