Life in 19th Century England.

Child Labour in Textile Factory
A girl pulls a tub of coal (1842). She is wearing a harness around her waist, to pull the heavy tub. The tunnel roof is supported by wooden 'pit-props'.
Impoverished: Children who worked were subject to appalling conditions. Many who worked died before they reached 25
The match girls worked from 6.30am (or 8am in winter) until 6pm, with just two breaks, standing all the time. "A typical case", wrote Besant, "is that of a girl of 16, a piece worker; she earns 4s a week, and lives with a sister, employed by the same firm, who 'earns good money, as much as 8s or 9s per week'. Out of the earnings 2s is paid for the rent of one room; the child lives on only bread-and-butter and tea, alike for breakfast and dinner".
A woman 'sells' her son to a chimney-sweep. He will work as a 'climbing-boy' cleaning chimneys.
Children queuing for Salvation Army's farthing breakfast
Life in the 19th century was hard for those who had the misfortune to live through it. Families tended to be much larger than these times, people having ten children or more. However, it was an accepted part of life, that some would die in their early years, from childhood diseases.
Poverty-stricken: Victorian families like this one in the late 19th century had to endure low life expectancy rates caused by squalor, disease and starvation
In the 19th century people moved in vast numbers from the farm to the factory. For the first time in British history there were more people living in an urban rather than a rural environment. For the working classes, 'surviving' would be a more realistic word than 'living'. The conditions in the slums of our major cities were appalling. Animals were treated better than people. The Church was unprepared for this major change in society. When the Archbishop of Canterbury Charles T Longley remarked to Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli that the Church had lost the towns, Disraeli replied: 'Your Grace is mistaken. The Church never had the towns.' Here was a fast growing mission field that the Church was not ready and not fit to address.

Child labour.

The 19th century became notorious for the employment of young children in factories and coal mines as well as becoming chimney sweeps. Child Labour was often brought about by poverty and economic hardships for the families living in this country.
It is true to say that we, as a nation, are appalled by the way these children were treated as well as their being made to work in hardships we can never understand.
Families were large and needed a lot of money to sustain them, there were no government ‘handouts’ as there are now. There was a huge gap between those who ‘had it’ and those who didn’t. The children, once of a ‘workable age’, were sent out and although the payment was very small it all helped to sustain the family.
However, the child labour did play a very important part in the Industrial Revolution from its outset.
However, the child labour did play a very important part in the Industrial Revolution from its outset.
Charles Dickens, for example, worked at the age of 12 years in a blacking factory with his family in a debtor’s prison.
In 1840 only about 20% of the total children in London had any schooling. By about 1860 that number had risen to around 50% of children between the ages of 5 and 15 were attending school on a regular basis, that is including Sunday school.
However, the children of the really poor were expected to help towards the family’s budget, often working long hours in dangerous conditions, in dangerous jobs and being rewarded with very low pay.

Child employment

The more agile young boys were employed as chimney sweeps, the smaller children were employed to scramble under machinery in the factories in order to retrieve cotton bobbins; while other children were employed to work down the coal mines and crawling through narrow tunnels which in general terms were too small for the adults to get through. A dangerous and horrible job, many mines having water inside and the children often worked in wet conditions.
There were plenty of other young children working a variety of other jobs. These included shoe blacks, match sellers, standing on street corners in all weathers. Then there were children employed as flower- sellers, while others sold cheap goods from barrows. Some of the children though managed to get jobs as apprentices in such trades as building and as domestic servants. (In the mid 19th Century there were an estimated 120,000 domestic servants in London alone.)
The working hours were long and people working in the building trade often worked 64 hours a week during the summer months and around 52 hours a week during the winter ones. The domestic servants would work long hours, somewhere around 80 hours a week; that was all the year round.

