Children in the Industrial Revolution to Today

Literature gives us some examples of the cruel way children were exploited during the Industrial Revolution. Several of Charles Dickens novels give vivid descriptions of the schools and the workhouse, and Charles Kingsley's " Water Babies" gives some idea of the miserableChild sweep. life of the young boys who worked as chimney sweeps.

Historical works tell us of the philanthropic provision of schools for teaching spinning and weaving and dwell on the system of reward for diligence and good behaviour such as two shillings for paying the Hearth Money tax or "a portion of bread to be distributed every Sunday after Divine Service."

How insulting and hypocritical the smug middle classes became and what's more, they were to prosper further at the expense of child labour.

The Industrial Revolution took time to take effect in Scotland and it was from the mid 18th century that families began moving from their rural homes and settle in what were to become the major engineering, chemical and shipbuilding towns along the River Clyde. Be in no doubt of the magnitude of the change taking place as by the end of the nineteenth century the central belt of Scotland was the most heavily industrialised area on earth.

The mill children

The development of power looms saw more jobs become available that were suitable for women and children. This was a great change as the children moved from a home working environment where there was some relaxation to the less personal and supervised factory conditions. Some manufacturers believed there were advantages in employing young, small children to clear fluff from under the looms, and that they should be under 12 years of age if they were to be trained for future work in the mill.

Better Late than Never.

Health and Morals of Apprentices Act 1802
restricted work hours of pauper children to 12 hours a day.

Factory Act 1819
employment children under 9 years prohibited
hours of work for under 16 yrs limited to 12 hours a day.

Factory Act 1833
government inspectors appointed to enforce the law.

Mines Act 1842
prohibited employment of women and young children below ground

Education Act 1872
compulsory school attendance for children between the ages of 5 and 13.

Amongst the better arrangements to come out of the new mechanical age was the New Lanark mills of David Dale who built a barracks capable of housing 500 orphaned children. These were a model of cleanliness , with the children clothed and educated whilst also working in the mills during a 13 hour day. Clearly not wholely philanthropic in its initial provision, it was Dale's son in law, Robert Owen, who took things further. Under Owen no children worked under the age of ten but went to day school, those over ten having an evening school for an hour and a half. Owen`s regime was strict and sought to change not only working conditions but also the home life and attitudes of the workers. Homes were visited and inspected by supervisors who would make unannounced visits to see the home, check its cleanliness, hygene, and the workers conduct away from the mill. Whatever we might think about such  encouraged the employees to help to improve themselves, gave them pride in their work and themselves.

Elsewhere the long hours and demand of the overseers to keep up with the "rhythm of the machines" often led to terrible accidents withTime for work fingers crushed or amputated, limbs caught in unguarded machinery or the child dragged by their ragged clothing into the machines. Chest illnesses such as pneumonia and bronchitis were prevalent and made worse in the wet spinning flax factories where barefooted girls from ten to fourteen years of age worked, soaked to the skin, on wet stone floors. Tuberculosis was rife especially in the dry and dusty conditions to be found in cotton spinning, such that boys employed there were noticeably thinner and paler then elsewhere.

Mining community

There were two main coal fields, those of the West of Scotland in Ayrshire and Lanarkshire; and the coal fields of Fife in the East. They were major sources of work and became increasingly important with the mining of iron ore and development of the iron, engineering and ship building industries.

How sad the coal miner who said:

"Children were and are property, for they are taken down as soon as they can carry coal ".

The fate of the children in the mining communities is a harsh story compounded by the system of serfdom that existed and which meant that a son followed his father under ground. There existed a system of "arles" - the accepting of a present in exchange for an oath to serve; some children were caught up in it as early as their christening when a parent accepted a present; or by parents signing documents committing them to serve when old enough.

In the West of Scotland mines only boys from about 8 years of age went underground for a 11-13 hour day. In the East girls and boys of six or seven years of age went underground for a 14 hour day. Women and children began to be exempted from working underground from about 1800 but not so in the East where the practice continued until the 1840's.

The boys would be required to haul a small truck, tied to their waist, with 2 - 5 cwts of coal (224 - 560lbs or 100 - 250 kg), through a passage only 16 - 20 inches high. The lucky ones might get a job opening and closing the traps for the face workers and coal movers to pass from one part of a shaft to another. The older boys would be allowed to join the men as face workers when thought to be competent to do so - this meant more money.

