Child Labor in Britain - Long Hours

Children who helped to build Victorian Britain worked incredibly long hours. 

Although it may sound unbelievable today, Parish authorities at the time handed-over these youngsters to work for free until they became adults. In exchange, they were fed and clothed.

Sometimes boys actually participated in wars, serving aboard ships in the famous Battle of Trafalgar (in which 720 British boys served at every level of the ships' society). Britain defeated Napoleon's fleet in that naval battle but lost their leader, Admiral Horatio Nelson, to a Frenchman's bullet.

We can track the age of some of these youngsters, serving in war, by examining records at places like the National Museum of the Royal Navy (at Portsmouth, England). Matthew Sheldon, the head archivist for HMS Victory (Nelson's ship) reveals records which show that a young shipman began serving aboard Victory at the age of 6½.

How did young children, or teenaged boys, end-up on battle ships? Dr. Roland Pietsch, author of The Real Jim Hawkins—as opposed to the fictional Hawkins who narrates Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island—tells us that "seemingly unsupervised" teenagers, hanging around on the streets, could find themselves being "sent to sea" as a way to discipline them (or to provide structure for their lives).

Sometimes parents, who could not care for their children, would deliver them to marine authorities for service aboard Royal Navy vessels. Sometimes masters, whose apprentices were not working out well, would accompany their young charges to the ships who would then undertake a different line of work.

It wasn't easy, for these teens, to be separated from their families. It wasn't easy for them to live on the sea instead of on land. They usually had no choice in the matter, however.

At first, these boys were horrified by what they would see in a naval battle (when a shipman's head could be blown-off by a cannonball). Twelve-year-old William Parker, serving aboard such a ship, wrote a letter to his parents with a firsthand account. He saw nothing, he reported, to "raise his spirits." Soon, however—according to Dr. Pietsch—these children became "numbed to the horrors of war."

But were they really "numbed to the horrors of war?" Dr. Pietsch says that young individuals, once released from serving aboard war vessels, were much-more likely to need mental-health care than others who were not exposed to such trauma.

Older children, who worked long hours in industrial plants or mines, also had tasks to manage at home. Sometimes individuals—like William Sommerville—would help to mend his siblings's shoes until late in the night. Then he'd get-up around 4 in the morning, to do the hardest part of his little brother's farm work, before walking back to his place of employment (located two or three miles away). His extra efforts allowed both of the brothers to keep their jobs (and to help their mother try to make ends meet).

Why were children helping their mothers with extra wages for their families? Because, among other reasons, their fathers were often absent from home.

During the time of the Napoleonic Wars, at least ten percent of Britain's males were called-up to fight. In addition, jobs were not always available nearby, so husbands and fathers had to travel elsewhere to find work.

Sometimes fathers, who'd lost their jobs to industrialization, were unable to find work at all. Their skills were no-longer needed in the industrial age. As they searched for work, by 1876, they saw signs which read:  "No hands wanted."

Even though children were helping to earn needed family finances, by the middle of the 19th century people were becoming concerned that children "couldn't be children." Instead, many British youngsters were "children without a childhood." Poets, like William Wordsworth, started to write about a different kind of childhood.

The only way to correct this situation, and to end the negative effects of child labor, was through Parliament. Initially, however, many Members of Parliament were about as willing to end child labor as they were to end the slave trade (which is to say they weren't willing to end it at all).

Then ... working-children became working-adults who wanted to organize labor unions. And ... writers like Charles Dickens began to serialize stories describing the plight of children such as "Oliver Twist" and "Nicholas Nickleby."

People in Britain recognized that these fictional characters were representative of real children who needed legal protection. Dickens himself, at the age of twelve, had been forced to work twelve-hour shifts in a blacking factory (alongside a chap named Fagan).

Slowly reform made its way into the world of law and politics. An MP proposed that no child under nine should work in a factory—and—that the working hours of children, between the ages of nine and eighteen, should be limited to ... 66 per week.

Such efforts were, at least, a start.

This is a clip from the BBC's program, "The Children Who Built Victorian Britain," presented by Professor Jane Humphries.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5156stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 07, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Mar 19, 2018

Media Credits

Clip from "The Children Who Built Victorian Britain," copyright BBC, all rights reserved.  Clip online via the BBC Channel at YouTube.  Clip provided here as fair use for educational purposes and to acquaint new viewers with the program.

Jane Humphries

Julian Carey

Julian Carey

Executive Producer:
Christina Macauley


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"Child Labor in Britain - Long Hours" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. Mar 19, 2018.
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