Child Labour in the Collieries (Classroom Activity)

Child Labour in the Collieries (Classroom Activity)

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The chief miners, the undergoers, were lying on their sides, and with their picks were clearing away the coal to a height of a little more than two feet. Boys were employed in clearing out what the men had disengaged... Children were chained, belted, harnessed like dogs in a go-cart, black, saturated with wet, and more than half-naked - crawling upon their hands and feet, and dragging their heavy loads behind them - they present an appearance indescribably disgusting and unnatural.

I'm a trapper in the Gawber pit. It does not tire me, but I have to trap without a light and I'm scared. I go at four and sometimes half past three in the morning, and come out at five and half past. I never go to sleep. Sometimes I sing when I've light, but not in the dark; I dare not sing then. I don't like being in the pit. I am very sleepy when I go sometimes in the morning. I go to Sunday-schools and read Reading made Easy.... They teach me to pray... I have heard tell of Jesus many a time. I don't know why he came on earth, I'm sure, and I don't know why he died, but he had stones for his head to rest on. I would like to be at school far better than in the pit.

Been down at coal carrying six weeks... I work with my sister Jesse and mother... I carry 56lbs of coal in a wooden basket... I make ten to fourteen journeys a day... The work is no good... It is very dark.

I go down (the mine) between three and four in the morning and sometimes I have done by five o'clock in the afternoon, and sometimes sooner... We have an hour for dinner dinner during the the day-time, but we don't stop at night.... I go at night at two o'clock in the afternoon, and sometimes three. I come up it will be about three o'clock in the morning, and sometimes before... It is very hard work... I have been so tired many a time that I could scarcely wash myself... I was so tired; and I felt very dull and stiff when I set off in the morning.... I was sitting on the edge of a tub at the bottom, and a great stone fell from the roof on my foot and ankle, and crushed it to pieces, and it was obliged to be taken off.... My father was a collier, but he was killed in a coal-pit. I go past the place where he was killed many a time when I am working, and sometimes I think I see something.

We go at four in the morning, and sometimes at half-past four. We begin to work as soon as we get down. We get out after four, sometimes at five, in the evening. We work the whole time except an hour for dinner, and sometimes we haven't time to eat. I hurry by myself, and have done so for long. I know the corves are very heavy they are the biggest corves anywhere about. The work is far too hard for me; the sweat runs off me all over sometimes. I am very tired at night. Sometimes when we get home at night we have not power to wash us, and then we go to bed. Sometimes we fall asleep in the chair. Father said last night it was both a shame and disgrace for girls to work as we do, but there was nought else for us to do. I have tried to get winding to do, but could not. I begun to hurry when I was seven and I have been hurrying ever since. I have been eleven years in the pit (she started at the age of seven)..

The girls are always tired. I was poorly twice this winter; it was with headache.... We don't always get enough to eat and drink, but we get a good supper.... I am quite sure that we work constantly 12 hours except on Saturdays. We wear trousers and our shifts in the pit, and great big shoes clinkered and nailed.

I entered the mines at about eight years of age. The condition of the miner's boy then was to be raised about 1 o'clock or 2 o'clock in the morning if the distance was very far to travel, and at that time I had to travel a considerable distance, more than three miles. We remained at the mine until 5 and 6 at night.... We had leather belts for our shoulders. We had to keep dragging the coal with these ropes over our shoulders, sometimes round the middle with a chain between our legs. Then there was always another behind pushing with his head...

That work was done by boys, such as I was, from 10 to 11 down to eight, and I have known them as low as seven years old. In the mines at that time the state of ventilation was frightful... It did not lead to frequent accidents; but it lead to premature death... There was no explosive gas in those mines I was in, or scarcely any. I may state incidentally here that in the first ironstone mine I was in there were some 20 or more boys besides myself, and I am not aware at this moment that there is one alive excepting myself.

I gang with the women at five and come up at five at night. I work all night on Fridays, and come away at twelve in the day. I carry the large bits of coal from the wall face to the pit bottom, and the small pieces called chows in a creel. The weight is usually a hundredweight. I do not know how many pounds there are in a hundredweight but it is some weight to carry. It takes three journeys to fill a tub of 4 cwt. The distance varies as the work is not always on the same wall, sometimes 150 fathoms, whiles 250 fathoms. The roof is very low and I have to bend my back and legs and the water comes frequently up to the calves of my legs. I have no liking for the work, father makes me like it. I never got hurt, but often am obliged to scramble out of the pit when bad air was in.

Children are chiefly employed in pushing the loaded carriages of coals... far from being an unhealthy employment... it greatly develops the muscles of the arms, shoulders, chest, back and legs.

I began work as a trapper at the age of ten... Later I went to work with my uncle, Thomas Weatherburn. He was a strong, skilful hewer. For many years he had been an engine-man, and had been tempted, or starved, into the coalmines that he might get higher pay. He worked with the steady stroke, the composure, and the effectiveness of a perfect machine... The hewer is paid by the ton. His earnings, therefore, depend partly upon his industry, strength, and skill, and partly upon his luck. In extreme cases, I have known two or three shillings a day difference between one working-place and another.

