Child "hurriers" working in mines. From official report of the parliamentary commision.

That the shameful practice of child labor should have played an important role in the Industrial Revolution from its outset is not to be wondered at. The displaced working classes, from the seventeenth century on, took it for granted that a family would not be able to support itself if the children were not employed. In Defoe's day he thought it admirable that in the vicinity of Halifax scarcely anybody above the age of 4 was idle. The children of the poor were forced by economic conditions to work, as Dickens, with his family in debtor's prison, worked at age 12 in the Blacking Factory. In 1840 perhaps only twenty percent of the children of London had any schooling, a number which had risen by 1860, when perhaps half of the children between 5 and 15 were in some sort of school, if only a day school (of the sort in which Dickens's Pip finds himself in Great Expectations) or a Sunday school; the others were working. Many of the more fortunate found employment as apprentices to respectable trades (in the building trade workers put in 64 hours a week in summer and 52 in winter) or as general servants — there were over 120,000 domestic servants in London alone at mid-century, who worked 80 hour weeks for one halfpence per hour — but many more were not so lucky. Most prostitutes (and there were thousands in London alone) were between 15 and 22 years of age.

Many children worked 16 hour days under atrocious conditions, as their elders did. Ineffective parliamentary acts to regulate the work of workhouse children in factories and cotton mills to 12 hours per day had been passed as early as 1802 and 1819. After radical agitation, notably in 1831, when "Short Time Committees" organized largely by Evangelicals began to demand a ten hour day, a royal commission established by the Whig government recommended in 1833 that children aged 11-18 be permitted to work a maximum of twelve hours per day; children 9-11 were allowed to work 8 hour days; and children under 9 were no longer permitted to work at all (children as young as 3 had been put to work previously). This act applied only to the textile industry, where children were put to work at the age of 5, and not to a host of other industries and occupations. Iron and coal mines (where children, again, both boys and girls, began work at age 5, and generally died before they were 25), gas works, shipyards, construction, match factories, nail factories, and the business of chimney sweeping, for example (which Blake would use as an emblem of the destruction of the innocent), where the exploitation of child labor was more extensive, was to be enforced in all of England by a total of four inspectors. After further radical agitation, another act in 1847 limited both adults and children to ten hours of work daily.

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Last modified 10 December 2008