Death related to child labor was prevalent in the Victorian Era. There were very few protective services or laws that protected English children from the exploitation of their labor. It was not until much later, towards the end of the century, that real change, improvement, and protection started to take place. However, along the road to reform, many had no choice but to work as soon as they could walk in order to help support their family in the poor economy. Under hazardous working conditions and long hours of labor in a continued state of poverty and mistreatment, working Victorian children suffered, and many perished before they even became adults.
During the 1800s, child mortality was largely a result of working in unhealthy and dangerous environments. Some of the most common work that Victorian children did was in coal mines, chimneys, and factories and textile mills. Children were the preferred work forces in these fields, because they were small enough to work in cramped spaces, eager to earn wages, and much cheaper to hire than adults. Although they had the right size these companies needed, these children had no rights to demand protection and to labor under safe and non-hazardous environment.
Coal mines, for instance, were dark and narrow, lacked proper ventilation, and were infested with rats. The mere darkness would cause constant strain on the eyes, leading to permanent damage to their sight. Some children developed spine deformation from having to stoop over constantly for long periods of time. On average, they would work for 12-18 hours. With poor ventilation inside the mines, the air was heavily polluted with coal dust, causing many children to develop respiratory problems, such as the “Black Lung Disease.” Widespread rodent infestation also increased children’s exposure to aerosolized pathogens and risk of getting a respiratory infection. Cave-ins, explosions, flooding, and other kinds of accidents were constant danger in mining and claimed about a thousand lives a year. In the year of 1838 alone, “58 children under the age of thirteen died in mining accidents” (Frost 2009). Starting to work as early as age five, children in coal mines generally were not expected to live past 25 years of age (Cody 1988).
Chimney sweeping was considered even more hazardous than coal mining. Since adults were too large to fit into coal fireplaces to clean out the ash and soot, children, as young as three years old, were sent down to clean the narrow chimney stacks instead. It was common for parents to sell their children to Master Chimney Sweepers, who took these children on as apprentices and trained them to climb chimneys. Unfortunately, due to the nature of this job, these apprentices did not acquire lasting marketable skills from their training, because they would eventually grow too big to fit into the chimneys to work.
Nonetheless, being able to work for a couple of years was the better alternative than to starve waiting for a longer lasting job. To start the training, master sweeps would simply make children climb into the chimney. To save room and make sure they could easily move through the chimney, children were sent down hot and prickly chimneys with little to no clothing. Many children’s arms, elbows, legs, and knees would be burned, rubbed, and scraped away with almost no skin left on them. The only remedy for these injuries was to wait until the skin formed calluses over time (Johnston 2000). A quote from an unidentified Master Sweeper that reads, “I have two boys working for me. After work their arms and legs [would] bleed…so I rub them with salt-water before sending them up another chimney,” gives significant insight to the extreme nature of exploitation and mistreatment of these chimney sweepers.
An eight-year-old sweeper mentioned that “[he] never got stuck [himself] but some of [his] friends have and were taken out dead.” Indeed, falling or getting stuck in chimneys were some of the major fears for these sweepers, because both errors could easily result in immediate death by mutilation and/or suffocation. Their master would sometime “light a fire underneath the chimney to ‘encourage’ the child to get back to work,” in case they get stuck or froze in terror (Barrow 2013). Inhaling large amounts of soot and ash also resulted in permanent lung damage and diseases. A Victorian chimney sweeper would rarely make it to middle age (Price 2013).
Factories and textile mills were other common places that reported a lot of work-related injuries and illnesses for children. Children worked long hours (up to 19 hours a day with a total of only an hour break) and would be beaten by their factory owners if the children were late, slacked off, or even slowed down. Joseph Hebergram remembers what it was like in the textile mills: “if we were five minutes too late, the overlooker would take a strap, and beat us till we were black and blue” (1832). Besides the harsh and abusive owners, children often faced greater danger and risked losing their fingers, arms, and legs by working with fast and unsafe machines. Broken machines would not be turned off before children were sent inside to repair them. Thus, many children were also dismembered and killed by broken machines. The environment in the mills was also toxic, since factories and mills had no proper ventilation systems, many workers “breathed the same, stale, fiber-filled air day after day” and developed fatal respiratory diseases (Johnston 2000). With a hazardous and toxic environment, factories and textile mills usually left children badly crippled and sick for the rest of their lives, if not dead.
Despite a large accumulation of injuries and death among working children, change and reform was slow, limited, and ineffective. This is because Parliament would pass industry-based acts rather than one compulsory reform act directed at child labor as a whole. The Parliament passed as many as 8 acts related to factories alone, and even then, each law focused on restricting juvenile work to certain age and certain hours in a specific factory, such as cotton and wool. One reason for the piecemeal concern for thorough regulation is the fact that Parliament tended to focus on making policies that could generate sensational headlines in newspaper. Only the industries with the most visible signs of child labor and fatalities were able to get the most interest from the press and the policy makers. Moreover, in the highly fragmented manner of governing, enforcement of acts was equally limited and ineffective. For example, The Factory Act of 1833 only provided four inspectors for few businesses, and penalties for violating the law were slight. Even when the law was expanded to cover more businesses, domestic labor in small businesses or private homes was exempt from regulation. Nevertheless, changes were made; by the end of the century, hours of child labor were reduced, the age at which they could work full-time was raised, and many businesses even stopped hiring children because they wanted to avoid the risk of running into complications with the law (Frost 2009). In a 1901 report from the Medical Officer of Health for Holborn, Metropolitan Borough, indications of visitation and inspection were made under the Public Health (London) Act of 1891. The report shows that of the 551 factories and workshops that were inspected, only seven cases had “children, young persons, or women” employment (Bond 1902). The report also demonstrates that greater care were being taken to properly address violations in regards to these health and labor laws.
Because children were better equipped for size-limited tasks and cheaper to hire overall, many industries were interested and relied on child labor during the onset of the industrial revolution in the Victorian Era. Death, injuries, and illnesses were rampant as industries such as mining, chimney sweeping, and textile production were wildly unchecked. Safety measures and concerns for human life were extremely low. Changes and reforms were initially ineffective as they were largely directed by the need to garner sensational news headlines. It was not until the end of the century did enough laws get passed to properly bring more awareness and improvement to atrocious working conditions for children. In 1891, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was finally created to campaign for the welfare of children, building a phenomenal amount of traction for lasting change and reform (Price 2013).
Written by Min Xiao
Barrow, Mandy. “Working Children.” Project Britain The Victorians. 2013. Accessed April 09, 2016.
Bond, William Arthur. “Report for the Year 1901 of the Medical Officer of Health.” Wellcome Library. 1902. Accessed April 16, 2016.
Cody, David. “Child Labor.” The Victorian Web. 1988. Accessed April 09, 2016.
Frost, Ginger Suzanne. Victorian Childhoods. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.
Johnston, Morty. “Childhood Mortality.” VicotriasPast.com. 2000. Accessed April 09, 2016.
Joseph Hebergam, interview by Michael Sadler and his House of Commons Committee, July 7, 1832.
Price, Paxton “Victorian Child Labor and the Conditions They Worked In.” Victorian Children. March 02, 2013. Accessed April 09, 2016.