One of the most objectionable aspects of the mining industry was the employment of women and children in some of the pits (though not in all). Women were used to carry coal in baskets or to drag trucks full of coal. The baskets might hold up to three hundredweight, and this load had sometimes to be carried up several ladders. In 1842 it was calculated that one girl of 12 carrying coal in this way had to travel up four ladders and along passageways a total distance which exceeded the height of St Paul's Cathedral... Younger children from the age of eight or nine were used as trappers - that is, opening and shutting the trap doors which controlled the circulation of air in the mines. They also filled the trucks. The children were often beaten as they were in other industries, but in the pits a good deal of cruelty might take place in secret.

Few of the mines in the East of Scotland exceed the depth of 100 fathoms. They are descended by shafts, by trap and turnpike stairs, and, in some instances, by inclines. In descending the shaft a basket tub or cage is used, the cage being the most modern and altogether the safest plan, as it does not expose the passenger to be brought in contact with any other ascending or descend body.... The labour in which children and young persons are employed, next in severity to the sore slavery of coal bearing, is coal putting, in which we find sexes more equally distributed. Putters drag or push the carts containing from the coal wall to the pit bottom, weight varying from 3 to 10 cwt...

It is almost incredible to believe that human beings can submit to such employment, crawling on hands and knees, harnessed like horses, over soft slushy floors more difficult than dragging the same weights through our lowest common-sewers and more difficult in consequence of the inclination, which is frequently one in three to one in six... The workings in the narrow seams are sometimes 100 to 200 yards from the main roads, so that the females have to crawl backwards and forwards with their small carts in seams in many cases not exceeding 22 to 28 inches in height...

The boxes or carriages which are here employed are of two sorts, the hutchie and the slype. The hutchie being an oblong square sided box with wheels which usually run on a rail and the slype is a wood framed box curved and shod with iron at the bottom, holding from 2.25 to 5 cwt of coal, adapted to the seams through which it is dragged. The lad or lass is harnessed over the shoulders and back with a strong leathern girth, which behind is furnished with an iron hook, attaching itself to a chain fastened to the coal cart or slype, which is thus dragged along. The dresses of these girls are made of coarse hempen stuff (sacking) fitted close to the figure. The covering to their heads are of the same material. Little or no flannel is used, and their clothing, being of an absorbent nature frequently gets completely saturated shortly after descending the pit.... The feet of many are naked. Those who work in railed roads below ground wear heavy iron shod shoes.

It is very sore work. I cannot say how many rakes or journeys I make from pit bottom to wall face and back.... The distance varies from 100 to 250 fathoms. I carry a hundredweight an a quarter on my back, and am frequently in water up to the calves of my legs. When first down I fell frequently asleep while waiting for coal from heat and fatigue. I do not like the work, nor do the lassies, but they are made to like it. When the weather is warm there is difficulty in breathing, and frequently the lights go out.

I was nine years old when commenced carrying coals; carry on father's account; make 18 to 20 journeys a-day; a journey to and fro is about 200 to 250 fathom; have to ascend and descend many ladders; can carry 1.5 cwt. I do not know how many feet there are in a fathom but I think two or three yards: know the distance from habit; it is sore crushing work; many lassies cry as they bring up the burthens. Accidents frequently happen from the tugs breaking and the loads falling on those behind and the lasses are much troubled with swelled ankles. I canna say that I like the work well; for I am obliged to do it; it is horse work.

Begun to work at 10 years of age; did so, as hard work below made mother blind. I cannot read, as family expenses are heavy. Two sisters are trying at the reading; four other bairns (children) are supported by mine and father's work. Am obliged to like the work, as all the lassies are. It would no be possible for men to do the work we are forced to do. Men only marry us early because we are of advantage to them. The roads are so low and narrow that small persons only can pass.

Of the children in the pits we have none under the age of eight, and only three so young. We are constantly beset by parents coming making application to take children under that age, and they are very anxious, and very dissatisfied if we do not take the children... there have been cases in times of brisk trade, when the parents have threatened to leave the colliery, and go elsewhere if we did not comply.

Their labour... is wasteful and ruinous to themselves and their families... They know nothing that they ought to know, they are rendered unfit for the duties of women by overwork, and become utterly demoralized. In the male the moral effects of the system are very sad, but in the female they are infinitely worse, not alone upon themselves, but upon their families, upon society, and, I may add, upon the country itself. It is bad enough if you corrupt the woman, you poison the waters of life at the very fountain.

With respect to the age at which males should be admitted into mines, the members of this association have unanimously agreed to fix it at eight years... In the thin coal mines it is more especially requisite that boys, varying in age from eight to fourteen, should be employed; as the underground roads could not be made of sufficient height for taller persons without incurring an outlay so great as to render the working of such mines unprofitable.

On the 7th, I brought forward my motion - the success has been wonderful, yes, really wonderful - for two hours the House listened so attentively you might have heard a pin drop, broken only by loud and repeated marks of approbation - at the close a dozen members at least followed in succession to give me praise, and express their sense of the holy cause... Many men, I hear shed tears.

Managers and owners in backward coal districts expressed a strong wish to continue the employment of young children... A further clue to varying attitudes at district level towards children's employment lies in the structure of petitioning over the legislation. Between May and August 1842, 160 petitions concerning the Bill were presented to the House of Lords. Of these, 105 petitions originated in the West Riding of Yorkshire and only two emerged from the technology advanced coalfields of Northumberland and Durham.

