Child Labor in the Victorian Period

Child labor during the Victorian era was as normal as children going to school in the current world. The issue of child labor was not hidden from either the parents or the authorities. In fact, both parties had all the reason to justify it. The children on the other hand took it as a normal responsibility that they had to perform in order to provide for their basic needs. Despite the tough conditions and the odd hours that the children had to work in, they had nobody to advocate for their rights. Among the reasons that sent these children to work was poverty because families in the Victorian period were so large that the parents could not manage to take care of them. They needed the support of their children to provide their family with basic needs. Children were also preferred by the employees because; they were easy to manage and did not demand much in terms of salaries. Parents also viewed that children’s early engagement into labor would make them responsible when they grow up. Such attitudes that were planted in children made them accept and appreciate labor as their daily activity. (Adams, 2004)

Children as young as six years were exposed to such harsh circumstances by their adult employees and made to work as long as sixteen hours a day. They were not given a chance to choose the kinds of jobs they are comfortable to handle and they are expected to work as per the conditions of the employer. They were employed in manufacturing industries where they were expected to handle machineries most of which used electricity.

There were many reasons that led to child labor and although some were voluntary, in most cases the children were found in positions where they could not help but join child labor. Some of them after losing their parents through death were taken by some organizations that would accommodate them and give them food. In the process, they were to work in order to boost their upkeep at the orphanage. Such children did not expect to receive remunerations from their employees because; their money was instead handed to their care takers. Others would be sold on contract by their guardians to far places for a certain agreed period of time. They were given accommodation and food but the money was handed to their guardians. Some who come from nearby villages were allowed to work and go back to their homes on a daily basis. (Adams, 2004)

The machines that were used in these early industries were small in size, which made them convenient to be used by the children. Children were trained on how to use them and even took responsibilities of maintaining and repairing them incase they encountered mechanical problems. The jobs that were considered easier for children in the Victorian age included trading in the stone industries. They were trained to be blacksmiths, tinsmith, cobblers, lace making and leather working. By involving in such kinds of trade, they were encouraged that by the time they grew up they would secure themselves a better career. (Cooksey, 2004)

(Arlene, 1993 p15), “Children who were considered lucky enough were employed to do household chores like washing clothes, cleaning utensils, gardening, cooking and baby sitting”. Such tasks were considered easier in the Victorian period and were mostly left to the young children of less than eight years. The employees trusted such children to work in their homes considering their innocence. They feared that, the older ones would steal from them. They were also manageable and would perform any task that was given to them. Despite the efforts of this children to work hard, they were bitten and harassed and generally treated as prisoners as well as being given heavy loads to carry.

Some children were put to work in very dangerous conditions that were risky considering their young innocent minds. Some of these industries included; glass factories, textile mills, coal mines, cotton mills and ship yards and to clean in chimneys. Despite the risks that were involved in these jobs they worked without any protective masks. What probably made the situation even more risky is that, they were at times left to work without adult supervision. They were assumed to be compliant enough to handle the machineries that they used. They were also not given any medical attention considering the kind of risks that they were exposed to. (Catherine, 2001)

Young girls on the other hand were lured into prostitution especially by the higher class people. They would take advantage of their poor situation and little experience to convince them. In one of charles dickens book, the girls were told that they would be transformed into ladies if they followed their suitor. They were then transpoted to the big towns in London where they were used sexually and later on returned when the suitors felt that they have heard enough of them. Some who were working in farms and industries were sexually abused by their employers and even their older colleagues. Such children were threatened incase they reported the matter to anyone. However, even if they got the chances to report, little action would be taken to help them out of their state. They were expected to go to the same places and work with the same people that would continuously abuse them. Child pregnancies were therefore common during the Victorian age and this made child labor expand as a result of the increased number of children born of poor families.

