Child Labour in Victorian England

Life as a child in Victorian England was hard, and often short. Unless your family was rich, there was no school to go to, and from a young age you’d be expected to go out to work.

Maybe some of you have helped out in a family shop, restaurant or business, or you’ve done odd jobs for pocket money. But what kinds of work were there to do for children in Victorian times?

Chimney Sweep

In ‘Out of the Smoke’, the main character, Billy, is a chimney sweep. This was a dirty and dangerous job, in which children as young as five or six years old were forced to climb up hot, narrow chimneys with a scrubbing brush to scrape off the soot and dirt that had gathered there over time.

Remember: chimney flues were often tiny, sometimes only forty or fifty centimetres wide! Chimney sweeps (or climbing boys and girls, as they were called) would have to squeeze themselves up, wriggling like a caterpillar and hoping they didn’t get stuck.

If they stopped, or they didn’t go fast enough, their master (waiting at the bottom) might light a fire to force them to climb more quickly.

Activity

Make a square fifty centimetres wide and see how many of your friends can fit comfortably through it. Now imagine trying to climb a chute that wide up to the top of a house!

Coal miner

Many children worked in coal mines as ‘trappers’, sitting in pitch darkness for ten or twelve hours a day. Their job was to hold a piece of rope and open and close a door through which mine carts passed, thundering along rails like a miniature railway track.

The trapper would listen for the sound of the cart approaching, pull the door open to let the cart through, then release the rope to close the door again. And they would do this again and again, all day!

Of course, they would have to make sure they didn’t fall asleep across the tracks, otherwise things might come to a bad end …

Activity

Put on a blindfold and ear defenders so you can’t see or hear anything. Start a timer, and take them off when you think you’ve been sitting for two minutes. Check the timer – how close were you? How did it feel? Now imagine sitting by yourself in the dark all day!

Factory Worker

Have you ever been in a factory? It’s huge, and loud, and there are lots of signs telling you to wear a hard hat or ear defenders. But in Victorian times there were no real safety rules in factories, and the machines were often wide open. You had to have your wits about you to keep from being hurt!

Children worked in factories such as cotton mills, where enormous machines spun and wove cotton with a frantic clattering. The air was filled with dusty cotton fibres which could catch fire in an instant, causing a huge explosion like a bomb going off.

And besides this, there were no safety guards on the machines. It was common for children to trip and fall into the mechanism, sometimes losing a finger, a hand, or even an arm!

Activity

Look around your home or school for safety signs, and talk to your teacher or adult about keeping safe around sharp objects and electricity. Try to imagine the kinds of accidents you could have if you didn’t have this protection!

Domestic Servant

Do you like tidying your room? Maybe you have to help out with the washing up at home, or the laundry, or hoovering the floor. Do you think you could do it all day, every day, without a break?

Many children worked in the homes of rich people, doing all of these things and more. Except there weren’t nearly as many machines to help with the housework in Victorian times! No washing machines; no electric irons; no vacuum cleaners; and certainly no dishwashers or microwaves.

They would wake up before dawn to light the fires in the families’ bedrooms and get the cooking fires going in the kitchen. They might have to help prepare breakfast, or fetch coal, take deliveries of milk, bread and vegetables–and that was just the beginning of the day! Often they would go to bed exhausted, sleep for a few hours, then have to get up and do it all over again. And these were the lucky children!

Activity

Make a list of all the things your adults do to keep your home clean and keep you fed and clothed, and see how many are done by machines, and how many are still done by hand. Try to imagine a life without any machines at all!


Lord Shaftesbury

As we have seen, life for children in Victorian England could be very hard. Besides all these jobs there were many more: farm labourer; ship worker; rat catcher; match seller; hat maker; shoe shiner … the list of difficult and badly-paid jobs goes on.

Many children were hungry and sick, and many died very young. Some children became so desperate they joined street gangs and picked pockets or robbed houses (like Billy in ‘Out of the Smoke’).

Lord Shaftesbury was a politician who campaigned for many years to help children escape this life of endless work. He helped to pass many laws to limit the number of hours children could work, and to strengthen to rules around things like chimney sweeping.

Two of the most important laws he campaigned to pass were:

  • The Ten Hour Act of 1850, which set the length of the working day to no more than ten hours.
  • The Chimney Sweepers Act of 1875, which finally gave the police powers to clamp down on people still using children as chimney sweeps.

Besides this, Lord Shaftesbury supported people to open Ragged Schools, where children could be educated for free, learn a better trade, and even sometimes stay and live until they were old enough. He encouraged churches and Christian organisations to open Sunday Schools to teach children right and wrong. And he gave support to many organisations that helped children in need, like the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) which is still going today!

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