In 1842 the subject of the employment of young children came before the public again with the report of a Royal Commission on children at work, including mines. Ashley had done much to secure the appointment of the Commission, and the Report with its striking illustrations of women and children at work in the pits profoundly shocked public opinion, and led at once to the passing of the Mines Act 1842. By this act the employment of women below ground was entirely forbidden, and no boy might be employed under the age of 10. Yet even here the Bill originally set the age limit for boys at 13, but the House of Lords reduced the age to 10, and it was not until 1872 that the age was raised to 12 underground, and eventually to 13 in 1903.

The Mines Act empowered the Home Secretary to appoint inspectors "to visit and inspect any Mine or Colliery... to enter and examine such Mine or Colliery". Coal owners and agents, moreover, were "required to furnish the means necessary for such Person or Persons so appointed to visit and inspect such Mines". However, widespread - and often violent - opposition among employers and miners made underground inspection very difficult. Lord Shaftesbury noted that underground inspection was "altogether impossible, and, indeed, if it were possible it would not be safe ... I, for one, should be very loath to go down the shaft for the purpose of doing some act that was likely to be distasteful to the colliers below". In his report of 1854, the mines commissioner, H. S. Tremenheere, reported "two instances where persons attempted inspection of their own accord, and were maltreated, and very nearly lost their lives".

The Mines Act appeared to be coercive but was actually, to all intents and purposes, permissive legislation. Only a single commissioner was appointed to inspect all British mines and, seven years after the Act was passed, the commissioner was forced to admit under questioning by a Lords' Committee that he had "never been in a mine at all". The operation of the Act was, therefore, dependent largely upon attitudes of local owners, and the small number of cases that were brought before the courts resulted from evidence gathered by local watchmen and constables whom the commissioner instructed to spy on the mouths of pits....

Employers and mining engineers openly recognised the inefficiencies and dangers of employing young children. In the complicated ventilation systems of larger pits, young and inexperienced "trappers" were often held responsible for causing explosions by leaving open their ventilation doors, and the exclusion of the very young children from complex ventilation systems, where it was applied, had a tangible effect in reducing accidents from explosions...

In less advanced colliery districts, where pits were small or where haulage in narrow seams was necessary and demand for child workers relatively higher, colliery owners were afforded virtual immunity from inspection and prosecution under the Act. Hence, the Mines Act tended to be applied only where it was in the interests of colliery owners.

Questions for Students

Question 1: Describe the different work that children did in the collieries.

Question 2: Why did most children dislike working in the collieries?

Question 3: Why did the colliery owners like employing children?

Question 4: Why did Thomas Tooke believe that it coal mining was a healthy occupation for children?

Question 5: Select evidence from this unit to show that the 1842 Mines Act did not bring an end to child labour in the collieries.

Question 6: Why is it important for a historian to look at a wide-range of different sources when writing a book on what it was like to be a child working in a colliery?

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.

Lesson Plan Child Labor in America

Children have always worked, often exploited and under less than healthy conditions. Industrialization, the Great Depression and the vast influx of poor immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries, made it easy to justify the work of young children. To gain a true understanding of child labor, both as an historical and social issue, students should examine the worlds of real working children. This unit asks students to critically examine, respond to and report on photographs as historical evidence. Students will discover the work of reformer/photographer Lewis Hine, whose photographs give the issue of child labor a dramatic personal relevance and illustrate the impact of photojournalism in the course of American history.


  • develop an understanding of the importance of historical inquiry
  • recognize the factors which contributed to the Industrial Revolution in the United States
  • evaluate primary source materials as artifacts for greater understanding of the past
  • function as historians by formulating their own questions from encounters with primary source documents and images
  • identify the problems confronted by people in the past, analyze how decisions for action were made and propose alternative solutions
  • understand that political, economic, and social history are connected and
  • recognize the impact of citizen action on public policy.

Time Required

Children's Jobs in the Mines

Extracts from Report by Robert Hugh Franks, Esq. on the Employment of Children & Young Persons in the Collieries and Iron-Works in South Wales and the State, Condition, and Treatment of Such Children and Young Persons. (1842)

'The particular labour in which children and young persons are employed in the collieries is of three kinds - colliers horse-drivers or hauliers, as they are called, air-door boys and, in some collieries, carters and skip-haulers.

The duty of the haulier is to drive the horse and tram, or carriage, from the wall-face, where the colliers are picking the coal, to the mouth of the level. He has to look after his horse, feed him in the day, and take him home at night: his occupation requires great agility in the narrow and low-roofed roads sometimes he is required to stop his tram suddenly- in an instant he is between the rail and the side of the level, and in almost total darkness he slips a sprig between the spokes of his tram-wheel, and is back in his place with amazing dexterity though it must be confessed, with all his activity, he frequently gets crushed. The haulier is generally from 14 to 17 years of age, and his size is a matter of some importance, according to the present height and width of the main roads.'

