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Working-class Childhood and Child Labour in Victorian England

Examensarbeit 2013 57 Seiten

Englisch - Literatur, Werke


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Perception of Childhood and Child Labour in Victorian Britain
2.1 The Middle-class – A romanticized Idealization
2.2 The Working-class – The economic Factor of Child Labour

3. A Comment on Victorian Society - The Representation of Childhood and Child Labour in Charles Dickens’ Novels
3.1 Oliver Twist
3.1.1 Orphans and the Workhouse
3.1.2 Apprenticeship and Child Labour
3.1.3 Thieves and Prostitutes
3.2 David Copperfield
3.2.1 Child Labour in Factories
3.2.2 Debtor’s Prison
3.2.3 Fallen Women
3.3 Dickens’ Critique

4. Health and Safety Concerns
4.1 Accidents and Dangers at Work
4.2 Work-related Diseases and long-term Effects on Life-expectancy

5. Contemporary Perception of Child Labour

6. Political Countermeasures against Child Labour
6.1 The Factories Act of 1844

7. Conclusion

8. List of Literature

1. Introduction

‘When the empty bottles ran short, there were labels to be pasted on full ones, or corks to be fitted to them, or seals to be put upon the corks, or finished bottles to be packed in casks. All this work was my work, and of the boys employed upon it I was one. […] As often as Mick Walker went away in the course of that forenoon, I mingled my tears with the water in which I was washing the bottles, and sobbed as if there were a flaw in my own breast, and it were in danger of bursting.’[1]

This citation taken from Charles Dickens’ novel ‘David Copperfield’ impressively exemplifies a very important aspect of British history and the history of The Industrial Revolution in general. The time which is nowadays mostly associated with great progress, rising productivity rates, mass production and a general advancement in terms of science and technology was to large extends based upon the cheap and disposable manpower of children and young adults who ‘between 1800 and 1850, […] helped make Britain’s economy the most advanced in the world.’[2] As Marjorie Cruickshank puts it in her book ‘Children and Industry’ child labour was ubiquitous in Victorian England: ‘They [the children] were visible everywhere in the crowded thoroughfares as sweepers, beggars, and pickpockets. They were part of the mass of labourers in the workshops, factories and brickfields.’[3] With regard to this estimation the following term-paper will deal with the description of working-class childhoods and child labour in Victorian England as they are presented in Charles Dickens’ novels ‘David Copperfield’ and ‘Oliver Twist’.

How was the life and work of children during the climax of the first phase of the Industrial Revolution like? Which aspects of childhood were Dickens’ describing in his novels and were his depictions close to reality or did he rather rely on artistic exaggeration? In order to answer these questions the first part of this work will deal with the Victorian perception of childhood in general before it focuses on the portrayals of children and childhood which Dickens has immortalized in his works. There will be a closer look at the perception of childhood during the time in which the novels are taking place, which roughly relates to the first decade of Queen Victoria’s reign from the late 1830’s to the early 1850’s. The question is how children were perceived by the Victorians and how the phenomenon of increasing child labour did fit into that particular perception. Afterwards, there will be an examination of how the childhood experiences of children varied in regard to the different social-classes.

After that general overview of childhoods will follow an analysis of Dickens’ novels in regard to his depictions of these aspects as well as the descriptions of establishments which dealt with orphaned or impoverished children like the workhouse. The results of the analysis will be related to secondary literature as well as to Dickens’ own childhood experiences by taking a short look at his own biography. Hence, the foremost important question emerges: what did Dickens want to achieve by making thieves, prostitutes and impoverished working-class boys his main characters and what were his aims in writing about such topics at all?

Following this analysis, the second part of the term-paper will deal with the health and safety concerns which arose from the occupation of young adults and children in heavy manual labour and the poor living conditions of many working-class children in the areas of industrial concentration. What were the dangers the children were exposed to and how were the working conditions affecting their health and life expectancy? Keeping these questions on safety at work in mind there will be a short look at countermeasures taken to prevent young children from working long hours in hazardous environments. As an example of political intervention on the topic the last part of this work will take a closer look at ‘The Factories Act’ of 1844 in order to decide whether the actions taken by the British government were sufficient and effective. This example shall also illustrate the contemporary perception of working children by the Victorian society. What were Dickens’ contemporaries thinking about child labour, did they share his views and criticism?

Aside from the primary sources provided in form of Charles Dickens’ novels ‘David Copperfield’ and ‘Oliver Twist’, this term-paper will rely to great lengths on the secondary literature ‘Children and Industry’ by Marjorie Cruickshank, ‘Victorian Childhoods’ by Ginger Frost, ‘Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution’ by Jane Humphries and ‘Child Labour in Britain, 1750-1870’ by Peter Kirby.

