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

By Lionel Rose | Go to book overview

3

SWEATSHOPS, COTTAGE LABOUR AND MOONLIGHTING UP TO THE FIRST WORLD WAR

Whilst it was the ‘dark satanic mills’ and their impersonal regime of massed labour under a capitalistic boss that received most of the early publicity for child exploitation, in fact, as was said in the last chapter, much of the worst exploitation was inflicted in small workshops often at the hands of the children’s own parents. Small workshops were more hidden; their abuses long pre-dated the industrial revolution 1 and it is most unlikely that children’s overall lot was worsened by steam technology. One must remember that the homeless city waifs were usually orphans and runaways from the workhouse or grinding ‘apprenticeships’, so-called, to small tradesmen like chimney sweeps and undertakers as exemplified in Oliver Twist. And it was the spotlight cast on factory and mines employment by the 1842-3 Children’s Employment Commission and the 1863-1 Royal Commission on Employment of Children that also illuminated the conditions in rural domestic industries, such as lace-, glove- and button-making. In the 1860s little girls of 4 to 6 years old were already ruining their eyesight in straw-plaiting and lace-making. In the hosiery trade toddlers under 5 were kept working till past midnight, and mothers were said to pin the children to their knee to keep them working, and slap them to keep them awake. 2 Other small-scale rural crafts employing children included brush- and besom-making, knitting, chair- and hurdle-making and (in fishing areas) net-braiding. 3 In the cities; the situation was similar. In the 1860s the Scottish philanthropist Annie Macpherson exposed the plight of child matchbox-makers in London’s East End receiving 3s 4d for a gross of boxes. 4

At this time, too, in the same district 7-year-olds in cheap tailoring shops were working 12 hours a day for 6d a day, and in

-19-

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