15.5. Treatment of Children outside of the Textile Industries

The sector of the population, which suffered most physically in the years of the Industrial Revolution, was that of those children and young persons who did not work inthe textile factories. The point is that, from 1819 onwards, children below the age of nine could not enter into employment in the textile factories; further, the conditions of work were at least legally defined (official inspectors from 1833), and the children – through their parents – did receive a contractual wage. In the other industries, the children were often put to work from 6 years old, the working conditions were often very bad, the food was minimal, and the payment low and not guaranteed. Further, there were no official regulations, and no way to enforce any minimal standards. The employment of small children continued until the Children’s Education Acts of the 1870’s.   

These additional industries were, in terms of the Report on Children and Young Persons employed in Mines and Manufacture(1843), of the Children’s Employment Commission: metal wares; earthenware (pottery); glass; machine lace; pillow lace; hosiery; calico-printing; paper-making; tobacco.

The number of children thus employed was, according to the writers of the Report, in some towns practically equal to the number of children of the working class above eight years old (not counting the “lucky ones” in the textile factories from 1833).

According to the 1851 Census, the number of boys and girls employed (supposing the information to have been fully reported) in the different industries was:

Principal Occupations of Boys and Girls under Fifteen in Britain, 1851

Navigation& docks46Navigation& docks4
General labour15Domestic service71
Domestic service9  
Total423 237

(Hopkins, 1994, p. 92)

This can be compared with the total number of males and females from 10 to 15 years old, which was 2,070,000 persons, according to the 1851 Census. It is probable that the proportion of small children thus employed had decreased from 1815 to 1851, since the parents were gradually receiving better incomes, and thus did not need the “extra two shillings” from their child, and were also more interested in giving their children an education.

According to the reports of the commissioners, in a number of industries the children were put to work from the age of six or earlier. This was generally in those activities which did not need physical strength, but rather dexterity in moving threads (lace) or pins. In the glass industry and in paper-making, the children started at nine or ten. 

As to the conditions in the places of work:

“From the general tenor of the Reports and Evidence it appears that, with exception of bleaching, paper-making, toy-making, and some of the processes connected with calico-printing, and the manufacture of earthenware and glass, the places of work in which the various trades and manufactures are carried on are in general lamentably defective in drainage, ventilation, the due regulation of temperature, and cleanliness. There is scarcely any accommodation for the workpeople to wash themselves at meal-times, or to dress or warm their food. In great numbers of instances there are even no separate privies for men and women, nor for boys and girls; and very commonly these places are in a disgusting state of filth. The general statement, however, is, that in almost all the buildings recently constructed, a greater attention has been paid to the health and the decent comfort of the workpeople than in those of older date.”

(Children’s Employment Commission, Children and Young Persons employed in Mines and Manufacture, 1843, V.- State of the Place of Work, p. 32)

In general, the work of the children was not physically tiring, measured in calories expensed per hour, but the problem was rather the work without interruption during long hours, and also the difficult working positions. In many cases, the children helped the adult worker, adjusted or controlled the machinery, or brought materials to the work-station. In only a few cases did the children take part in industrial processes. 

The theoretical length of the day was twelve hours, with permission for mealtimes. But the reality was that the child always had to be ready to work when the adult worker needed him/her, and this might mean working two more hours in the day, or getting out of bed at some hour during the night. 

The wages for children (up to 12) were in the range of 2 shillings to 4 shillings a week, and the young persons (13 to 19) of 4 shillings to 6 shillings, with some cases ofup to 10 shillings. The lowest payments were in lace, where the women earned 3 shillings weekly for a 13 or 14 hour day, and thus the girls earned only 1 shilling a week.