2. The Perception of Childhood and Child Labour in Victorian Britain

The Industrial Revolution was a time of enormous change for the British society. Science and technology developed rapidly and brought wealth and improvement into many sectors of life; inventions like the steam engine, power looms, the spinning jenny or the expansion of the road and rail network made life easier. But on the other hand it was also the time of great misery, exploitation and tremendous class differences between a very thin and very wealthy upper-class, a rising middle-class and a very broad and to great extents extremely impoverished working-class.[4] Despite the fact that from the 1820’s onwards the British economy expanded to become the richest in the world[5], which meant that Britain as a country became richer and richer, many working-class families did not benefit from these improvements at all.[6]

During the early part of the Victorian Age only two percent of the population formed the upper-class, which consisted of aristocrats and landed gentry whose most distinctive feature was the fact that its members didn’t have to work for a living but relied on rental revenues and the income of investments made instead. The middle-class formed roughly 15 percent of the population and consisted of those who ran their own businesses, like factory owners or were professionals like teachers, surgeons or lawyers. The remaining majority of 73 percent of the population were considered as the working-class, whose members were working for wages and were paid weekly or monthly.[7] It is important to mention that there was an internal distinction between skilled and unskilled workers within this social class. Skilled workers had learned a trade and therefore, made better wages than the vast group of unskilled workers who had nothing but their physical strength to put into the balance.[8] Whilst the middle-class earned the most from the developments of the time (from approximately 15 percent of the population in 1815 it grew to 25 percent by the turn of the century) the working-class fell by the wayside. Due to rapid urbanization, cities became large, densely populated and hopelessly overcrowded in a short period of time. The results were that whole districts of greater cities deteriorated and became slums like the East End of London which Dickens impressively describes in his novel ‘Oliver Twist’.

The Victorian Age was a very ambiguous time with great prosperity and terrible poverty going side by side. This ambiguity also becomes apparent in the perception of children and childhood. On the one hand children were estimated as immensely important and childhood was a heavily idealized and romanticized time – children were seen as sweet, little angels who were entirely good and innocent since they weren’t corrupted by the cruel world yet. Herbert Tucker even calls it an ‘obsession’ when he says that ‘never before had childhood became an obsession within the culture at large – yet in this case ‘obsession’ is not too strong a word.’[9] But despite this obsession with children, the child mortality rate, especially in poorer districts of great cities, was appallingly high[10] and child labour a regular occurrence ‘in a society in which child labor provided an opportunity for additional income for hard-pressed families and capital advantage for eager employers.’[11] Although, children had already been working before the rise of the Industrial Revolution, during ‘the early part of the nineteenth century, child labour became to be used on a scale it had never been used on before’[12], mainly for the simple reason that steam-power and new machinery now allowed children to take over work that had previously required the strength of grown men. ‘The Industrial Revolution heralded in a change of form of child labour’[13] because it opened new ways to employ children in sectors, which formerly had been virtually out of limits for a child’s work capacity.

Taking all these facts into account it is an interesting observation that the children of the middle- and upper-classes were adored and idolized while their poor fellows were exploited and neglected by the same society that claimed to love children above all else. It is a fact that ‘the quality of daily life in Victorian England rested upon the underlying structure determined by social class.’[14] Class-differences were a substantial factor of the Victorian society and unsurprisingly the grave differences between the classes led to different and distinctive views on ethics, work, domesticity and children in general. How much these views and perceptions differed will be pointed out in the following two sections.

2.1 The Middle-class – A romanticized Idealization

Speaking about the perception of children and childhood during the Victorian Era one usually refers to the ideas and ideals of the middle-class. It was the Victorian middle-class that laid the foundation to the modern attitude towards childhood and which is closely intertwined with the perception of the ideal-typical and archetypical Victorian childhood as we imagine it today. It is not for nothing that ‘family life […] was the most idealized part of childhood in the Victorian period’[15]. Especially the Romantic Movement’s view on children as inherently innocent beings highly influenced Victorian middle-class parents’ attitude towards their children and childhood in general[16]. The predominating image of the time concerning children was definitely shaped by romanticized sentimentality: ‘Children share certain important characteristics: they are depicted as infantile, with large heads or rosebud mouths or lips, and thus as innocent; as vulnerable, in need of adult protection; as trusting, perceiving only the good in the world.’[17]

