Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Child Labour in the Victorian Period

Child labour in the Victorian ages was extremely common and it was not until the late 19th Century that laws started to arise regarding child labour and exploitation.
Under-age children working was, and has been, very common throughout history. Many poor couples had many children so that they could have their offspring help out on farms or look after other siblings. This fact did not change but the jobs young children carried did.

When did children start working?

Children started working at different ages, depending on what work they were to carry out but the average age of child workers was 10 years for boys and 11 ½ for girls.
There was not a massive gender distinction between girls and boys working, but it was common that it was predominantly young boys who were doing jobs that required more physical strength (working in coal mines, pulling carts, chimney sweeping) and girls would be more likely to be seen as domestic servants, working in textile factories, helping around the home and selling on the streets.

What were the wages in the Victorian Age?

As previously mentioned, there was not a clear distinction in jobs but there was in salary. Both girls and boys were severely underpaid and exploited.
The principle behind the idea of having children working was that they were more efficient and the employers could pay them less than the average male. In the 1850s the average worker (male) would have earned around fifteen shillings a week, which roughly equates to 75 modern day pence.
Children on the other hand would earn less, 5 shillings per week, or maybe even less.

What jobs did the Victorian children carry out?

The children in this period carried out several jobs depending on where they were carried out. It could be distinguished between rural and urban work.

Rural work at the beginning of the century was the most common, given that this is the work children have been carrying out throughout history.
In rural areas, children would be hired to do jobs such as helping with farm animals and their care; milking, cleaning stables and feeding would fall into this categories. Collecting water from the wells, sowing and collecting crops and scaring birds from the fields would also be examples of child labour. The latter is present in the novel Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy.

“The boy stood under the rick before mentioned, and every few seconds used his clacker or rattle briskly. At each clack the rooks left off pecking, and rose and went away on their leisurely wings, burnished like tassets of mail, afterwards wheeling back and regarding him warily, and descending to feed at a more respectful distance.
He sounded the clacker till his arm ached[...]”
( Hardy,1998,Pg14)

Work in the cities and urban areas was less common at the beginning of the century but gained greater importance in the Victorian era due to the boom of the Industrial Revolution, thus creating new jobs. Children who came from rural areas were sometimes sent to cities in order to work for many reasons, the main being a high demand for child labour. Another of the factors that made urban work predominant during the Victorian era is the fact that the work in the cities was usually year round, and not dependent on seasonal fluctuations.

The children in this period carried out several jobs. The jobs with the highest demands for children were working in coal mines and factory work.
Coal mines were extremely important given that the main source of energy was from the combustion of coal. The invention of the steam engine also relied heavily on coal. This engine was extremely revolutionary though not very sustainable; a lot of coal was needed in order to heat the water to boiling point and to make the engine run for a long period. This meant that more coal had to be extracted from the mines, therefore creating more work.
Children that worked in mines had to have similar characteristics. They were required to be thin, agile and, although normally malnourished, strong. Their work usually consisted in being hauled down into narrow areas where adults couldn't normally fit and extract coal. Another of their duties was to crawl through extremely narrow tunnels carrying carts loaded with coal.

Children that worked in coal mines usually suffered from lung and chest problems due to being in the mines without any kind of masks or protection. Therefore the coal dust and many other toxic gases that were present would be inhaled by these children during their average 12-hour shift.
Other children also suffered from long term deformations due to the narrow tunnels in which they would have to crawl or stay bent over for extended periods of time.

Factory work was another of the jobs with the highest demand for children.
Children would also be required to be thin, agile and on occasions have nimble fingers. The tasks that they were to engage in were numerous. The thinner children were required to crawl under working machines and engines in order to fix loose parts or collect scraps that could cause problems to the
machinery. This job was also very dangerous given that the engines would be working for long periods of time causing them to heat up. Children were at risk of being burnt or losing extremities when crawling in and under the still working machines.
Children with nimble fingers, usually young girls, were hired to be a “piecer” - a child who worked in a mill joining pieces of thread together. (BBC,Victorian Britain Glossary)

Apart from factory work and coal mines there were many other professions that children had.

Chimney sweeping is a very well known Victorian profession. This job was predominantly a male

job. The children were to be fit and thin in order to be able to climb in and out of chimneys. A novel that talks about this type of child labour is The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley

Once upon a time there was a little chimney-sweep, and his name was Tom. That is a short name, and you have heard it before, so you will not have much trouble in remembering it. He lived in a great town in the North country, where there were plenty of chimneys to sweep, and plenty of money for Tom to earn and his master to spend.”
( Kingsley, Gutenberg)

Children in this profession usually also had respiratory problems due to the inhalation of soot and dust from the chimneys but it was also common for these children to have various injuries on their elbows and knees from climbing up and down chimneys.

He cried when he had to climb the dark flues, rubbing his poor knees and elbows raw; and when the soot got into his eyes, which it did every day in the week; and when his master beat him,[...]”
(Kingsley, Gutenberg)

All the above are examples of different jobs that Victorian age children did but they are not the only ones. Girls were usually also employed as domestic servants, for example young Moll Flanders (Daniel Defoe). Young girls were also used as sellers on streets. Boys on the other hand were often errand boys or footmen helping with horse and carriages, for example.

There were many professions that children in the Victorian age would take up but not all were legal. All of the previously mentioned jobs were permitted by law but many children and often orphans were made to work in illegal professions such as prostitution and pickpocketing, which were rife. A novel which reflects the idea of the pickpocketer is Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. The problem with these illegal profession was that children were prosecuted in the same way as adults, many were sent to prison and hanged.

As can be seen, being a working class child in the Victorian Age was not an easy lot. Few children had time to play and just enjoy being young. Many of the tasks that they were told to do were dangerous with little to no safety precautions for scarce pay. The children were also on occasions beaten by their employers when they made a mistake or did not produce enough. Even when parents knew this could do little to help given that they needed the money.
Thanks to the many laws to stop child abuse and child labour, children in our modern day society have things differently and we should all be grateful for this change. Even though unfortunately child labour as a whole has not been abolished.

BBC - Primary History - Victorian Britain - Glossary.BBC - Primary History - Victorian Britain - Glossary. [ONLINE] Available at:

Hardy, T, 1998.Jude the Obscure. 3rd ed. London: Penguin Classics.

Kingsley,The Water-Babies.The Water-Babies. [ONLINE] Available at:

Images ( in order )
Child labour in eighteenth century London - The Historical Association. 2015.(A)Child labour in eighteenth century London - The Historical Association. [ONLINE] Available at: 

childhood at the Industrial Revolution: Child Labour. 2015.childhood at the Industrial Revolution: Child Labour. [ONLINE] Available at:

Victorian Child Labor and the Conditions They Worked In.Victorian Child Labor and the Conditions They Worked In. [ONLINE] Available at:

Take me away!” Trial and Transportation: real and imagined.Take me away!” Trial and Transportation: real and imagined. [ONLINE] Available at:

BBC - Primary History - Victorian Britain - Children in factories. 2015.BBC - Primary History - Victorian Britain - Children in factories. [ONLINE] Available at:

Child labour - The British Library. 2015.Child labour - The British Library. [ONLINE] Available at:

Juvenile crime in the 19th century - The British Library. 2015.Juvenile crime in the 19th century - The British Library. [ONLINE] Available at:

Victorian children in trouble with the law - The National Archives. 2015.Victorian children in trouble with the law - The National Archives. [ONLINE] Available at:

Victorian Child Labor and the Conditions They Worked In. 2015.Victorian Child Labor and the Conditions They Worked In. [ONLINE] Available at:

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