The Horrors of Child Labor in Dickens’ Time
By Christopher Baker
The burgeoning industrialization of Great Britain required a large and cheap workforce. Lenient labor laws made children a prime source of workers, and by 1830, children made up 50% of the workforce. Children with parents began their work between the ages of 9 and 14, while orphans could be put to work as young as four. Children worked excessively long hours at the lowest possible rates, earning as little as one-eighth the salary of their adult counterparts. Since many parents would not allow their young children to work in the new textile factories, orphans and extremely impoverished children were purchased by factory owners and required to sign contracts indebting them until the age of 21. Children were forced to work 12 to 16 hour days, living in overcrowded, filthy buildings on the factory property. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, these “pauper apprentices” made up about a third of the cotton industry.
The youngest children in cotton and textiles factories were used as scavengers and piecers. Scavengers had the extremely dangerous job of picking up the loose cotton from under the machinery while the machines were still working. Piecers were required to lean over the spinning machine to repair threads. Older children were employed to operate and repair heavy machinery and cotton spinning wheels because of their small size and maneuverability. They were often trapped for 12 to 16 hours in cramped rooms with coal fuel machines and little to no ventilation. The children often ate within the dust and debris-infested factories, which increased upper respiratory diseases. Accidents were common; children in textile factories were frequently scalped, maimed, crushed and killed when falling asleep at the machines.
In the coal mines, boys and girls as young as five were put to work in the shafts because of their small bodies. Stripped of most of their clothes and chained to their coal carts, they did dangerous and grueling work underneath the earth. Children also occupied the role of trappers, who sat in a hole holding a string attached to the mine door. When they heard the coal wagons, they were responsible for pulling and holding the heavy doors open. In match factories, children were used to dip matches in phosphorous, which caused their teeth to rot and brought death to those who inhaled too much of the toxic substance. Children were also used as chimney sweepers and chain gang day laborers in the fields.
In 1833, the first Factory Act was passed to establish a 15-hour workday. Over the next 30 years, legislators would fight to pass six other acts to improve the working conditions for children.