But there was more to the middle-class view on children other that they were something immensely precious and worth protecting. As already mentioned above, class differences were a substantial part of society during the Victorian period and therefore, shaped the views and opinions of those who were born into the different classes decisively. The foremost important aspect of the Victorian middle-class view on family life and childhood was the concept of domesticity: ‘Domesticity was an idealization of the home. Home was a refuge from the cruelty and rapaciousness of the workplace and the marketplace.’[18] As a matter of fact, for the Victorian middle-class family the home had become especially important since it was seen as a tranquil haven within the vast and turbulent ocean of the hectic outside world. They tried to build their own little paradise of peace and serenity which stood in stark contrast to the public sphere. The Victorian middle-class tended to idealize the family and family life as a heavenly sanctuary with the luxury of leisure time, where loving mothers could play with their well-behaved children and fathers would relax after a long day of hard work. It is this ‘new emphasis on the importance of the home [that] is a key element in Victorian Culture.’[19]

In direct connection to the concept of domesticity laid in the strict roles for all family members which were called the ‘doctrine of separate spheres’[20]. Women were seen as private creatures, the ‘angels in the house’ whose most important task was to care for the well-being of their children and husbands, even if that meant enormous personal sacrifices, and look after the home and household. Men on the other hand were public creatures and had to protect their beloved as well as to provide them with everything they needed. But not only the parents were bound to strict roles which they were ought to fulfill. Parents had precise expectations towards their children as well. Upper- and middle-class children were supposed to be obedient, dutiful and grateful towards their parent’s efforts and first and foremost should become respectable and honest adults in the future.[21] In order to raise their children to become good adults, education was an important factor. But since gender differences were especially strong within the upper- and middle-classes, the different treatment of boys and girls concerning education started right from the beginning. Schooling was highly gendered in order to prepare the children for their respective gender roles for which they were destined as adults. Boys generally received more education, went to private or boarding schools and later on to universities whilst the girls stayed at their parent’s house until they were decently married.[22] Oftentimes girls received less formal education, went to day schools or were educated by their mothers or a governess at home. In short, middle-class children usually grew up in a steady and protected environment and stayed ‘children of the house’[23] until they could establish their own household – for girls this usually meant marriage while the boys had to finish their schoolings and find a job first.

After looking at middle-class families and their attitude towards children and domesticity it becomes quite clear that only affluent people could afford such a lifestyle. Only members of the wealthier classes ‘had both the income and the leisure to pursue family lives as they pleased.’[24] The attitude of working-class parents towards their children and their overall living and working-conditions showed a different and darker picture.

2.2 The Working-class – The economic Factor of Child Labour

Politician Benjamin Disreale wrote in 1845 about the different classes in England that the country was divided into two nations, the richer and the poor ‘between whom there is no intercourse […] as if they were dwellers in different zones.’[25] This contemporary citation shows the tremendous differences between the social-classes in Victorian England. Due to the different circumstances of living which had almost nothing in common at all, the middle-class ideal of domesticity, the angel-like mother who cares for her demure, well-behaved children with a lot of leisure time and time to study simply couldn’t be applied to working-class families. Stressed-out and drained working-class mothers were not uncommonly working full-time and on top of that had to handle the daily chores and make ends with the very little money the family had at its disposal. They simply had no time to play with their children or to educate them properly. Because of the parents very restricted time resources, working-class childhoods were decisively shorter than upper- or middle-class childhoods. It was the need to start working at young ages that sharply divided the working-class from the middle-class.[26] Working-class children had to contribute to their family’s financial situation as early as possible, mostly because of the father’s low wages or for the large amount of hungry mouths to feed. A children’s ‘non-work’ and its long attendance at school or extensive leisure time were luxury good a working-class family just couldn’t afford.[27] The whole living-environment of these children differed from that of their richer fellows: urban working-class families lived in unsanitary, overcrowded, cramped flats or row houses which were often notorious breeding grounds for diseases.[28] ‘The cold, gray force of poverty’[29] and ‘the narrowness of circumstances’[30] were the main reasons why children were sent to work as soon as possible. Whilst the middle-class home was a haven of peace and tranquility, the lodgings of the working-class remained places of work which provided little space and even less comfort.[31] Because of these reasons the distinctions in the length of childhood between the different classes were enormous. Although the legal age of majority in Britain at the time was twenty-one[32], a large number of working-class children went to work as young as seven, in some cases even younger.[33] As Jane Humphries puts it: ‘Their most carefree years were those between the ages of two and three, from which they could walk and play, and about six, at which point they were expected to do chores and to care for younger siblings.’[34] Because poorer children had to support their family’s financial position, they received decisively less education than their middle- and upper-class peers and had to take more responsibilities at tender ages. Since schooling wasn’t compulsory until 1870, the vast majority stopped schooling – if they ever had any at all – as soon as they could go to work. Schooling was expensive and most working-class parents couldn’t raise the fees, therefore, if they wanted their children to go to some kind of school, they only had little choice about what type of school they could send their children to. Basically there were only two options left: many children went to Sunday schools, which were free of charge and because classes were only on Sundays, it didn’t interfere with the child’s work during the week. The second option formed the so-called Dame schools, ‘low-cost, ubiquitous institutions that took small, manageable groups of very young children and provided them with the basics.’[35] Dame schools generally were less a place of education but rather a daycare for very young children while their parents were both out at work. The span of time a child could go to school and receive education crucially depended upon its parents’ economic situation. This estimation becomes impressively apparent while looking at the 1851 census which stated that from the five million children between the age of three and fifteen living in Britain, only two million were actually attending some sort of school.[36] Gender differences also applied to the working-class. Girls received even less education than boys, they did more domestic chores than their brothers, worked for longer hours and less money.[37] Because most of the girls helped their mothers at home and/or cared for younger siblings, ‘the attendance of girls at schools was consistently worse than that of boys.’[38] Another aspect which has to be taken into account while looking at the length of childhoods is the birth order of children. The oldest sibling usually had the shortest childhood because he had to take care of his younger siblings and went to work the earliest. Younger siblings often benefitted from their older siblings’ earnings, meaning they could attend school for a longer time than their already working brothers and sisters. Children were often sent off to work in rank order.[39]