'The air-door boy is generally from five to eleven years of age: his post is in the mine at the side of the air-door, and his business is to open it fro the haulier, with his horse and tram, to pass, and then to close the door after them. In some pits the situation of these poor things is distressing. With his solitary candle, cramped with cold, wet, and not half fed, the poor child, deprived of light and air, passes his silent day: his or her wages 6. to 8d. per day. Surely one would suppose nothing but hard poverty could induce a parent so to sacrifice the physical and moral existence of his child! Yet I have found such to be the case, arising as much from the cupidity (greed) as from the poverty of the parents.'

'Carters are employed in the narrow veins of coal in parts of Monmouthshire their occupation is to drag the carts or skips of coal from the working to the main roads. In this mode of labour the leather girdle passes around the body, and the chain is, between the legs, attached to the cart, and the lads drag on all fours’.


Children are employed in both formal and informal sectors. Among the occupations wherein children are engaged in work are construction work, domestic work and small-scale industries. Incidentally, agriculture is not only the oldest but also the most common child occupation worldwide. Some of the industries that depend on child labor are bangle-making, beedi-making, power looms and manufacturing processes. These industries use toxic metals and substances such as lead, mercury, manganese, chromium, cadmium, benzene, pesticides and asbestos. Child labor is very harmful and wholehearted efforts to eliminate this should be done.[10]

Child Labour in the Collieries (Classroom Activity) - History

[ Parliamentary Papers , 1842, vols. XV-XVII, Appendix I, pp. 252, 258, 439, 461 Appendix II, pp. 107, 122, 205. The second of the three great reports embodies the results of the investigation into the conditions of labor in the mines made by Lord Ashley's Mines Commission of 1842. The Mines Act of 1842 that resulted prohibited the employment in the mines of all women and of boys under thirteen.

[The material below was reprinted in an old history textbook, Readings in European History Since 1814 , edited by Jonathan F. Scott and Alexander Baltzly, and was published by Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc. in 1930. The original sources of the material are listed in footnotes in the book I've put them in brackets after each subject heading. The explanatory notes between sections are by Scott and Baltzly the links were, of course, added by me. --L.D.C.]

No. 116. — Sarah Gooder, aged 8 years.

I'm a trapper in the Gawber pit. It does not tire me, but I have to trap without a light and I'm scared. I go at four and sometimes half past three in the morning, and come out at five and half past. I never go to sleep. Sometimes I sing when I've light, but not in the dark I dare not sing then. I don't like being in the pit. I am very sleepy when I go sometimes in the morning. I go to Sunday-schools and read Reading made Easy. She knows her letters, and can read little words. They teach me to pray. She repeated the Lord's Prayer, not very perfectly, and ran on with the following addition:--"God bless my father and mother, and sister and brother, uncles and aunts and cousins, and everybody else, and God bless me and make me a good servant. Amen." I have heard tell of Jesus many a time. I don't know why he came on earth, I'm sure, and I don't know why he died, but he had stones for his head to rest on. I would like to be at school far better than in the pit.

No. 137. — Thomas Wilson, Esq., of the Banks, Silkstone, owner of three collieries.

Girl pulling a coal tub in mine. From official report of the parliamentary commission.

The employment of females of any age in and about the mines is most objectionable, and I should rejoice to see it put an end to but in the present feeling of the colliers, no individual would succeed in stopping it in a neighbourhood where it prevailed, because the men would immediately go to those pits where their daughters would be employed. The only way effectually to put an end to this and other evils in the present colliery system is to elevate the minds of the men and the only means to attain this is to combine sound moral and religious training and industrial habits with a system of intellectual culture much more perfect than can at present be obtained by them.

I object on general principles to government interference in the conduct of any trade, and I am satisfied that in mines it would be productive of the greatest injury and injustice. The art of mining is not so perfectly understood as to admit of the way in which a colliery shall be conducted being dictated by any person, however experienced, with such certainty as would warrant an interference with the management of private business. I should also most decidedly object to placing collieries under the present provisions of the Factory Act with respect to the education of children employed therein. First, because, if it is contended that coal-owners, as employers of children, are bound to attend to their education, this obligation extends equally to all other employers, and therefore it is unjust to single out one class only secondly, because, if the legislature asserts a right to interfere to secure education, it is bound to make that interference general and thirdly, because the mining population is in this neighbourhood so intermixed with other classes, and is in such small bodies in any one place, that it would be impossible to provide separate schools for them.

No. 14— Isabella Read, 12 years old, coal-bearer

Works on mother's account, as father has been dead two years. Mother bides at home, she is troubled with bad breath, and is sair weak in her body from early labour. I am wrought with sister and brother, it is very sore work cannot say how many rakes or journeys I make from pit's bottom to wall face and back, thinks about 30 or 25 on the average the distance varies from 100 to 250 fathom.

I carry about 1 cwt. and a quarter on my back have to stoop much and creep through water, which is frequently up to the calves of my legs. When first down fell frequently asleep while waiting for coal from heat and fatigue.

I do not like the work, nor do the lassies, but they are made to like it. When the weather is warm there is difficulty in breathing, and frequently the lights go out.

No. 134. — Isabel Wilson, 38 years old, coal putter.