The women and young girls would carry heavy loads (up to about a hundredweight and a half (168lbs or 76 kilos) ) from the coal face to pit head for up to 13 hours a day. One six year old girl is reported as carrying half a hundredweigh (56lbs- 25kg) per load; another who could carry two hundredweight (224 lbs - 100 kg) at age fifteen. Is it any wonder that they suffered crippling injuries and physical deformity from labouring underground as they too, suffered the "black spit" - silicosis, that made the face worker or hewer an invalid by the age of 40. The whole family working in the mine had its effect on the home which was of squalor - a family of parents and seven children living in a single room ten feet by fourteen feet, furnished with two ramshackle beds and tattered covers was said to be typical.


The 1861 Census showed
34 % of all Scottish houses had 1 room
37 % had 2 rooms
50 % of the population of the industrial towns lived in 1 or 2 rooms
(compared to 7 % in England)

The slum children

The slums arose often in previously "genteel" districts", crowded ghettos with whole families in a single, damp and unventilated room. Access to the home was through alleys and courtyards which were often no more than a dung yard where it was said, tenants "hoarded their own dung to help pay the rent".

In the home clothing was often shared to allow some of the family to go outside, while others stayed in their ragged communal bed. These same crowded rooms would also be home to lodgers despite there being no privacy for family members.

The rapid growths of the slums and return of disease saw an inevitable rise in child deaths and the return of chidren's complaints such as rickets. The conditions were ripe for bronchitis and pneumonia, measles, diptheria and other highly contagious infections such as measles.

The first three years of life were the vital years for a child who if surviving by then stood a reasonable chance of reaching maturity. Some estimates suggest that about half of the children born in any year would die before they reached 10 years old. And the long working hours had another unexpected effect: two thirds of the poor had no direct connection with a church and its moralising influence.

Infant Mortality

The comparative death rate for children under one year old in Scotland
1855-59 118 per 1000 of live births
1895 -99 130 per 1000
1900-04 122 per 1000
1998 5.5 per 1000

Child deaths did not fall very rapidly during the Victorian era until there was positive action about the slums in the years after the the report by Edwin Chadwick in 1842 on the sanitary conditions among the labouring class. Even so the tenement slums of the Gorbals area of Glasgow in the early 20th century took over fifty years to clear and rehouse the population.

Charity workers

Scotland was for a long time ahead of England and the near continent in giving care to children through the influence of the kirk but slipped behind as the kirk's influence wained in the very areas where help was needed the most in the slums.

The nineteenth century saw such as Thomas Guthrie (1803 - 1873), minister at Greyfriars in Edinburgh who was a leading figure in his day in the Temperance movement and who was responsible for setting up schools for the vagrant children - "street arabs" he called them (a description that was later used by the famous Dr. Barnardo, who shipped hundreds of thousands of "Home Children" to the colonies). Another Scot who did good works was William Quarrier who in 1829 set up orphanages for homeless children in the village of Bridge of Weir.

In England, where the problems associated with urban growth and the Industrial Revolution began sooner than in Scotland, non conformist faiths began to set up Sunday schools under the influence of Robert Raikes in 1780, and purpose built orphanages shortly followed. As early as 1743 John Wesley had founded his Orphans House in Newcastle; a free dispensary for the sick poor in 1746 and a charity school in London in 1747.

George Muller of the Plymouth Brethren set up an orphanage in Bristol in 1832; C. H. Spurgeon, a Baptist minister did so at Stockwell, London in 1867; Dr T. B. Stephenson in 1871 at Lambeth (London) which became the National Children's Home; and Dr Thomas Barnado his home in 1870.

In 1881 Edward Rudolf founded the Church of England Incorporated Society for Providing Homes for Waifs and Strays (it became The Childrens Society in 1946) and was among the first to coordinate help for the disabled or "crippled" who were particularly discriminated against.

The charitable societies, led by the Rev Benjamin Waugh, combined their interests in the formation of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) in 1888 and campaigned hard for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act of 1891. Legislation was finally enacted at the turn of the century to enable the the police to act in cases of ill treatment or if a child was in danger.

So began the 20th century possessed of the necessary tools to do something meaningful and quickly where a child was found to be in need of care. It had taken the best part of 500 hundred years to curtail cruelty to children in the work place.

Despite these advances, as of 31 March 1999 there were about 11,200 children "in care" in Scotland - 1 per cent of all children under 18 years of age. Sadly, even as we turn the next corner into the 21st century, we still read of cases of terrible cruelty to the innocents and now the social problems brought about by drugs and alcohol. - how many children will , as one Scottish seven year old did, take a cache of heroin to school to give to his teacher "because it is killing my mummy ".

It is still the determined efforts of the charity workers that brings attention to the needs of children. How many more cycles of oppression, cruelty and abuse do the children have to endure without our learning from the agonies of the past. ? Will cruelty in the home also take 500 years to abolish? I hope not.

Next: The Dustbin Kids.

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