Young girls

There were other young people, girls in particular, ‘working’ as prostitutes. They could go out and work as many hours as they liked. Walking the streets could be a very dangerous occupation. It was in Whitechapel that ‘Jack the Ripper’ roamed during the 19th century and murdered a number of prostitutes. The majority of these women working as prostitutes were aged between 15 and 22 years old. The mothers of these women and girls didn’t dissuade them from this work as it brought in more money than those women working in respectable employment. These girls did earn good money, all the time they were young with good looks.
There was always great concern about the children working down the coal mines and so, in 1842, information was gathered about the working conditions through the ‘Ashley’s Mines Commission.’ They invited people who worked in such occupations to give evidence before the Commission.
One 12 year old girl, Isabella Read did just that. She was an outspoken young girl but very honest in her language… She sat in the chair and picked her words carefully, thinking before she uttered a sound. She stated that her mother bides at home; she is troubled with bad breath and is ‘Sair weak’ in her body from early labour. I am ‘wrought’ with my sister and brother, it is very sore work. I cannot say how many ‘Yakes’ or journeys I make from pit bottom to the wall face and back again. I think it is about 30 or possibly 25 on the average; the distance varies from 100 to 250 fathoms. I carry about 1cwt. and a quarter on my back and I have to stoop much and slowly creep through the water. The water is frequently up to my calves of my legs.
Patience Kershaw, 17 years old ‘coal bearer,’ stated that, ‘My father has been dead for about a year, my mother is living and has ten children, five lads and five lasses; the eldest is 30 years of age, while the youngest is four years old. Three lasses got o the Mill; all the lads are colliers, two ‘Getters’ and three ‘Hurriers.’ One lives at home and does nothing; mother does naught but just looks after the house. All my sisters have been ‘Hurriers’, but three went to the mill. Alice went because her legs swell up from ‘Hurrying’ in cold water when she got hot.
I never went to day-school; I go to Sunday school but I cannot read or write.
I go to the pit at five o’clock in the morning and come out at five in the evening; I get my breakfast of porridge and milk first; I take my dinner with me; which is a cake and I eat it as I go. I do not stop or rest any time for the purpose; I get nothing else until I get home. I then have potatoes and meat, but not every day do I get some meat. I hurry in the clothes I have now got on, trousers and ragged jacket;
The bald place on my head is made by thrusting the corves; my legs have never swelled up, but my sister’s did when they went to the Mill; I hurry the corves a mile or more under ground and back. They weigh 300cwt. One Hurry – 11 a day; I wear a belt and chain at the workings, to get the corves out.
These testimonies were gathered by ‘Ashley’s Mines Commission’ in 1842. 
In the Victorian era a large number of families lived in abject poverty. There was no welfare state to fall back on should parents be incapable of working through disability, injury or chronic disease. In these circumstances, aside from other family members helping out, the only way children could be maintained was by benevolent societies/charities

Mortality Rates

The mortality rates in England changed greatly through the 19th century. There were no catastrophic epidemic or famine in England or Scotland in the 19th Century – it was the first century in which a major epidemic did not occur throughout the whole country, with deaths per 1,000 of population per year in England and Wales dropping from 21.9 from 1848-54 to 17 in 1901 (This contrasts well with 5.4 in 1971)
Class had a significant effect on mortality rates as the upper classes had a lower rate of premature death early in the 19th century than the poorer classes did.
Sewerage works were improved considerably as was the drinking water. It all became a much healthier place in which to live and as a result diseases were caught less easily and therefore did not spread quite so easily. It is also true to say that technology was improving because the population had a little more money to spend on the medical technology. This also led to a greater number of cures for diseases.
However, in 1848/9 a cholera epidemic in London took place and it killed around 14,000 people. And then about four years later another cholera epidemic occurred and killed another 10,000 people.
This anomaly was attributed to the closure and replacement of some cess-pits by the modern London Sewerage system.
Researched and written by David Rowland.
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Comments about this page

  • Your first picture on page belongs to Lewis Hine, an American photographer and depicts child labor in American cotton mills, not England.

    By Lewis Hine (17/12/2018)

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