Working Conditions for Poor Victorian Children
If you hate your job now, just thank your lucky stars that you did not work during Victorian times! Should you have had the bad luck to be born to a working class family during the Victorian era in Great Britain, you would have begun work at an early age- and no, this work did not entail mowing lawns or delivering newspapers. It was much, much worse.
So that we might all feel better about the conditions in which we work today, let us have a look at the sorts of jobs and work environments Victorian children encountered. From farms to factories, they sure had plenty of opportunities! Too bad most of them were horrendous.
Early Starts, Bad Conditions
Work given to Victorian children was usually menial and boring, and the conditions in which work was completed were often cramped, dark, and dangerous.
Of course, one's home environment would not be all that different- rooms were crowded, conditions were unsanitary, and the food was awful! Both to escape this life and out of sheer economic necessity, many children left school and started working at very young ages (it was not uncommon to begin working at age eight). Many other children dropped out of school but continued to work at home- their parents often made them do it because they needed the extra income.
Gender and Age Mistreatment
Most working girls were paid significantly less than their male counterparts- even though their work was the same. To make matters worse, children and girls were often chosen as workers because they could be given lower wages, which made their older (and male) colleagues particularly resentful of them. Talk about a hostile work environment!
Work as a Domestic Servant
Work as a domestic servant was the most common profession taken on by women working outside the home. Tens of thousands of young girls left home to work in the households of middle and upper class families.
Domestic servants worked long hours, were given low pay, and were not permitted to have boyfriends. What's more, many were harassed by their employers, denied time off, and constantly verbally abused.
That said, domestic servitude enabled a young woman to take on some semblance of an independent life by leaving home and making her own way. What's more, a domestic servant had the opportunity to work in a nice, upper class (or at least middle class) household, which is heaven compared to the major workplace alternatives at the time.
Many children (especially those living in more rural areas) left home to work in the agricultural industry. Work days were extremely long (fourteen hour days were quite typical) and employees were rarely given time to rest except for Sundays and extremely rainy days.
Some children worked in traveling farm work gangs. The labor with these groups was so hard that long hours in a cotton factory seemed like heaven by comparison!
Scotland was a shipbuilding center, hence many children living in the area would get roped into the local industry.
One of the common jobs given to small workers was the relay of molten rivets. Rivets would be heated up in a stove until they were red hot, then delivered to the right place in a ship's hull by being thrown from one child to another in a long relay line. The noise of all this metalwork inside ships metal hulls was deafening, and many young workers ended up deaf.
The Sweated Trades
Many children- especially girls- also worked in the sweated trades, which usually involved textile piecework and was often done in one's own home. One might think of sweated trades as early outsourcing.
Manufacturers would send out large batches of unfinished goods for girls and women to complete. The tasks were menial (e.g. stitching gloves, knitting, making lace, weaving straw hats...) and the amount a girl would be paid for each finished piece would be extremely low.
One additional downside of the sweated trades was that you would spend all your time- working, cleaning, cooking, and sleeping- all in the same miserable, cramped place. But wait- there's more! Because children (and adults) who made lace and other small, detailed objects worked for such long hours and usually worked in poorly-lit rooms, many suffered from deteriorating eyesight and blindness.
Work as a Laundress
Many etrepreneurially-minded older girls and women also worked as independent laundresses. This was work one would often take home. Essentially, one would pick up large batches of others' soiled garments, wash them without any of the modern machinery or detergents we currently enjoy, iron them with hot irons that would constantly be heated up and switched out over a hot stove, and then return them. As you can imagine, laundresses were exceedingly fit.
Work in a Cotton Factory
As industrialism spread during the Victorian period, more children took up work in factories, and thanks to the burgeoning textile industry, cotton factories were amongst the most common factory types.
In addition to long hours and hard work, children (and adult workers) working in cotton factories were subject to damp and hot conditions. The heat and humidity, combined with a great amount of airborne particulate matter, would exacerbate lung problems, and many cotton factory workers died of tuberculosis.
Many children also worked as matchmakers, which usually entailed dipping match sticks into a phosphorus compound.
Because workers were expected to produce the highest volume possible, matchmakers worked for very long hours (a typical workday lasted for 12 hours), were only afforded a short lunch break, and were expected to eat at their workbenches.
Workers therefore ended up consuming no small amount of the chemicals that they worked with, and matchmakers often suffered from a degenerative condition known as "phossy jaw," the symptoms of which include the swelling of one's gums, toothaches, abscesses in the jawbone, jaw bones that glow in the dark, and serious brain damage followed by death from organ failure.
Millinery was also a common profession taken on by children, especially those in towns and cities. With hat making, the hours were (big surprise) also very long and the piecework rates low. Hat makers also experienced high rates of madness due to their heightened exposure to mercury compounds.
Some regions of Britain are very well known for their pottery, and many young workers would end up working for local pottery producers (such as Wedgwood). Children who worked in the pottery manufacturing business used many lead based materials and therefore often suffered from lead poisoning.
Choose Your DOOM!
Which Victorian job would YOU take on?
Other Occupations & Eventual Reform
Children also found work in coal mines, as street peddlers, and in a wide variety of other unpleasant positions. Basically, if it was a dangerous or particularly boring job that paid too low for an adult to accept, it would be given to a child.
As the Victorian age progressed, various reforms began to be enacted to mitigate the harsh conditions experienced by workers (especially women and children). Working hours became more carefully regulated, for example. and universal education was specified in the 1870s.
Thank goodness these positive trends continued and most of us were therefore able to enjoy less horrendous childhood jobs. Though many children throughout the world are still forced to work for long hours, for low pay, and in terrible conditions, one must still be impressed by the progress we have made thus far. Here's hoping we keep up the momentum!