Suffer the Little Children?

Suffer the Little Children?

For centuries, child labour was a reality for our ancestors. Sharon Brookshaw explores how a childhood of play is very much a modern invention.

Header Image: An illustration of child brick workers, by Herbert Johnson of The Graphic. The children often had to queue in pubs to be paid. A report in The Graphic observed: “Sometimes the children have to wait for hours before they receive their money, and not infrequently they are made completely drunk while so waiting."

Sharon Brookshaw, Writer of history, archaeology, heritage and museums

Sharon Brookshaw

Writer of history, archaeology, heritage and museums

When we think of our ancestors, we tend to picture them as adults. If we think of children in the past at all, we often imagine the Victorian schoolroom, a stricter form of education than we are familiar with today, but education nonetheless. However, in 1840 only an estimated 20% of London’s children had any formal schooling, a number that rose to around half by 1860; it was doubtfully any higher in the rest of the country. What were the rest of the children doing?

For children of poor and working class families – who would have made up the majority of the population – working had for centuries been the norm. The idea of children working was not particularly controversial in pre-industrial Britain. Indeed, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, thought that it prevented youthful idleness and vice. Children would help with simple household tasks as soon as they were old enough to be physically capable of doing so. As they got older, they could take on jobs more important to the household economy, such as planting and harvesting crops, assisting with the family’s cottage industry, or otherwise working outside the home as domestic servants or by taking an apprenticeship. As apprentices, children lived and worked with a master to learn his trade, receiving training, board and lodging in place of wages. While the age of being bound to a master could be as young as seven in some parishes and industries, it could also be anything up to the late teens in other cases, depending on circumstances. Children typically stayed for seven years until at least the age of 21 when they would be expert enough to be considered a ‘journeyman’ and work independently. This was considered to be a fair deal by parents, children and masters alike, and the details of these pacts were set down in documents called indentures. From 1601, the Poor Relief Act allowed parish officials to bind the poorest children to masters. By paying for these children to be apprenticed, parishes hoped to save the cost of their maintenance in later life.

By the late 18th century, the growing pace of the Industrial Revolution caused drastic changes to the nature of employment in Britain. The appearance of the first textile mills saw children recruited as primary workers, despite still being called apprentices. A conservative estimate is that in 1784 one third of the total workers in rural mills were apprentices and their numbers reached as high as 80-90% in some individual mills. The reasons for this were a mixture of adult labour shortages, poverty, and a ready supply of children in parish workhouses and orphanages who could be cheaply indentured. By conditioning children to factory life at an early age, mill owners could also potentially retain a reliable, disciplined workforce for years to come. What was it like for the children who worked in what William Blake called the dark Satanic mills? Mill worker Robert Blincoe described the lot of the child apprentice to the Factory Commission in 1833 thus: there is the heat and dust; there are so many different forms of cruelty used upon them; then they are so liable to have their fingers caught and to suffer other accidents from the machinery…I would not have a child of mine there.

At Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire, the Greg family ran an apprentice house close to their mill between 1790 and 1847, which could house up to 100 children at any one time – the majority of whom were girls, as the Gregs thought them less truculent than boys. Children could be taken on as young as nine, and their apprenticeship lasted until 18. They all worked 12–hour shifts in the mill, starting at 6am and finishing at 7pm, with an hour’s break for dinner at noon. After factory work had ended for the day, the apprentices had domestic chores to complete before finally being locked in their dormitories for the night.

The employment rates of children in textile factories continued to be high until the mid-19th century. A parliamentary report published in 1834 shows that as much as 20% of the mill workforce in textile towns consisted of children under the age of 14. In both the 1841 and 1851 censuses, ‘cotton manufacture’ was still among the top three occupations for both boys and girls under 15. But the phrase ‘in textile towns’ is significant – the employment of children in textile mills, while high, was a regional phenomenon.

In other areas, children made up significant proportions of the workforce in coal and metal mines. In Cornish tin mines, for example, there were an estimated 7,000 children employed in 1839. Mining was commonly a family affair; until the age of 12, children usually worked on the surface, perhaps sweeping or dressing ore, but later the boys could follow their fathers into the mines. The work was dirty, dangerous and uncertain, but usually better paid than working in agriculture or fishing. Others were employed as climbing boys for chimney sweeps, the subject of the first labour law to mention children in 1788. This specified a minimum age of eight for these boys, but was not well enforced.

During the second half of the 19th century, the number of child workers gradually declined, although by 1881, children under 15 still made up 11% of the British workforce. This decline was partly due to the succession of Factory Acts passed during the 19th century to reduce the hours and improve the conditions of child workers, making them more expensive to employ, and the development of heavier or more complicated technology in some industries that required adult labour to operate. The system of parish indentures for pauper children was also brought to an end in 1844, cutting off a ready supply of child workers.

