Child labor in the form of farm work was one of the more prominent uses of children in Industrial England. The age of children used on the farm was typically around 10 to 19 years of age. The number of adolescents leaving the care of their parents was very small. Children were used for labor on the family farm because they were cheap labor. Hiring servants meant that the farm owner would need to pay for wages, lodging, and sometimes food and clothing (Cunningham, 123). Wages for young children were not common, even in this period, and the children were expected to work on the family farm.
Between 1750-1870, the terms of contract for child labor in agriculture changed fundamentally. Farming had become larger and more intensive, and therefore a widespread shift from live-in farm service to a much a greater reliance with outdoor wage labor occurred. The age structure of agricultural labor force changed (Kirby, 60). Children who lived on farms were expected to assist with a variety of agricultural tasks, including taking care of the animals, planting and harvesting crops, and weeding. Child labor was an important part of the farming life and fourteen hours of labor was not uncommon in this era (Victorianweb.org). Young boys usually worked in the fields and tended the larger animals, while young girls performed lighter tasks such as milking cows and tending the chickens. Girls were also expected to do domestic work inside of their home (mtholyoke.edu).
Many mid-nineteenth-century children entered a formal apprenticeship or farm service. The highest concentrations of child workers existed in jobs that required children to live-in with their masters (Kirby, 131). Parents would seek a master for their children to work under in order to familiarize them with the trade. Children lived and worked on the farm and received training in the trade instead of wages. The boys became journeymen once they were skilled in the trade and could start their own business once they reached the age of twenty-one. This was because they had become highly skilled enough to become their own masters (eh.net). On the other hand, girls went on to become housewives who cooked, cleaned, and raised children (mtholyoke.edu). Child labor was seen as a necessity for the development of children into skillful workers who could take over the family business one day. Therefore, the use of children for labor on the farm was not seen as exploitative or abusive in this period. Rather, it was viewed as a necessary means to ensure the survival of the family (mtholyoke.edu).
In addition to apprenticeship, child labor in the form of traveling agricultural gangs could be found in farm work. Specific work depended on the season. In the winter, children would sort potatoes or clear stones. In the spring, they would pull grass, hoe, or plant potatoes. Summer work entailed clearing fields, helping with the hay harvest, and hand weeding crops. Though many gangs would disband during early fall to work with their families, they would come back together around October to harvest potatoes (Patrick 1986). Children would work long hours with longer working hours in the busy summer months. Days would range from eight to fourteen hours of work. They walked on average two miles to and from work every day, but “some of them were able to take turns riding in a cart or on a donkey for part of the way” (Patrick 1986).
As they spent a great portion of their time hunched over weeding or planting, back injury was a common problem. Pesticides during the time period contained toxic ingredients such as arsenic and lead. These had the potential cause lead poising and sometimes even brain damage. Relative risk for certain cancers such as leukemia, skin, stomach, brain, and prostate cancer have been found to be elevated due to exposure of certain chemicals in their work.
Working as farm workers for children came with many poor conditions and health problems. Along with the long, hours of hard labor, many jobs required on the farm were dangerous. The first labor law passed in Britain in order to address the poor working conditions of children, and to protect them from such conditions was called the Act of 1788 (eh.net).
Written by Marie Nguyen with contributions by Denise Webb
Cohen, Marjorie. “Changing Perceptions of the Impact of the Industrial Revolution on Female Labour.” International Journal of Women’s Studies 7 (1984): 292-305.
Cunningham, Hugh. “The Employment and Unemployment of Children in England c.1680-1851.” Past and Present 126 (1990): 115-150.
Kirby, Peter. Child Labour in Britain, 1750-1870. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 60-131.
Landow, George P. “What caused an increase in child labour during Victorian times?” Victorian Web. Last modified 23 October 2010.
John Patrick. “Agricultural Gangs” History Today 36, no. 3 (March 1986).
Tuttle, Carolyn. Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 14, 2001.