The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Child Labour

Category: 18th century

Most workers lived in desperate poverty, just bare­ly surviving on the wages they earned. In cities, they paid high prices for both food and housing.

All family members who were able to work had to do so, even young children. Often 75 per cent of the workers in early textile mills were single women and young children, since operating most machines did not require a great deal of physical strength. Conditions in underground mines were unhealthy and considerably more hazardous than elsewhere, but women and chil­dren worked there as well.

Life was difficult for the working class. These peo­ple had little or no education and little hope of better­ing their lives. Because even young children had to work long hours, they generally did not attend school. Their future would be the same as their present — hard work and practically no time for leisure.

There were trades in which young children could make themselves very useful: chimney-sweepers used small boys to great advantage, though they had to take care not to stifle them or burn them or get them stuck halfway up a chimney. They also had to keep them half-starved so that they would be thin enough: a well-fed sweeping boy was an absurdity. But chimney sweeping was not just an odd job. It was a trade to which a boy had to be properly apprenticed, so that he might one day practice it himself if he did not succumb to cancer, the occupational disease of sweeping boys.

Few parents desperate enough to consign their sons to such a fate could afford the premiums, so that sweep­ers usually went to the parish authorities for their boys. In 1767 and 1778 laws were passed laying it down that in such cases premiums should be paid in two instal­ments, which meant that the sweepers had to keep the boys alive for a certain period if they wanted the second instalment.

The cotton mills and the coal mines also started to swallow up children in their thousands at the end of the 18th century, creating more and more employ­ment until even children of four and five years old were working twelve or more hours a day.

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