Life in the Workhouse? It Could Have Been Worse
Written by Rebecca Camber
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Thus did Charles Dickens sum up life during the French Revolution, and it would seem his description applies nowhere more closely than to children employed in Britain's factories and workhouses.
Accounts newly released to the public detail the grim realities of life as a child labourer in the words of the boys and girls themselves.
They tell of dangerous work for scant reward, long hours of menial toil, appalling injuries and routine physical abuse.
Conditions at home were often worse than in workhouses
Remarkably, however, the documents also reveal stoicism, cheerfulness and even gratitude among the children - some as young as eight - in spite of their hardships.
This may be because, no matter how horrifying the children's descriptions of life working in a factory or mine may seem to the modern reader, many of the alternatives were even worse.
Dr Ian Galbraith, managing director of genealogists the Origins Network, which is publishing the reports, said: "Although they initially make unhappy reading, it's surprising to see how many of the children accepted their lot.
"You have to put this into a historical context.
"Very often it was better to be in the workplace, where you would be warm and fed, rather than at home, where conditions where far more cramped and squalid."
The reports reveal another facet to life in Victorian workhouses, so vividly described by Dickens, who himself worked ten-hour days in a bootblacking factory from the age of 12.
The interviews with hundreds of children working across the country in 1840 were conducted as part of a campaign by noted parliamentarian and philanthropist Lord Ashley to reduce the working hours of women and children.
Officials were sent to dozens of mills and factories around the UK and Ireland to carry out the survey for the Children's Employment Commission report.
One, Frederick Roper, noted when visiting Dublin's pin-making establishments: "Not withstanding their evident poverty; want of clothing, and in many cases, of sufficient food, yet there is in their countenances an appearance of good health and much cheerfulness."
The interviews, which were carried out away from the workplace, resulted in two important pieces of legislation.
The first was the 1842 Coal Mines Act, which prohibited the employment underground of boys under ten and women.
The other was the Factory Act of 1844, which restricted children aged eight to 13 to working six-and-a-half hours a day.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS...THE CHILDREN'S VERDICT
MARY ANN PERRY, 11, PIN-MAKING FACTORY
"It is not hard work; I come to work at nine o'clock, go home to dinner at two, have an hour, and then work till nine at night. I am not tired at night. I cannot read or write; I generally get milk or tea and potatoes, or bread for my meals; and sometimes meat for dinner; I like the work I am at; I have never been ill since I was at it."
JAMES MOIR, 13, EDINBURGH AND LEITH GLASS COMPANY
"Been four years at glassworks; work as long as men. Sometimes have got burned in the foot. The work is very hard. Been to kirk; never heard of the Testament nor who Jesus Christ is; think swearing and telling lies is no good."
FREDERICK HOPKINS, CAMELON PARK NAIL WORKS
"I do not know my age exactly, as my mother has been dead four or five years; she died of fever; father was a showman, and after her death I was taken to the House of Refuge for the destitute. I lost my eye by one William Bailey pushing a piece of red-hot wire into it while master was away; laid idle four weeks."
CUNNINGHAM RANKIN, 9,CAMELON PARK NAIL WORKS
"Work with James Morrison; was given to him by Mr Fairbairn when they brought me from the Refuge nine months ago; the long work makes me very weary, and glad am I when the lay (bed-time) comes; have no other coat or breeks (rags); have another shirt which I put on when I wash myself on the Sabbath-day."
MARTIN DUNN, 11, MUSLIN PRINTING MANUFACTORY
"I have been working here about two months; I like it very well. I have only once worked overtime, that was all night; I worked till the morning, and then went to sleep in the work-room; I had about two hours' sleep, and then went to work again. I like the work, it agrees with me; the smell of the paint did not at first agree with me, it made me sick."
MARY ANN SMITH, 10, CALICO PRINTING MANUFACTORY
"I have not been to Sunday school for a month, because I have had no shoes. I do not wear shoes in the works: many of the children do not. I have no shoes at all just now."
WILLIAM MAHON, 6, FOUND BEGGING
"Works at locks with his father and three apprentices. Believes they are his brothers - three brothers and a babby. His mother told him to beg in the town. She gets drunk a little sometimes and brings nothing home to eat."
JOHN BARNSLEY, 15, KEY APPRENTICE
"Has enough to eat, thinks his meat is good. His master seldom beats him, he only beats him for one thing - going without leave. Has no wages. Does not know which side his heart is on, says his prayers last thing at night. Has never heard of Nelson, nor Wellington, he has heard talk of Boney (Napoleon Bonaparte). Can read, can't write."
JOHN BROWN, 11, GLASS FACTORY
"Been here nearly 18 months. Gets four shillings a week. Sometimes the work makes him sweat, his head is too hot. His eyes were sore at first when they were making glass, the heat made his eyes bloodshot. Nearly blind for seven weeks."
PHILIP HUGHES, 9, CALICO PRINTING MANUFACTORY
"I have been two years and a half in this factory. I have a sore head, I don't know how it came: it is not from the work. The blockers sometimes give us slaps on the head, they slap us on our hands with the brush; they are not allowed to beat us - if the overseer saw them beat us they would be fined; I have no fault to find, except the blockers striking us with the prints and brushes. The overseers sometimes give us a cut with their sticks when we are not attentive; it is not hard work; I would rather stay here than at home."
Rebecca Camber: email firstname.lastname@example.org