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There was once a time when children born into this world were given the same name in hopes that at least one child would survive to pass the honor of that name down through the bloodlines. While the birth of this newborn child would mean that the limited supply of foodstuffs a family possessed would have to be rationed more carefully, this child was as an investment in their own futures. As the child grew to about the age of eight, he or she could start becoming an active component of the household chores and create a little more stability for the family. Children were viewed as inexpensive units of work, and were exploited as such. However, as the children of the pre-industrial age issued forth progeny of their own, their kin became subject to a new environment. It was the age of the machine and work would never be the same again.
In the rural landscapes of the eighteenth century there was plenty of work available to a young boy as soon as he was able to lift an axe or carry a basket. A farm required many hands to operate at full capacity and produce enough food for the family to live off. If a child survived to the age where he could work, his hands were added to the process. If they were not farmers, the child would often follow his father to work to assist with the process and hopefully earn a bit more money doing small tasks or light labour. In addition, the process of putting-out allowed the dexterous hands of young girls to assist their mothers in sewing, weaving or other like activities. This meant that a project could be completed faster, and more projects could be taken on in any given year.
However towards the end of that century, as industries began to flock around the cities and companies replaced individual craftsmen, the simple life of a farmer began to fade. Masses of people began to migrate to the cities in hopes of finding wealth and prosperity. When they arrived and settled into the life of a factory or mill worker, earning income was no longer a ?family’ affair. This is to say that families no longer worked together in close proximity and were often forced to work in entirely different places. The pre-industrial model of a family as a single working unit fell away to be replaced with individuals who stood alone.
At the start of the nineteenth century child labour was looked upon no differently than in the past. Children had always been made to work for their parents from a young age, so factories followed the same trend. At reduced wages children were hired to perform work that either required those of smaller stature or work that was more time intensive than anything else; the heavy labour was still primarily the responsibility of the men. Their work schedules often consisted of long days without break, sometimes in excess of fourteen hours, six or seven days a week. The case of William Cooper, published in a report on the use of child labour in factories, provides a typical description of what life in a factory was like for a child.1
Starting work in a flax mill at the age of ten, William was subjected to labour from five in the morning to nine at night. Every morning he would get up at four and travel two and a half kilometers, on foot, to get to work. He had no time allotted for breakfast so he often ate as he worked, and at times, his lunch breaks had to be given up to clean the. The mill he worked in was also very dusty and in addition to creating respiratory problems, the dust would often spoil what little food he was able to take with him to work. If he fell behind in his work he was motivated to work harder by the sharp sting of a strap, as were most of the other children his age. Due to his long and arduous work schedule, William had no time for formal education and was too tired to attend Sunday school classes at a local church.
Later on, at age twenty-eight William had still not learned the intricacies of handwriting and could read at only a rudimentary level. His growth had been stunted, and chronic health problems resulting from his labours as a child have kept him form leading a happy life as an adult. In the end, when asked if he had the choice to choose his work pattern William stated: “I would rather have short hours and moderate wages, than great wages and long hours.”2
William was by no means alone in his struggles as a child and the hundreds if not thousands of case studies published in the British Parliamentary Papers are proof of these stories. The situation eventually reached the point where deplorable conditions forced the British government to step in and place restrictions on the hours and types of labour children could be subjected to. Starting in 1802 with The Factory Health and Morals Act, several hundred documents, each one more specific than the last, were produced in succession. Most of these documents dealt with the general operations and safety of the plant, but they became increasingly attentive to the problems of child labour.
For example, an entire act was created to protect a class of children known as climbing boys. These children were employed by a chimney sweep to climb up the flue of the fireplace and clean out the soot with their bodies. It was often the case that children got caught in the pipe while working and were killed when their masters lit fires in the hearth below to try to speed the work up. The Act for the Regulation of Chimney Sweeps and Chimneys of 1834 attempted to outlaw this practice and suggest alternate designs for chimneys so that they could be maintained in more humane ways. However, this act was not followed in all parts of the country, and the enforcement of this law was lax.
To emphasize the callous treatment of children, the 1863 report on child labour from the commissioners of British Parliament reported “that all the evils which it was the object of the Legislature to suppress, were re-appearing in their worst form.”3 Despite men like Mr. Peter Hall who brought about convictions in over 400 cases of child abuse in the workplace, society remained unresponsive to the issue. It was estimated that several thousand children were still employed in this practice by the time this commission was published, and that they would continue to be employed in such a fashion for some time ahead.4
Aside from the issue of climbing boys, some attempts to lessen the hardships of children were actually beginning to succeed. Mr. Baker’s report on the paper-staining industry indicated that the Factory Act of 1833, which prevented young persons from working more than twelve hours a day and allowed for two hours of meals, was successful in aiding the workers. Also, the section of the act limiting children under the age of thirteen to half-shifts or alternating work days was also taking root. To further reinforce this, it was stated in the Commission that many companies had just given up hiring those under the age of thirteen to avoid the complications associated with their contracts.5
Furthermore, although the section of the 1863 report dealing with the pottery industry reported that “an improvement in the education of the children engaged in the potteries is much needed,”6 it did show that the importance of literacy was increasing in society at a rapid pace. It seems the masses were beginning to realize that the benefits of having an intellectual and moral base within the youth of their society, outweighed the cheap labour the children could provide.
Finally, the attention paid to the health of factory workers, children in particular, was becoming more apparent. The chemicals and processing of Lucifer Match Manufacture, for example, was thought to have been cause of an ailment that resulted in facial paralysis and the decay of the teeth and jawbone.7 While it took three commission reports to finally divert enough attention to the problem in order for the matter to be corrected, the work and research that was put into these cases provides evidence that society was trying to improve.
The industrial revolution started off as an imperfect practice inside a great dream. Starting off as a common practice, the child labour issue became an inspiration for the humanitarian efforts to improve the quality of life for all citizens. The inquisitions into child labour spurred important research into the health field and forced companies to deal with the issue of long term effects. In the end, the subjection of children to laborious tasks had been eliminated from civilized society, as well as many of the evil that necessitated it in the first place.
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