When women have children thick (fast) they are compelled to take them down early. I have been married 19 years and have had 10 bairns seven are in life. When on Sir John's work was a carrier of coals, which caused me to miscarry five times from the strains, and was gai ill after each. Putting is no so oppressive last child was born on Saturday morning, and I was at work on the Friday night.

Once met with an accident a coal brake my cheek-bone, which kept me idle some weeks.

I have wrought below 30 years, and so has the guid man he is getting touched in the breath now.

None of the children read, as the work is no regular. I did read once, but no able to attend to it now when I go below lassie 10 years of age keeps house and makes the broth or stir-about.

Nine sleep in two bedsteads there did not appear to be any beds, and the whole of the other furniture consisted of two chairs, three stools, a table, a kail-ot and a few broken basins and cups. Upon asking if the furniture was all they had, the guid wife said, furniture was of no use, as it was so troublesome to flit with.

No. 26. — Patience Kershaw, aged 17, May 15.

My father has been dead about a year my mother is living and has ten children, five lads and five lasses the oldest is about thirty, the youngest is four three lasses go to mill all the lads are colliers, two getters and three hurriers one lives at home and does nothing mother does nought but look after home.

All my sisters have been hurriers, but three went to the mill. Alice went because her legs swelled from hurrying in cold water when she was hot. I never went to day-school I go to Sunday-school, but I cannot read or write I go to pit at five o'clock in the morning and come out at five in the evening I get my breakfast of porridge and milk first I take my dinner with me, a cake, and eat it as I go I do not stop or rest any time for the purpose I get nothing else until I get home, and then have potatoes and meat, not every day meat. I hurry in the clothes I have now got on, trousers and ragged jacket the bald place upon my head is made by thrusting the corves my legs have never swelled, but sisters' did when they went to mill I hurry the corves a mile and more under ground and back they weigh 300 cwt. I hurry 11 a-day I wear a belt and chain at the workings, to get the corves out the getters that I work for are naked except their caps they pull off all their clothes I see them at work when I go up sometimes they beat me, if I am not quick enough, with their hands they strike me upon my back the boys take liberties with me sometimes they pull me about I am the only girl in the pit there are about 20 boys and 15 men all the men are naked I would rather work in mill than in coal-pit.

This girl is an ignorant, filthy, ragged, and deplorable-looking object, and such an one as the uncivilized natives of the prairies would be shocked to look upon.

No. 72 — Mary Barrett, aged 14. June 15.

I have worked down in pit five years father is working in next pit I have 12 brothers and sisters — all of them but one live at home they weave, and wind, and hurry, and one is a counter, one of them can read, none of the rest can, or write they never went to day-school, but three of them go to Sunday-school I hurry for my brother John, and come down at seven o'clock about I go up at six, sometimes seven I do not like working in pit, but I am obliged to get a living I work always without stockings, or shoes, or trousers I wear nothing but my chemise I have to go up to the headings with the men they are all naked there I am got well used to that, and don't care now much about it I was afraid at first, and did not like it they never behave rudely to me I cannot read or write.

No. 7- — Benjamin Miller, Underlooker at Mr. Woolley's, near Staley Bridge, April 14, 1841.

How do you account for women being used so frequently as drawers in the coal-pits? — One reason is, that a girl of 20 will work for 2s. a-day or less, and a man of that age would want 3s. 6d.: It makes little difference to the coal-master, he pays the same whoever does the work some would say he got his coal cheaper, but I am not of that opinion, the only difference is that the collier can spend 1s. to 1s. 6d. more at the alehouse, and very often the woman helps him to spend it.

Do women ever become coal-getters? — Not one woman in a hundred ever becomes a coal-getter, and that is one of the reasons the men prefer them.

Child Labour

Never support child labour, children need your favour.


Many of our early ancestors supported themselves by working the land, cultivating crops and breeding animals. Their children often worked along side them, planting seeds, pulling weeds or looking after the livestock. This work by the children was accepted by society as necessary for the survival of the family. Other ancestors earned their living in small cottage industries, working at weaving, dressmaking, shoemaking or pottery making in their homes. Here too, their children contributed to the daily work.

From the middle of the 18 th century however, the largely agricultural society of our ancestors was transformed into a more industrialized and urban society, a transformation often referred to as the Industrial Revolution. From the 1770s, when textile mills began taking work from the home weavers, very young children began working in the mills for long hours at jobs that paid a minimal wage.

Young Doffers in a Cotton Mill

By the early 19 th century, society’s view of child labour began to change. The textile mills, in particular, were criticized for employing children under unhealthy working conditions. Children as young as eight or nine were employed to repair broken threads, working under the massive looms, an occupation known as piecening. The work was demanding, and the days were very long. Cruelty, harsh discipline and low wages were common.

The first factory legislation was passed in 1802. The Health and Morals of Apprentices Act mandated that apprenticed children could not be forced to work at night or for more than twelve hours a day and provided for some basic education. Later, the Cotton Mills Act of 1819 required that no child under the age of nine could be employed in the mills, nor could anyone under the age of sixteen be required to work more than sixteen hours in a day. Neither act, however, provided any means of enforcement, and the exploitation of children continued.