After taking a closer look at the perceptions of children and childhoods within the different social classes it can be said, that the children of the upper- and middle-classes had decisively longer childhoods than their peers form the working-classes, especially if one considers a children’s own sentiment that its childhood ends as soon as it enters the world of employment and allegedly adulthood.[40] Most children saw the end of their childhood with the beginning of regular work outside the house.[41] It is a fact that ‘even when child labour was wide-spread, the children of the elite did not work’[42] just for the simple reason that economic considerations didn’t force them to do so. For that reason alone the duration of childhood between the single classes was worlds apart. While working-class children went to work as early as possible to support their families with their income – at the beginning of Victoria’s reign sometimes as early as only seven years old – their affluent counterparts didn’t go to work during their childhoods at all. Boys finished their schooling and academic training before they left home and started to work and girls were supposed to marry, not to work[43]. Working-class girls on the other hand were working as early and as much as their brothers, oftentimes even more. But upper- and middle-class children hadn’t had not only longer childhoods, they also stayed minors longer and were way more dependent on their parents’ financial support than their working-class fellows. This resulted in the long-lasting reliance of the affluent children on their parents, even though if they were already of legal age.[44] In addition to their longer childhoods it can also be said that better-off children had fewer responsibilities, more and better education and therefore, better prospects in life. They had more hours of leisure but less freedom than their poorer counterparts who weren’t always under the strict supervision of their parents.[45] Although, working-class parents surely loved their children, they neither had the financial means nor the time to care for their children to that extend as upper- and middle-class parents could.

They simply couldn’t afford to offer their children an extended childhood. Poverty was the main reason why parents send their children to work at ‘ages when their richer peers were deemed incapable of supporting themselves or of contributing to their family exchequer.’[46] In sum this means that a child’s experiences largely depended ‘on the economic status of the family and the child’s sex, for both of these helped determine his or her future prospects.’[47]

3. A Comment on Victorian Society - The Representation of Childhood and Child Labour in Charles Dickens’ Novels

3.1 Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist or the Parish Boy’s Progress’ is Charles Dickens’ second novel and was first published in monthly installments between February 1837 and April 1839 by the magazine ‘Bentley’s Miscellany’.[48] It is one of Dickens’ best known and most influential works, having been adapted to several movie versions and theatre plays throughout the years and which hasn’t forfeited any of its original charm until today. ‘Oliver Twist’ follows the life of the eponymous pauper orphan Oliver Twist who grows up in a workhouse where he and his companions are almost starving to death because of the stingy wardens. For a short time he gets apprenticed to an Undertaker but soon decides to run away from him because of ill-treatment. After wandering the streets of London he meets a boy nick-named the Artful Dodger, a young thief working for the devious Fagin who is the head of whole gang consisting of child and teenage pick-pockets. Fagin and the boys show Oliver how to steal handkerchiefs and other valuable objects from pedestrians. Being caught by the police because he is mistaken for the real thief, Oliver almost gets arrested for stealing but luckily gets rescued by the generous and friendly Mr. Brownlow who takes him under his wings. After being abducted by Fagin’s henchmen the burglar Sikes and the prostitute Nancy, Oliver is forced to participate in a burglary and gets shot in the process but is nursed back to health by the friendly Mrs. and Miss Maylie who – after many trials and tribulations – help Oliver to find out more about his parents and where he actually comes from. After Fagin gets hanged because of his deeds Oliver can start a peaceful life in the countryside with his new friends. What is extraordinary about ‘Oliver Twist’ is the very sarcastic narrator who oftentimes exposes the doings of single characters with the heavy use of irony and dark humour to ridicule. He mocks the hypocrisy of those who think they are doing beneficial things, although they are simply selfish and greedy egoists. Furthermore, Dickens’ delivers a very realistic portrayal of contemporary social injustices and cruelty against children as well as he gives very precise descriptions of the life of society’s outcasts like thieves and prostitutes. ‘Oliver Twist’ can very well be interpreted as a social satire which brought contemporary grievances like the waifs and strays of London, the terrible conditions of pauper children inside workhouses and the overall failure of the social system into the public eye. The following paragraphs will take a closer look at the depictions of the life of orphaned children inside workhouses, the custom of apprenticeship and child labour as well as the portrayal of the so-called ‘criminal-class’ within Dickens’ novel in order to understand his points of criticism.


