Child Labour in Victorian Britain

by RupertTaylor

Grinding poverty forced families to send children as young as five off to work in the most appalling conditions imaginable

A lot of tut-tutting goes on today when the horrors of child labour are exposed in the developing world, however it’s not so long ago that the factories of the Industrial Revolution brought in young people, barely more than toddlers, to work in foul environments that often sickened and killed them. For the owners of cotton mills and factories the children came cheap and helped to pad profits.

Exploiting Vulnerable Kids

Vile working conditions and early death

Greg Wright reports in The Yorkshire Post that, “In the early 1800s, many children worked 16-hour days in atrocious conditions alongside their parents.

"Child labour was not confined to mills but also rife in the coal mines (where children began work at the age of five and usually died before they were 25), gas works and shipyards…”

At Anton Rippon continues the narrative by explaining that children were “Regarded as public nuisances to be disposed of as quickly as possible, they were sent out to work as soon as possible by families trying to exist on wages that were below starvation level.”

Small Children Worked as Chimney Sweeps

Being tiny, children could scramble up the chimneys of upper-class Victorian houses

The job of a chimney sweep was to brush off accumulated soot in the chimney. Of course, they wore no protection against the rough brickwork, so their knees and elbows would be sliced and bruised until they developed calluses.


One master chimney sweeper said “I have two boys working for me. After work their arms and legs are bleeding so I rub them with salt-water before sending them up another chimney.”

Occasionally, the boys would get stuck in the narrow passages of a chimney. The boss’s solution was simple; light a fire to encourage them to wriggle free.


Sometimes, this led to suffocation. One eight-year-old boy said "I never got stuck myself but some of my friends have and were taken out dead.”

The boys who did this were often taken out of workhouses and “apprenticed” to chimney sweeps, who frequently beat them to terrorize them into doing the dangerous work.


Charles Dickens, who drew some of his material from real living conditions in Victorian England, gave an unflattering picture of one such gentleman named Gamfield, to whom Oliver Twist was to be apprenticed. But the boy was saved from this fate by a magistrate who remarked that, “Mr. Gamfield did happen to labour under the slight imputation of having bruised three or four boys to death already.”

Young People in Coal Mines

Other children were sent down into the coal mines at the age when today’s kids are starting kindergarten

Hurriers and fillers were small children who loaded trucks with coal by hand as it was pried from the coal face by older men.


Other children would then drag the trucks of coal along passageways often no more than three feet high.


Trappers were employed to open and close ventilation doors in the passages as the truckloads of coal were hauled to the mine shaft. The trappers worked in total darkness in shifts of between 12 and 18 hours a day.


Payment was a few pennies a week to add to the meagre earnings of families that lived in absolute squalor.


Child workers
Child workers

Campaign to End Child Exploitation

During the second decade of the 19th century campaigns to end the worst abuses began to gather support

After a great deal of pressure from reformers a royal commission was set up to look into the issue of child labour.


In 1832, one of the reformers, Richard Oastler, gave testimony to the commission in which he described the awful conditions of child labour and mentioned an occasion on which he was in the company of a slave master from the West Indies. Oastler said the man compared the system of slavery with that of mill workers in Yorkshire.


He quoted the slave master as saying: “well, I have always thought myself disgraced by being the owner of black slaves, but we never, in the West Indies thought it was possible for any human being to be so cruel as to require a child of nine years old to work 12½ hours a day; and that, you acknowledge, is your regular practice.”


Oastler went on to describe boys and girls of 10 and younger being brutalized for minor transgressions of the harsh rules surrounding their work.


“I know many cases of poor young creatures who have worked in factories, and who have been worn down by the system at the age of 16 and 17, and who, after living all their lives in this slavery, are kept in poor-houses, not by the masters for whom they have worked, as would be the case if they were negro slaves, but by other people who have reaped no advantage from their labour.”

The Children Who Built Victorian Britain

Wretched Home Life

Testimony from children reveals atrocious living conditions

Many of the youngsters the commission heard from were quite stoical about their situations.


One young boy working in a printer’s shop said “The overseers sometimes give us a cut with their sticks when we are not attentive.” However, he added that despite the violence he “would rather stay here than at home.”


That tells us a lot about Victorian living conditions for the poor. Large families were forced to live in overcrowded hovels without heat or sanitation. A commission inspector in Dublin found a family of 14 living in a room that was 12 feet square.


Personal hygiene was next to impossible and the slums in which people lived were infested with vermin. In these conditions, of course, disease was rampant.


So, for many children, the awful circumstances of the workplace were a better option than being at home.

New Laws Improve Working Conditions

Eventually, the campaign to improve the work environment for children got results

 BBC – Primary History lists some of the meagre gains:

  • “1841 Mines Act - No child under the age of 10 to work underground in a coal mine.
  • “1847 Ten Hour Act - No child to work more than 10 hours in a day.
  • “1874 Factory Act - No child under the age of 10 to be employed in a factory.”

Conditions in factories, mills, and mines were still atrocious by today’s standards, but they were something of an improvement.

Updated: 04/17/2014, RupertTaylor
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


frankbeswick on 04/19/2014

Agreed. Too often the parties of the left have done what Blair's labour government did, accept capitalism, but milk it for benefits, rather than making structural changes in ownership, such as establishing worker presence on boards, more co-operatives and so on. When this happens they are letting the capitalists run free to lower wages and diminish workers' rights and conditions. Government offiials, even on parties of the left, have often moved to comfortable jobs in capitalism. Thus the problematic system goes unreformed.

RupertTaylor on 04/18/2014

Frank. Britain is not the only socially unjust country. In Canada we have a right wing government that hews to the neo-liberalism of Thatcher and Reagan. Australia has just gone this route. As a dyed-in-the-wool leftie this pains me.

frankbeswick on 04/18/2014

The poverty in Victorian England was real and extensive, but it was not as bad as the earlier years of the nineteenth century, where poverty was so severe that there was massive social unrest. In the early 1830s people were talking revolution. Social reform was forced on the ruling class by the unsettled state of the cities in the 1830s and 40s and then again in 1867, when the Conservative government bought off the unrest in the towns by giving townsmen the vote.

But I am concerned about the growing poverty nowadays, with many people forced to use foodbanks and many falling into debt just to make ends meet. This is not a socially just country.

AbbyFitz on 04/18/2014

It's so sad how these children were forced to work, but it's equally sad about their destitute families. When one thinks about Victorian England poverty isn't usually what comes to mind first

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