The physical state of the children was – with the exception of a few industries – very bad. They were badly fed, and some were clothed in rags. The worst region was in the Black Country (Wolverhampton), and the worst industries the domestic activities of frame-work weaving and dressmaking. In the industries where they were put to physical work, the continuous work destroyed their bodies:

“In stature, the Children are so stunted that the Sub-Commissioner, during his first examinations, was unable to credit the statement they made of their ages; with very few exceptions, however, all were alike, and these few exceptions only proved the rule, for they were Young Persons who had not come to work till they were eleven or twelve years of age, or they lived comfortably with respectable parents, or they were not natives of Wolverhampton. Lads of fifteen or sixteen years of age are the size of ordinary English school-boys of twelve or fourteen, but not as strong and healthy. Many of the manufacturing girls of fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen presented none of the external developments corresponding with commencing womanhood.”

“Among other witnesses, the Superintendent Registrar states that in those trades, particularly in which the work is by the piece, the growth of the Children is injured; that in these cases their strength is over-taxed for profit. One of the constables of the town says that “there are examples without number in the place of deformed men and boys; their backs, or their legs, and often both, grow wrong – the backs grow out and the legs grow in at the knees – hump-backed and knocked-kneed. There is most commonly only one leg turned in, – a K leg; it is occasioned by standing all day for years filing at a vice; the hind leg grows in – the leg that is hindermost. Thinks that among the adults of the working classes of Willenhall, whose work is all forging and filing, one-third of the number are ruptured. Some cannot afford to buy trusses, some get them by means of a club they have established.”

There are many instances of retarded puberty in both sexes; a lad, for example, seventeen years of age, is described as being very poorly grown, scarcely any signs of manhood in his appearance. Another lad, eighteen years of age, is stated to be in stature and size dwarfed and meagre; no appearance of approaching manhood. A girl, sixteen years of age, very small in stature; not the least appearance of approaching womanhood; quite a child. A girl, aged nineteen, utterly stunted; no appearance of womanhood.”

(Children’s Employment Commission, Children and Young Persons employed in Mines and Manufacture, 1843, XIV – Influence of Employment on the Physical Condition, Metal Wares, Willenhall, p. 103)

Probably these cases represented the majority of the children employed since an early age. But we also have information about happy, well-paid, not over-worked children:

“Do you employ any boys or children?” “A great number.”

“What proportion out of the 400 or 500?” “I should think that we employ about 50.”

“How are they employed?” “They are employed in the pits and mines to deposit the ironstone, and to attend to the fires and various light jobs about the furnaces; to fill the boxes, barrows, &c. for the men.”

 “How old are those boys?” “From nine to 14 and 15 years of age.”

 “Are not those boys generally the children of the men employed in the works?” “Yes.”

“So that it is an advantage to those men to get their children employed in the works?” “Of course.”

“What wages do you pay those persons?” “From 3s. a week to 7s. or 8s., according to their strength and capacity.”

“For what time do they work?” “They work their own time; if they are tired they go home, and their fathers do their business; but generally they work six or seven hours, and sometimes eight or ten; they work and play pretty much as they like, subject to the control of their parents.”


“Are there any schools for the education of the children?” “The district is full of schools.”

“So that any poor workman may get his child educated?” “Yes, he may.”

“Free of expense?” “Yes, generally free of expense. There are a good many national schools.”

(Select Committee on Commerce, Manufacture and Shipping, 1833, Evidence of Mr. William Mathews, Coal and Iron Trade, Dudley, p. 584, p. 586)

“No. 18.- Mary Ann Perry states:-

I am about 11 years old; I live with my parents in Thomas-street; I have been working at Mr. Flower’s, as a sheeter, about 12 months; I get a shilling a week now; I am only a beginner; I have only to put the pins in the paper; it is not hard work; I come to work at nine o’clock now, go home to dinner at two, have an hour, and then work till nine at night. I am not tired at night. I go to a Sunday School, where I learn to spell; I cannot read or write; I generally get milk or tea and potatoes, or bread for my meals, and sometimes meat for dinner; I like the work I am at; I have never been ill since I was at it; I sit down at my work; there is a fire in the room to keep us warm. I give my wages to my mother; it is very clean work that I do.”

(Children’s Employment Commission, Appendix to the Second Report of the Commission, Trades and Manufactures, Part 2, 1842, p. G 11, Pin-Factory, Dublin, Interviewee No. 18)


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