The growth of educational reform also took off at this time. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there existed only a handful of schools for working class children, and attendance was difficult for those who worked daily. The establishment of the Ragged School Union in 1844 – so called because the pupils were too raggedly dressed to be able to attend any other school – saw the first organised attempt to provide regular education for poor children. However, it was not until 1870 that compulsory education for children was made law in England and Wales, and the act only required the provision of education up to age 10.

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An apprenticeship indenture from 1766, binding William Spencer to grocer Richard Rust

Even as children became schoolchildren rather than apprentices and employees, they continued to make significant contributions by working. During World War One, some sold small items as part of schemes to raise money for refugees, while others filled in the vacancies left by the 60,000 agricultural workers who had gone to war. The services of the Boy Scouts were offered by Robert Baden-Powell; they watched coastlines, reservoirs and telegraphs to prevent sabotage, acted as messengers and aided the coastguards. Some even went to France to serve refreshments to troops. By December 1914, it was estimated that 100,000 Scouts had been employed in war work. The Girl Guides also played their part by training as volunteer nurses.

Children became unpaid agricultural workers in World War Two as well. From 1940, harvest camps were established by the Ministry of Agriculture for both adults and children. By 1949, 249 camps had successfully housed over 8,000 urban boys who had helped filled the harvest-time employment gap in the countryside. Separate camps were established for girls, with over 20,000 attending in 1943 alone. Additionally, rural children would also have joined in farm work. Farmers were full of praise for the child workers, and while utilising this source of labour may have seemed like exploitation to some, it is doubtful how much of the wartime harvest would have been planted, let alone harvested, without the work of children.

Harvest Camp
A 1940s harvest camp for boys, who helped to fill the employment gap in the countryside during wartime

As the length of compulsory schooling continued to increase – to 14 in 1918, 15 in 1944 and 16 in 1972 – the nature of children’s work shrank and is now largely confined to school homework and Saturday jobs. However, the huge amount of work that has been undertaken in the past by children should not be forgotten. If our ancestors weren’t working as children, they may well have been employing them.

Child Workers in the Censuses

Data from the decennial censuses offers a fascinating snapshot of child labour through the 19th century. All of the censuses from 1841 to 1911 are available online, fully indexed, at

This full indexing means it’s possible to analyse the records very precisely. For example, an analysis by the team at TheGenealogist reveals the top occupations for children aged 13 years or younger in the Durham 1841 census included the following (in descending order): female servant, coal miner, agricultural labourer, male servant, apprentice, pitman, labourer, collier, lead miner, tailor apprentice, worsted spinner, shoe maker apprentice, spinner, factory worker, blacksmith, farmer.

Compare this with a similar list for Essex in the same year: agricultural labourer, female servant, labourer, male servant, silk weaver, farmer, servant, tambourer (an embroiderer), carpenter, gardener, weaver, silk winder, silk throwster, apprentice, shoe maker, fisherman, brick layer.

These lists show the important industries in the regions – mining in Durham, farming in Essex (around 2000 agricultural labourers compared to little over 100 in Durham) – and more generally that the Essex occupations seem on the whole to be considerably gentler than those typical in Durham. Interestingly for two counties with a similar total population (between 320,000 and 340,000), the census suggests there were three times as many child workers in Essex as in Durham. However, the number of children listed as a ‘pupil’ in Essex is 940, compared to only 157 in Durham.

Children in the brickworks

A pair of articles in The Graphic newspaper of 1871 revealed the ongoing horrors of child labour in the brickworks of England. The Factory Acts of the early and mid-19th century had regulated children’s hours and conditions of employment in the textile industry, but only in other industries from 1878. The author wrote: &hellip: at the present moment there are in our various brick-fields and brick-works, between 20,000 and 30,000 children, from the ages of three and four up to sixteen, undergoing what has been expressively described as ‘a very bondage of toil and a horror of evil-training that carries peril in it.

A leading campaigner against these horrors was George Smith, who wrote various pamphlets on the subject. Smith had experienced this work as a child himself, and described it vividly: The children were of various ages, from nine to twelve, but mostly nine to ten. They were of both sexes, and in a half-naked state. Their employment consisted in carrying the damp clay on their heads to the brick-makers, and carrying the made bricks to the ‘floors’ on which they are placed to dry. Their employment lasts thirteen hours daily, during which they traverse a distance of about twenty miles… Imagine a child of nine or ten, with features prematurely old, toiling from six in the morning until seven in the evening, and receiving nothing but curses and blows from the men, because he is not quick enough in his movements. What is it but actual slavery of the worst description?

Smith also demonstrated how each child typically had to carry 43 pounds of clay on his head for more that six miles at a stretch. He wrote: The total quantity of clay thus carried by me was five and a half tons. For all this labour I received sixpence!

Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire. The Apprentice House (right) housed as many as 100 children at one time, many of them as young as nine years old

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