Children as industrial workers

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There are a number of unfortunate misconceptions about children that creep into the issue of children in history. There seems to be a tendency to judge the past by modern standards. 
It is important to let the past speak for itself. Before we move on, a couple of points to bear in mind:
  • Between the 1600s and 1800s (the seventeenth and nineteenth  centuries), the years of the Industrial Revolution a new baby in the family was practically an annual event in many families.
  • Children spent far more time with their parents and grandparents and their extended families. This was particularly true in areas where outmigration was a rare occurrence.
  • Children were a much larger proportion of the population in earlier centuries than they are today.
  • A school was an extremely rare thing, children would be expected to go to a place of work.
Although there are numerous other points, the above have some important implications. It was commonplace for children to spend time with their parents. In an agricultural community this can be seen to be an obvious idea. Agricultural tasks were usually shared across the family and the community. In the absence of schools it would be unlikely that children would ever gather in a group larger than their family unit (with the exception of church on Sunday).

In areas such as South Wales which saw a gradual transformation from agricultural activities to industrial work, the presence of children around adults merely continued into industry. Early industries such as the iron industry were a combination of skilled industrial processes and a variety of unskilled tasks such as the preparation and transport of charcoal, a time consuming labour intensive business.

A greater concentration of people occurred with the development of the factory as a place of work. This is mainly a story of the textile industries of the North of England in the 1760s. Locally, the typical industries around Swansea in the seventeenth century would have been some charcoal production, leather and tanning, ship building, iron making, fishing and salt manufacture. All these industries would be seasonal and fit in around the demands of the agricultural calendar and the time of year. They would all have had children working in them side by side with adults in an unremarkable way.

The problem of children working in industry appears as the scale of industrial activity increases. A small iron furnace in the early 1700s may have only employed twenty to thirty people for part of the year and the children would be part of the family group that was generally involved in the concern or from the local farms. By the 1790s the iron industry was much larger and needed much more division and organisation of the labour into skilled and unskilled tasks. An early nineteenth century blast furnace site for making iron could be as many as twelve furnaces employing almost a thousand people of all ages. It was at this point that children were often regarded as a distinct labour force and assigned distinct tasks. In the metal working areas, the jobs were often heavy lifting and carrying of charcoal, iron ore, limestone, and timber. Areas of coal working found particular uses for children who could be given repetitive tasks and be very cheap labour. As a producer of both coal and iron, South Wales became a considerable employer of children on an industrial scale by 1800.

Children were also heavily exploited in the textile industries of the North of England where their identification as a distinct labour force had a very long history. A child's quick and nimble fingers were ideal for maintaining the machines of the cotton mills and their small size meant that they could run in between the masses of moving looms and shuttles where adults could not go. Although not part of our story, the exploitation and misery of those unfortunate children forms a dreadful chapter in Britain's industrial history and it was the tales of horror that came out of the cotton mills that prompted people to look closely at the issue of child employment in the 1840s.

Below: Tip girls from the Dowlais Iron works in the 1840s. Usually between the ages of 10 to 16, girls would help clear the drams of burning cinders (waste from the blast furnaces).



The View for Sunday 4 December 2000

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