[1] Dickens, Charles: David Copperfield, p.135f.

[2] Frost, Ginger: Victorian Childhoods, p.66.

[3] Cruickshank, Marjorie: Children in Industry - Child health and welfare in North-West textile towns during the nineteenth century, p.3.

[4] Frost, Ginger: Victorian Childhoods, p.1.

[5] Steinbach, Susie: Understanding the Victorians, p.77.

[6] Cf. Steinbach, Susie: Understanding the Victorians, p.84.

[7] Frost, Ginger: Victorian Childhoods, p.2.

[8] Cf. Frost, Ginger: Victorian Childhoods, p.3.

[9] Tucker, Herbert: A Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture, p.70.

[10] Cf. Frost, Ginger: Victorian Childhoods, p.165.

[11] Kaplan, Fred: Dickens – A Biography, p.38.

[12] Kirby, Peter: Child Labour in Britain, 1750-1870, p.1.

[13] Kirby, Peter: Child Labour in Britain, 1750-1870, p.36.

[14] Mitchell, Sally: Daily Life in Victorian England, p.13.

[15] Frost, Ginger: Victorian Childhoods, p.6.

[16] Cf. Frost, Ginger: Victorian Childhoods, p.143.

[17] Tucker, Herbert: A Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture, p.80.

[18] Steinbach, Susie: Understanding the Victorians, p.134.

[19] O’Gorman, Francis: The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Culture, p.220.

[20] Steinbach, Susie: Understanding the Victorians, p.134.

[21] Cf. Frost, Ginger: Victorian Childhoods, p.11.

[22] Cf. Frost, Ginger: Victorian Childhoods, p.28.

[23] Frost, Ginger: Victorian Childhoods, p.31.

[24] Frost, Ginger: Victorian Childhoods, p.21.

[25] Steinbach, Susie: Understanding the Victorians, p.20.

[26] Cf. Frost, Ginger: Victorian Childhoods, p.74.

[27] Humphries, Jane: Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution, p.26.

[28] Cf. Frost, Ginger: Victorian Childhoods, p.13.

[29] Humphries, Jane: Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution, p.179.

[30] Humphries, Jane: Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution, p.179.

[31] Cf. Steinbach, Susie: Understanding the Victorians, p.21.

[32] Frost, Ginger: Victorian Childhoods, p.4.

[33] Frost, Ginger: Victorian Childhoods, p.4.

[34] Humphries, Jane: Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution, p.143.

[35] Humphries, Jane: Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution, p. 371.

[36] Cf. Frost, Ginger: Victorian Childhoods, p.25.

[37] Cf. Frost, Ginger: Victorian Childhoods, p.31.

[38] Kirby, Peter: Child Labour in Britain, 1750-1870, p.118.

[39] Humphries, Jane: Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution, p.191.

[40] Cf. Kirby, Peter: Child Labour in Britain – 1750-1870, p.33.

[41] Cf. Frost, Ginger: Victorian Childhoods, p.74.

[42] Humphries, Jane: Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution, p.31.

[43] Cf. Frost, Ginger: Victorian Childhoods, p.31.

[44] Frost, Ginger: Victorian Childhoods, p.31.

[45] Cf. Humphries, Jane: Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution, p.143.

[46] Tucker, Herbert: A Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture, p.72.

[47] Frost, Ginger: Victorian Childhoods, p.11.

[48] Cf. Paroissien, David: The Companion to Charles Dickens, p.309.


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Titel: Working-class Childhood and Child Labour in Victorian England