The Erosion of Childhood: Child Oppression in Britain, 1860-1918

By Lionel Rose | Go to book overview

4

CHILDREN ON THE LAND AND CHILDREN AT SEA

The herding of children in agricultural gangs first became the subject of inquiry in 1843 by the Poor Law Commission. No legislative action was taken; in a Parliament still dominated by agricultural interests this was not surprising, and the relative healthiness of farm life made rural children less a subject of concern than their industrial counterparts. However, the moral as well as the physical evils of ‘ganging’ brought the problem within the purview of the Royal Commission on Employment of Children in 1867. 1 Its inquiry was confined to public gangs, that is, gangs of labourers hired out by a ganging master to different farmers (as distinct from ‘private’ gangs, hired directly by individual farmers). Public gangers were under greater stress because of the long distances they had to travel to different farms in the season. Ganging was traditional in East Anglia and the Fens. 2 Boys and girls as young as 6 mixed with adults of both sexes, working from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the summer, excluding the time it took to travel to and from their villages. A Huntingdonshire farm labourer’s wife told how she got her 6-year-old daughter into a gang: ‘She walked all the way (8 miles) to her work and worked from 8 to 5.30 and received 4d. She was that tired that her sisters had to carry her the best part of the way home…and she was ill from it for three weeks, and never went again.’ Her older daughters had started in gangs at 11 and 13, leaving home at 5 a.m. and not returning till 9 p.m. Occasionally gangers might travel in a cart, but usually they walked, and it was not unusual to see older brothers and sisters carrying the younger ones on their backs.

It was the moral dangers that disturbed Victorian sensitivities in mixing youths of both sexes in the fields, and allowing them unfettered scope for mischief in the long journeys to and from

-31-

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