Research has shown that, this exposure also led to early marriages among the children. Due to the responsibilities that they were to take at an early age, they usually felt mature enough to take up roles of husband and wife. The girls were the most endangered as they were at times forced to be married to men that were much older. The parents would release these girls because; they could no longer afford to take care of their needs. They also exchanged them for money to men who were seemingly richer so that they could take care of the rest of the family members. In their situations, they were not given maternity leaves and would therefore start experiencing labor pains while in their work places. Their young babies were also exposed to hardships as they had to be baby sited at the work places. (Cooksey, 2004)

Due to all these problems that the children were exposed to, it was common to see children fall sick in their work places and some would even sustain serious injuries. Those that cleaned the chimneys would at times suffocate due to the intense dust, they were also at a greater risk of falling and fracturing their hands and legs and were also exposed to respiratory infections. Those working in mines were at risk of being buried alive if the ditches caved in and also explosions. They were to pull cats at times along steep slopes which was risky to them incase they lost balance. The carts would run over them injuring them badly. The textile miles were not well ventilated as they were crowded. The children were hence at risk of being infected with diseases such as black lung and fossy jaw. Most of the factories dint also have a definite source of light and they relied on candles which would lead to an outbreak of fire. Their inexperience in machines also exposed them to the dangers of being crushed and mangled by them. Incase of such problems, the employers would send them back to their parents who in most cases could not manage to cater for their medical bills and would therefore live them to die. However, life would continue with the ruthless employers still seeking for other children to replace those that either died or sustained injuries.

Another serious challenge that these children faced that risked their health was diet. They were to depend on the meager food that was provided for them by their employers which was not balanced. Their breakfast was mainly porridge and lunch was not always provided. They were not served with the necessary nutrients that they needed for their proper growth. Most of them were hence emaciated and prone to various kinds of diseases. They were never allowed time to play, which is essential for the growth of a child and they were expected to work all through. Infact, the only time that they interacted was during meals and when they were sleeping. (Greenleaf, 1978)

Despite all this challenges, there were some caring individuals who could not wait to see the trauma that these innocent lives were exposed to. They hence started campaigning for their rights and lift the burdens that were placed upon them. Charles dickens was a spokesman who through his writing and speech, campaigned against child labor, Karl Marx helped to incite the public opinion against child labour and Michael Sadler worked towards the stimulation of the ten hour movement.

What may have inspired some of the individual to fight against this menace was because of the fact that, they had gone through the same ordeal and knew the pain that these children quietly went through and they are not allowed to complain about anything. They were also required to work to perfection and any mistake that would be made by them would subject them to whippings, bear the losses by not being paid or yet still loose their jobs of which they were not ready for. (Herbert, 1999)

There were also some group organizations that campaigned against child labor. The role of these organizations was to gather information from individuals and together with the law; they would implant the ideas to set the children free. The organization included; the children’s aid societies, the national child labor committee and some short time committees.

In 1818, a factory act was innacted in which children were not allowed to work at night and to work for not more than twelve hours a day. This law however did not as much bring the needed change until another act was passed in 1833. This act did not allow the factories to employ children under the age of nine years and also minimized the working hours of children under the age of eighteen. With such movements in the Victoria age, child labour was minimized and those who had to work were allowed to work in better conditions. Factory acts were established in which they clearly stated the guidelines that had to be followed in employing people especially the children. The minimum age that was required for the children to work in the factories was stated and any company that violated the same was liable to face the law. The ten hour movement was aimed at limiting the amount of hours that the children worked to ten hours a day and fifty eight hours on weekly basis. (Judith, 2003)

The children’s employment commission was accompanied by the coal mines act. This act prohibited the employers on the mine sites from hiring children who are under the age of ten years or any woman. This was because of the dangers that the children who were still tender went through and the exploitation that women went through on the site. Other efforts were also made to prohibit the sale of any products that were made by the children. In 1938, the fair labor standards act was enacted. The purpose of this act was to improve the amount of wages for children and allowed only those above the age of eighteen to work in as full time employees. The rest of the children between the ages of fourteen and fifteen were allowed to work only after school hours. The conditions through which these children were put to work were also revised.

