Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Child labour in Victorian Britain (Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens)

Child labour in Victorian Britain (Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens)

The Industrial Revolution appeared at the end of the eighteenth century in Britain and later in the rest of European countries. At that time, Britain witnessed an incredible economic progress thanks to the development of industries amongst other things. However, this revolution also affected social classes, intensifying the social inequalities. Therefore, families of Victorian England had to work harder to earn more money, but sometimes it was not enough and they had to send their children at work.


I.                    The different kinds of child labour in Victorian Britain

There were two kinds of child labour. The first one included children who worked for their parents needed them to do so. They were considered as free workers, since the factories owners could not force them to do things they did not want to do. Those children were still under the protection of their parents, and if they thought the working conditions of their children were unacceptable, parents could protest in order to protect their children.

On the other hand, children of the poorest families or abandoned children had to live in workhouses and were under the responsibility of the parish. Those children were the ones to be subject to mistreatment and abuse. The Poor Law of 1834 was one of the principle factors of child labour in Victorian Britain. This law stipulated that the poor were to live in workhouses and in exchange, they had to work every day, for several hours. Many testimonies of that time showed that poor people living in workhouses received bad treatments, especially the children. Most of the workhouses’ children were orphans or abandoned, thus they did not have any protection from a relative. Those children were then under the custody of the parish. Child labour was emotionally and physically unbearable, as they were working in atrocious conditions. They worked for more than ten hours each day, and were paid a pittance. They were subject of multiple injuries due to their work. 

A young boy working in a mine. [source]


Children were employed in factories because they cost nothing, compared to adults. Moreover, they were small and could reach areas grown men and women could not. In comparison to middle-class children, working-class children did not have access to a proper education. They spent their time working in factories. It was also frequent to see children die whilst working. In an interview, a young boy named John Cawthorpe, fourteen, describes a day at work for him: “[I] work one week on days and the other on nights. Sometimes start at 6 on Friday morning and do not give over till 2 p.m. on Saturday. That is the only time that I work night and day together. Sometimes I work a quarter (of a day), i.e. three hours over; sometimes a half. When I have been working three turns I get tired. Get some sleep in the dinner hour, and sometimes in the breakfast half hour. When tired I fall asleep in working time, not when standing up, but many a time when I am sitting down. When it (the hot steel) comes through it wakens me.[1]


II.                 Charles Dickens’ portrayal of child labour in Oliver Twist (1837-1839)

Dickens worked in a factory when he was twelve. [source]

The main protagonist of the semi-biographical novel, Oliver Twist, was born in a workhouse. His mother was unmarried when she gave birth to him, and being a single mother was considered as a shame, especially when you were poor. The number of abandoned children during the Victorian era was high, and that can be explained by the fact that having a child cost a lot of money and the poorest families could not take care of them. Another reason was that many abandoned children were born out of wedlock and purity and honour were two essential virtues in the Victorian society.

In Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens depicted well the terrible living conditions of those children. Through the whole novel, the readers witness the violent behaviour of the workhouses’ officials. Mr Bumble and Mrs Mann, both officials for the workhouses where the main protagonist of the story was raised, are the perfect examples of the parish officials of Victorian Britain. Indeed, in the novel, they do not hesitate to mistreat the children under their care, by abusing or half-starving them. In chapter two, Dickens compares the fact of starving in the streets and starving in the workhouses, saying that whatever happens, poor people were destined to starve[2]. This chapter also provides information about the living conditions of children in workhouses. They are so hungry that one child says at some point that he could eat one of the boys. The next days, Oliver is chosen by the other boys to ask for more food at dinner. The officials are so shocked that they decide to get rid of Oliver by offering five pounds to whoever is willing to take him. “Selling” children, instead of freeing him, was quite common during the Victorian period, as it was a source of income.


Oliver Twist asking for another portion of food. [source]

In his novel, Dickens associates workhouses with slavery. For him, the way children were treated in those workhouses was similar to slavery, as children did not have proper clothes, and were not well fed. The nineteenth century saw life expectancy of working-class children falling at approximatively eighteen years old, and that was due to their terrible working conditions. Between 1819 and 1946, numerous laws were introduced in order to protect children and prohibit child labour, such as raising the cost of employment of children for instance. The consequences of those laws were that children were dismissed, but since they needed money to survive, they had to find other ways to earn money. They ended up working in worse conditions, in dilapidated factories with bad sanitary system and a minimal security; or they ended up as criminals, just like in Oliver Twist, where Oliver meets a group of children-thieves, all under the control of Fagin. 


Factories and mines were inspected by people called “Commissioners”, who witnessed the bad conditions children were working in. In 1874, a Factory Act was established and prohibited the employment of children under the age of ten in factories. Moreover, numerous laws about child protection began to appear during the second half of the nineteenth century and nowadays, child labour is prohibited in Europe.


[2] So, they established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they), of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it.” – ch. 2, Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens. [source]

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