By the 1830s, a growing number of people, some of them mill owners themselves, were campaigning for a ten-hour work day for children under the age of sixteen but the legislation passed in 1831 only limited the working day to twelve hours. A notable supporter was Richard Oastler, who launched a campaign for factory reform with an open letter entitled ‘Yorkshire Slavery’ published in the Leeds Mercury newspaper in 1830. He was supported in Parliament by the Tory, Michael Sadler, who proposed a bill to restrict the hours that young children worked, and by Lord Ashley who became involved with the campaign. Two years later, as the question of child labour assumed even greater importance in the public eye, a Royal Commission was appointed to collect information in the manufacturing districts regarding child labour practices in the factories. The stories uncovered by the Commission were horrendous and deeply disturbing to the public.

Benjamin Gummersil, a sixteen-year-old boy from Bradford, Yorkshire, told the Commission:

“I have been employed in piecening at a worsted mill. I have worked at Mr. Cozen’s mill the hours of labour were from six in the morning until seven and half-past seven and eight at night half an hour was allowed at noon for dinner – not any time was allowed for breakfast or drinking.”

Benjamin went on to say he had started working in the mill at the age of nine, his father being unable to provide for him. He told of being forced to work in a bent over position for thirteen or fourteen hours a day, of having been beaten until he was black and blue and of having had his ears torn. He became deformed from the intense stooping posture required by the work, his height shortened by several inches. Now, unable to walk and unable to stand without crutches, he had been forced to leave the mill and was in constant pain. He was unable to write and could read only poorly, having not received any type of education and had no prospects.

Another witness, Elizabeth Bentley, told the Commission that she went to work in Mr. Busk’s flax mill when she was six years old, often working from five o’clock in the morning until nine o’clock at night to support her widowed mother. Her job was that of a ‘doffer’. When the machines were full, her job was to take the full bobbins off, carry them to the roller, put empty bobbins back on again and then start the frame going once more. There were many machines to tend and the penalty for being too slow was the strap, which was wielded hard enough to raise a blister. When she was ten, she said, she went to Benyon’s factory where she worked as a weigher in the carding-room from half-past five in the morning until eight at night. The carding room was full of dust, which got in her lungs and made it impossible to see across the room. The basket she pulled around was filled with weights, and her shoulder often became dislocated. For this work, she was given five shillings a week. When she was eighteen, her mother died, and she had only herself to depend on. Now, at the age of twenty-three, she was living in the poor house at Hunslet and dependent on the parish, no longer able to work.

Sweeper in Lancaster Cotton Millild Labour in a Lancaster Cotton Mill

Of the workers who were compelled to testify to the Commission, several of them were dismissed from their position after giving evidence and as a result, it was decided that no more witnesses would be called from among the mill employees.

Instead, the Commission solicited the highest medical opinions on the subject of child labour and the number of hours children should work. “More than ten hours is quite incompatible with health and moral propriety,” said Sir Anthony Carlile, FRS, principal Surgeon of Westminster Hospital for forty years. James Blundell, MD, a Physician to Guy’s Hospital in London, told the Commission “I look upon factory towns as nurseries for feeble bodies and fretful minds. Ten hours are enough for human beings.”

Mill owners were not the only employers that stood accused of overworking and over disciplining children. Chimney sweeps were also considered to be at high risk. In Charles Kingsley’s popular 1864 children’s novel, The Water Babies, he wrote of the character Tom, a young chimney sweep:

He cried when he had to climb the dark flues, rubbing his poor knees and elbows raw and when the soot got into his eyes, which it did every day in the week and when his master beat him, which he did every day in the week and when he had not enough to eat, which happened every day in the week likewise.

Parliamentary concern for the young ‘climbing boys’ resulted in the Chimney Sweeps Act being passed in 1834, outlawing the apprenticeship of any child under ten years of age. In 1840, the minimum age was raised to sixteen, but like the other child labour laws of the time, it was frequently ignored since there was no enforcement.

In the mining districts, boys, and sometimes girls, as young as eight would be employed as child labour. Another Royal Commission was convened in 1842 to inquire into the ‘Employment and Condition of the Children of the Poorer Classes in Mines and Collieries,’ an industry that had not been included in the 1833 inquiry.

In most cases, children were taken into the mines by their fathers or older brothers, as soon as they were able to do the most menial tasks underground. As they got a little older, they were put to work in areas of the mines that were too small for men to work. Children would drag loaded carriages of coal through the low passages, moving along on their hands and knees. The Royal Commission heard testimony from some of the children, including John Knight, aged twelve.

Cannot tell his birthday exactly ‘I do think ‘twere of a Thursday night.’ Is a hod-boy in Protection Pit draws the hods on his knees through a way barely two feet high earns 9 shillings a week. Never did any other work but would like to work above-ground best. The road he hods over is very wet. Never has any rheumatism or colds, or any lumps in his neck. Went to an evening school reads and writes a little.

In South Staffordshire, Yorkshire, Lancashire and the west of Scotland, young boys, mostly orphans and paupers, would be apprenticed to the ‘butties’ or coal workers. These miners were said to be very ignorant and brutal and were often very irresponsible in the treatment of their apprentices. The apprenticeship might last for as long as sixteen years with the master benefiting from all the wages earned by his young charge.

