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Child labour

During the 19th century working-class children were often employed in factories and on farms. For many families, it was more important for a child to bring home a wage than to get an education. The combination of dangerous working conditions and long hours meant that children were worked as hard as any adult, but without laws to protect them. Children were cheaper to employ than adults, and easier to discipline.
Pit-brow girls, Wigan (photograph), 1893 - opens new window
Pit-brow girls, Wigan, 1893
Report of Martha Appleton's accident, 1859 - opens new window
Report of Martha Appleton's accident, 1859
Document | Transcript
The case of Martha Appleton in 1859 highlights the terrible working conditions thousands of children across Britain endured every day in the 19th century. As a 13-year-old textile worker in Wigan, Martha was employed as a 'scavenger', picking up loose cotton from beneath machinery. On one particular day, Martha fainted and caught her left hand in an unguarded machine. In the accident, all her fingers were severed. Martha lost her job because she was no longer able to work efficiently.
The successful exploitation of child labour was vital to Britain's economic success in the 19th century. In 1821, approximately 49% of the workforce was under 20. In rural areas, children as young as five or six joined women in 'agricultural gangs' that worked in fields often a long way from their homes. Although a law against the employment of children as chimney sweeps was passed as early as 1788, young people - because of their size and agility - were still used in this role for much of the 19th century.
Martha Appleton's accident: letter from Inspector of Factories - opens new window
Martha Appleton's accident:
letter from Inspector of Factories
Document | Transcript
The plight of 'climbing boys', 1818 - opens new window
The plight of 'climbing boys', 1818
Document (168k) | Transcript
Changes came in 1833 when the Factory Act was passed. The Act not only created the post of factory inspector, but also made it illegal for textile factories to employ children less than 9 years of age. The Act came at a time when reformers like Richard Oastler were publicising the terrible working conditions of children, comparing the plight of child labourers to that of slaves. The timing was significant: slavery was abolished in the British empire in 1833-4.
It was also during this period that people started to recognise the importance of education for children (only a minority, mostly from the wealthy ruling class, had any kind of formal schooling at the beginning of the century). Under the Factory Act, textile factories were ordered to provide at least two hours of education daily for children under the age of 13. Pit brow girl
Pit brow girl Further legislation limiting child labour in factories was introduced in 1844, 1847, 1850, 1853 and 1867. After 1867 no factory or workshop could employ any child under the age of 8, and employees aged between 8 and 13 were to receive at least 10 hours of education per week. But such legislation was not foolproof. Inspectors often found it difficult to discover the exact age of young people employed in factories, and reports showed that factory owners did not always provide the hours set aside by law for education.
Towards the end of the 19th century attitudes towards children shifted further. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) was founded in 1889; and earlier, in 1870, the Education Act had brought huge changes. The Act put in place the building blocks for a free and compulsory education system. Gradually, every child in Britain was introduced to schooling. By the late 19th century, children's lives were beginning to be transformed. They were going to school instead of work, and being treated as children instead of 'little adults'. With the protection of the law, many could now avoid the exploitation of their childhood and gain an education.
Three schoolboys (photograph), 1898 - opens new window
Three schoolboys, 1898

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