Child Labor during the Victorian Period and Beyond
The 1870 Census of England reported 750,000 children were part of the workforce.
These were only the children under age 15 and working as laborers. There were many
more working on family farms or in family-owned businesses, not accounted for in that
census. Children are perfect targets for exploitation in the workplace because, in
Victorian England as today, less pay means more profits, children do not have the same
choices as adults, and the poor people of the world will do whatever it takes to survive.
The explosion of industry during the Victorian Era helped sustain established
Victorian attitudes about proper behavior and lifestyle which also allowed more
marriages and more children to be born. In Victorian England the lifestyle of a child was determined by the house he was born into. Wealthy parents, and your education, excellent food, and the best in health care were guaranteed. Children born to poor families went to work for industry as young as 3 to 5 years of age. They worked very hard, long hours for very little pay. Poor rural farm families would put their children to work too. They were often times more fortunate than those who worked outside their homes. Victorian Era society was very judgmental towards anyone who did not work hard to make ends meet. While the upper class enjoyed their luxuries, families struggling to eat put their children to work. This was viewed by many as a source of pride, the larger the number of children in a village working in industry, the better. They saw it as an aid to those in dire need of money.
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When business owners found a low-cost workforce by hiring children, their profits increased. This one fact is the main reason child labor was allowed then and is tolerated today. When profits are increased the company looks good on paper, but we must look deeper than that. Businesses were built literally on the backs of young children who worked long hours in horrible conditions so they could help their families simply exist. Children were also powerless and less likely to revolt than adults. The factory system split up families for as much as fourteen hours per day. The time they did have together was spent sleeping or eating. There was no father/mother role for the children to learn from, as they all contributed as much as they could to the household budget.
These children were lucky to have any education at all. In 1840 only twenty percent of the youth population had any schooling at all. Sunday school was actually considered school to many of these children. Those who attended school were exposed to inadequate schoolteachers and buildings. Children often picked work over school due to the fact that work earned them money while school earned them nothing.
Many children worked 16 hour days under atrocious conditions, alongside their elders. Parliament passed ineffective acts to regulate work of workhouse children in factories and cotton mills to 12 hours per day, as early as 1802 and 1819. In 1831, “Short Time Committees,” organized mainly by Evangelicals, began demanding a ten hour day. They fought hard to finally see a royal commission established by the Whig government in 1833, recommend children aged 11 to 18 be permitted to work a maximum of 12 hours per day; children 9 to 11 were allowed to work 8 hours a day; and, children under 9 were no longer permitted to work at all. This act applied only to the textile industry. The iron
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and coal mines, (boys and girls began work at 5 years old and usually died before they reached 25); gas works; shipyards; construction; nail factories; match factories; and, chimney sweeping, would be overseen by a mere 4 inspectors for the entire country of England. Exploitation of children in the workplace was worse in those industries, and finally in 1847, another act limited adults and...