One such apprentice, Thomas Moorhouse, told the commission that both his parents were dead and that he had worked as a collier-boy for William Greenwood since he was nine years old. Greenwood would hit him with the belt, and maul or sledge, and sometimes flung coals at him. Once Greenwood had stuck a pick into him, and on examination, he was found to have a large scar on his buttocks, likely to have been made by a pick. When he was old enough, he had run away. Now he had a better master who gave him a place to sleep and food to eat.

Because of the mining inquiry, the 1842 Mines Act was passed and dictated that no boy under ten years old was to be employed underground in the mines.

Throughout the second half of the 19 th century, further legislation was passed that limited the number of hours children could work and ensured that younger children received a minimum number of hours of education. The Education Act of 1870 also brought significant changes. Although schooling was not yet free or compulsory, the 1870 act formed an important framework for future legislation that would eventually bring mandatory education to all children at no cost to their parents.

Today in the UK, thanks in part to the efforts of the 19 th century social reformers such as Oastler, Sadler and Lord Ashley, many laws are in place to protect children from being exploited in the work place and ensure that they obtain an education. Children are not allowed to work full-time until they reach the minimum school leaving age nor are they allowed to work in factories or other industrial sites, during school hours or between the hours of 7 o’clock in the evening and 7 o’clock in the morning.

Labor History Lesson Plans

Some of the lessons listed below are in PDF format. If you are unable to open the documents, you
will need a free copy of Adobe Reader.

West Virginia Labor History
Ten Lesson Unit.
Each lesson includes historical background material, teaching objectives, a lesson plan, articles or worksheets, and additional activities. West Virginia Labor History

Work with primary source documents from American Memory to study the working conditions of U.S. laborers at the turn of the century. Answer the question, “Was there a need for organized labor unions?”

This guide, while designed for British Columbia schools, is an excellent source for a much broader audience. The lessons are organized by subject and grade level as well as by theme such as “Workers and Unions,” “Workers and the Law,” and “Global Social Justice.”

This lesson guide is designed to accompany
A Short History of American Labor. It includes lesson goals, objectives,
key concepts, key terms, key people, key events, key legislation, and questions for inquiry and discussion.

In this lesson, students examine how the employment position of African-American women changed due to policies
established after emancipation. At one point students are asked to speculate on how these women might have benefited
from membership in the labor movement of their time.

Developed as a part of the Library of Congress’s “Leaning Page” program, the 2-3 weeks of 45-60 minute lessons
are great for use in middle and high school. They are intended to help students develop an understanding of the
importance of historical inquiry and recognize the factors which contributed to the Industrial Revolution in the
United States.

This activity asks students to consider the working conditions of African-American slaves and white northern factory workers by examining a range of primary documents from the Smithsonian, including mill regulations, excerpts from DeBow’s, a magazine for slave owners, and a southern plantation owner’s work rules.

Using information from eight historical documents, students are presented with short-answer questions and a
general essay to help them analyze and understand the resources they are using. This work with the document
based questioning format should capture student interest and improve their performance when faced with this
ever more popular method of assessment.

A Saturn-UAW instructional program that uses biographical sketches placed within a chronological framework to
tell the story of the labor movement. The entire offering also contains: notes to teachers, suggested research
questions, items for class discussion, student assignments and student activities. In addition, teachers are
directed to the Saturn web site for additional instructional materials.

The George Meany Memorial Archives created this group discussion activity to help students: 1) better understand
the individual’s role in social change and 2) exchange information and experiences.

The George Meany Memorial Archives created this role-playing activity to help students: 1) get a feel for society
in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s 2) gain insights into other people’s prejudices, mannerisms, and behaviors and 3)
consider how other people reacted to social change.

Eight historical documents are used to test the students ability to work with historical resources. Short answer questions follow each of the documents and an essay, based on at least six of the documents, completes the assignment.

Prepared by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction in collaboration with the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO the
Wisconsin Federation of Teachers, AFT, AFL-CIO the Wisconsin Education Association Council, NEA and the Wisconsin
Labor History Society.

In this activity, students work in small groups to read primary documents that reflect a variety of viewpoints on the 1834
and 1836 labor strikes by young female factory workers in Lowell, Massachusetts. They then plan and act out a five to seven
minute “talk show.”

One of a number of labor history lessons developed by the National Park Service and located at: Teaching with Historic Places Lesson Plans. This lesson examines
the causes and effects of the 1913 Patterson silk strike and the role the IWW played in the strike. Many primary resources are used to examine
the lives of a silk owner and a skilled silk worker and
evaluate their roles in the strike.

This “Teaching with Documents Lesson Plan” was developed by the staff at the National Archives & Records Administration. The well
developed lesson plan contains a correlation to the National History Standards and the National Standards for Civics and Government.
Once at the NARA web site you’ll find many other interesting lessons.

This lesson is a role-play in which students examine the work of the original strike commission appointed by
President Cleveland.

Ten historical documents form the basis of this two part task designed to test the students ability to work with
original resources. Short answer questions follow each of the documents and an essay, based on at least six of
the documents, completes the assignment.

The goal of this lesson is to compare more contemporary accounts of garment work with those of the early
twentieth-century shirtwaist workers.