All this efforts moved at a slightly slower pace, but they consequently helped to minimize the pain of child labor. Many other movements were also formed after the above ones. With the use of video clips, photographs and testimonies for those that had experienced the pain, the campaign received a lot of support from both the parents and the international community. This is the main move that encouraged the community to strongly condemn it. (Mingay, 2000)

Despite the efforts that were employed to stop this torture to the children, child labor has remained to be an issue that has not been completely eradicated. Studies and reports still reveal that, there are children who are still working for long hours and in dangerous conditions. Some children could also not stop doing what they were used to doing because; they had gotten much used to the conditions that terminating them to go back to school was not easy. Their minds were tuned to working and diverting them to books was not something easy for these little ones. They were also not ready to invest in a duty of going to school that brought them nothing due to the fact that, with labour they were assured of some wages at the end of the day.

According to (Shuter, 2001), what may have sent them to this lifestyle was because of the high expenses of education they had to pay in terms of fees. Their parents who were expected to sponsor them were either too poor to afford it or they did not see the need of their children to go to school. Most of them had gone through child labor and thought that their children would manage it, just as they did. The children who would be bored sitting at home went back to their former employers to seek re-employment.

With all the difficulties that the children encountered when they are still young, they could develop certain complications as they grew. Their young muscles were stretched which affected their later growth. Due to the hard labor, back problems were common to them in their younger ages. Some who had to work overnight or in the early mornings were exposed to sicknesses such as pneumonia and asthma. With the limited medical resources, most of them were left to die. (Judith, 2003)

Efforts were continuously made in the Victorian period to ensure that child labor was completely stamped out. Some of the efforts that were employed were to make the public aware of the risks that the children were exposed to if they continue involving in the same. Photographs and video clips were also taken and displayed in the media for the parents who took their children to work, to have a clear picture of what exactly their children went through. Efforts were also made to ensure that children went to school. Education was made affordable and the very poor parents were helped by some organizations to cater for the education expenses. While in these schools they were educated on their rights as children and enlightened on the dangers of child labor. This was done with the aim of encouraging hem to stay in school and discouraging them to go back to labor.

However, these efforts were not easy as they involved the cooperation of the parents. The parents, who were the main people that influenced their children into labor, could not easily release their children who were playing a major role in providing for the needs of the family. Most of them who were not educated looked at education as a liability rather than an asset. It therefore had to take a lot of persuasion and convincing for the parents to finally release them to schools. (Shuter, 2001)

Despite all these, child labor is highly condemned by the society. The rights of children are highly protected by the current laws and any body that may be found violating them will have to face the consequences. Unlike the Victorian period where the children had few organizations to advocate for them, there numerous governmental and non governmental groups that is at the fore front to ensure that no child is abused.

Parents on the other hand have become so strict with their children that, they have become more concerned about their children’s well being rather than making money. It has become common to see the poor parents striving hard to ensure that their children get education. The government has also been on the fore front to ensure that, no child misses out on the basic education due to family hardships. This might have been achieved due to the efforts that may continuously be employed since the Victorian period. (Shuter, 2001)

As much as the society has succeeded in minimizing child labor, more efforts need to be employed to eradicate the pressure that is psychologically placed on the children. Although these children are not working in industries and firms, the kind of pressure they are exposed to may amount to the similar ones that the children in the Victorian period went through. These efforts should however not be left in the hand of children activists. Parents need to take responsibility for their children’s lives by ensuring the environment around them is favorable. (Mitchell, 1996)


Adams J. Encyclopedia of the Victorian Era: Grolier Academic Reference, 2004 pp34-37

Arlene S. Embattled Paradise: Basic Books, 1993 pp14-16

Catherine R. Men in wonderland: Princeton University Press, 2001 pp27-29

Cooksey K. History in Action: Folens Limited, 2004 pp43-45

Greenleaf B. Children through the Ages: McGraw-Hill, 1978 pp87-89

Herbert F. A companion to Victorian literature & culture: Wiley-Blackwell, 1999 pp31-35

Judith S. The failed century of the child: Cambridge University, 2003 pp19-21

Mingay G. Victorian Countryside: Routledge, 2000 pp18-22

Mitchell S. Daily life in Victorian England: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996 pp38-41

Shuter J. Victorian Britain: Heinemann, 2001 pp14-17

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