Between the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century, Great Britain became the World’s first country to industrialize. The Industrial Revolution brought forth many contrasting effects. To begin with, the focus of Great Britain’s economy began to shift from an agricultural towards industry. New factories and different types of commercial enterprises marked this economic shift. As more people began to take up “industrialized” jobs, the population in Great Britain’s cities naturally began to increase.
Some of the people of Great Britain benefited enormously from the Industrial Revolution, but a far larger number suffered tremendously. Manufacturers and other British industries did not conduct their business with purity and the welfare of their fellow human beings. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, it was quite common for business manufacturers to employ large numbers of children in their factories or places of business. The children that worked in these factories or for other businesses tended to experience nightmarish treatment in their workplace. It was in these mines, mills, and factories that the definition of child labor began to derive a very negative connotation. The Victorian English writer Charles Dickens described these factories and manufacturers as “dark satanic mills,” while twentieth century historian E.P. Thompson opined that they were, “places of sexual license, foul language, cruelty, violent accidents, and alien manners.” Workers in these factories were often times subject to an uncivil disciplinary system; on top of the unjustified disciplinary system, workers were exposed to an unhealthy working environment, strict work hours that were far from flexible, to go along with minuscule wages.
Children that worked down in the coal mines typically served as “trappers” or “drawers.” The children that worked as “trappers” were responsible for opening and closing doors in order to let air through the tunnels in the mine; a “drawer” was entrusted with dragging heavy cartloads of coal throughout the mine tunnels with a heavy chain tied around their waist. In the year 1842, it was estimated that approximately nineteen to forty percent of labor forces in the coal and metal mines of Great Britain were children. During the same year, it was projected that child labor comprised one-third of the entire underground labor force in the coal mines. In addition to the poor treatment from their employers, child laborers also faced many life-threatening dangers by just partaking in their every day job. There was no fresh air down in the coal mines and laborers experienced long work days. The demand for coal during these times was tremendous, which led to laborers digging the mines deeper and deeper, causing working conditions for these child laborers to become more difficult due to the groundwater that flooded the mines after digging past a certain level. “Fire damp,” is an explosive gas that was found in the mines and like the mine flooding, became more prominent the deeper the mines were; this gas also required very little to ignite, needing nothing more than a spark from a miners pick axe to cause an explosion. The dangerous environments in which the coal mines entailed, sadly led to a number of deaths in the mines. Peter Hepplewhite claims in his book All About the Industrial Revolution, that between the years of 1838-1864, approximately nine-hundred sixty-one people were casualties of working in the coal mines.
Along with the dangers while working in the mines, children faced numerous health problems due to their work. Because the mines were always dark and workers had to constantly strain their eyes to see, many developed permanent vision problems. Ventilation was poor, and thus thick coal dust was present in the air. This led to an array of pulmonary problems, with the most common being asthma. One large lasting health problem can be seen in musculo-skeletal deformities of the mine workers. They were characterized by deformities of the knees and feet with the knees bending inward and the feet outward, spinal column deformation due to constantly walking stooped over, and pelvic distortions that complicated child-bearing later in life. Hypertrophy and inflammation of the heart and pericardium were often attributed to overwork in the mines.
As mentioned before, the Industrial Revolution consisted of many benefits to urbanization and modern life. The time period saw progress in not only businesses and manufacturers, but in health and medicine as well; it was during this time period when medical practitioners discovered that cholera was a product of the consumption of contaminated sewage water. However, it is hard to overlook many of the injustices bestowed upon children during the Industrial Revolution. Children were viewed as nothing more than a cheap source of labor to many factories and businesses that cared solely about making and increasing their profits. These repugnant views that business and factory owners had towards child labor ultimately led to the injury and death of many young people. Therefore, the history of child labor during the Victorian era will always be a stain on many of the accomplishments made during the Industrial Revolution.
Written by Connor Delaney with contributions by Denise Webb
Price, Paxton. Victorian Child Labor and the Conditions They Worked In. Accessed March 29, 2016.
Tuttle, Carolyn. Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 14, 2001.
White, Matthew. The Industrial Revolution. The British Library. Accessed April 5, 2016.
Kirby, Peter. Child workers and industrial health in Britain, 1780-1850 Woodbridge: Boydell Press 2013.
Hepplewhite, Peter. “All About the Industrial Revolution.”Hodder Wayland, 2002. Accessed April 4, 2016.
Child Labour in the Mines, an excerpt from Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 (1845).