More than a lesson plan, this web site is run by Cornell’s Kheel Center and is devoted entirely to the Triangle
Factory Fire. The site contains documents, photos and illustrations, audio, names of victims, tips for student
projects and more. Teachers will find what they need to create a number of interesting lessons.

This lesson uses the Library of Congress’s American Memory Collection of original resources to help students
answer the question – What were the working conditions in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century that gave rise to the labor union movement?

This well developed lesson plan on child labor contains the Child Labor Quiz from the International Labor Organization.


During the Victorian era, there was concern about working conditions for women and children in mills, factories, workshops, and particularly in coal mines. A Report by a Royal commission, conducted in 1842 showed that there were children eight years of age and younger who were employed in the mines. In eastern Scotland, there were both girls and boys who worked in the mines. There were also women who worked in mines. The key finding was that mine owners were not concerned about the working conditions, which were found to be degrading. [11]

In 1842, the Mines and Collieries Bill was passed in Parliament to prevent girls and women from working underground and placed a minimum age of ten for boys. Anthony Ashley-Cooper supported the bill. Due to the number of accidents in coal mines, the Coal Mines Inspection Act of 1850 mandated the appointment of coal mine inspectors who reported to the Home Office. The Act stipulated the inspector's responsibilities and powers. [11] The legislation focused on improving ventilation, lighting, and workers' safety. [12]

One hundred and fourteen men and boys were killed on 15 July 1856 as the result of the Cymmer Colliery explosion at the Old Pit mine of the Cymmer Colliery near Porth, Wales. The underground explosion of gas resulted in a "sacrifice of human life to an extent unparalleled in the history of coal mining of this country". [13] [14]

The Coal Mines Regulation Act of 1860 raised the minimum age for male coal mine workers to 12 years of age, from ten. [11] It did allow a provision for boys between ten and twelve years of age to work at the mines under two conditions. One was that they could read and write, as documented by a schoolmaster. Another condition allowed them to work in the mines if they attended school for six hours per week (three hours twice a week). [15] [16]

It also improved safety rules. [11] Miners were given the ability to select checkweighman, but mine owners were also given the ability to dismiss them. [12]

Checkweighman's positions were made secure with the Mine Regulation Act of 1872. [12] From 1873, boys below the age of twelve were excluded from underground employment. Exemptions could be ordered by the Secretary of State for mines working thin seams. [16]

There were regulations for above ground work for boys and girls. The minimum age for part-time work was 10 years of age, and 12 years of age for full-time work. [16]

Child Labor

Child labor is the employment of children under the age of physical maturity in jobs requiring long hours. In industrialized countries, where laws can be effectively enforced, few persons under the age of 15 are now permitted to work, except on farms or in family enterprises. The laws are not always effectively enforced, however.

The exploitation of children was one of the scandals of the 19th century. The novelist Charles Dickens and the socialist Karl Marx were among those who helped to arouse public opinion against it. The Industrial Revolution had brought numbers of young children into mines and factories where they worked long hours in dangerous and filthy conditions. Children had worked hard long before that time, however, in agriculture and in shops where they worked for their parents.

The first laws regulating child labor were passed in Great Britain in 1802. These were not effective because no provisions were made for enforcing them. The Factory Act of 1833 eliminated some of the worst abuses. In France, Germany, and other countries of Western Europe laws regulating child labor began to appear in the first half of the 19th century. Opposition to child labor came from a variety of sources: from labor unions, social reformers, and even the Prussian army, which was concerned about the physical fitness of its recruits.

In the United States, some states passed laws against child labor in the 19th century, but they were not always enforced. Federal laws prohibiting child labor were twice struck down by the Supreme Court in Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918) and Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Company (1922) before the enactment of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. This and the laws of the states now prohibit the employment of children under 16 during school hours. The most extensive use of child labor today is in agriculture, particularly among migrant workers, but even these children are required to attend school.

The problem of child labor has been largely supplanted in the United States by that of unemployment among young people 16 and older who are no longer in school. The exploitation of child labor remains a major problem in many developing countries.

Bibliography: Dunlop, Jocelyn, and Denman, R. P., English Apprenticeship and Child Labor: A History (1976) Fyfe, A., Child Labour (1989) Sawyer, Roger, Children Enslaved (1988) Taylor, Ronald B., Sweatshops in the Sun: Child Labor on the Farm (1973) Trattner, Walter, Crusade for the Children (1970).

After the Act

The publication of the Report and the ensuing public outcry made legislation inevitable. The Coal Mines Regulation Act was finally passed on 4 August 1842. From 1 March 1843 it became illegal for women or any child under the age of ten to work underground in Britain.

There was no compensation for those made unemployed which caused much hardship. However, evasion of the Act was easy - there was only one inspector to cover the whole of Britain and he had to give prior notice before visiting collieries. Therefore many women probably carried on working illegally for several years, their presence only being revealed when they were killed or injured.

The concept of women as wage earners became less acceptable in the mining industry as the years went by. However, a small number of female surface workers could be found in Wales well into the twentieth century. In 1990 the protective legacy was repealed and after 150 years women are once again able to work underground.

Watch the video: Where Children Must Work - Tropic Of Cancer - Episode 5 Preview - BBC Two (November 2022).

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