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

By Lionel Rose | Go to book overview

6

BRICKYARD AND CANAL BOAT CHILDREN AND CHIMNEY SWEEPS

Whilst public attention in the early Victorian period focused on the toil of children in textile factories and mines, the labours of thousands of little boys and girls in the brickyards of Staffordshire, Leicestershire, Derbyshire and other parts of Britain went unobserved. Their plight was to be taken up by George Smith, born in 1831 the son of a Staffordshire brickyard worker. He had started in a brickyard at the age of 7, experiencing the commonplace ‘abuse’ at the hands of brutalized older workers. As he wrote later of conditions prevailing in the 1860s for brickyard children:

Kicks, cuffs, over-hastening and oaths and curses enough to make the flesh creep, are too frequent modes of impelling to work. The old-men, monkey-like faces, the shrunken, shivering, cowering scared looks of many of the children, are things not to be imagined. I myself have seen, over and over again, the black eye, the unhealed sore, the swollen head, the bruised body in little, very little children, that proclaimed sorrowfully their experience to be filled up by cruelty, murderous violence…and punishment within not an inch but a hair’s breadth of life. 1

George himself was an industrious and devout Methodist. He rose to become manager of a brickworks at Coalville in Leicestershire, where his compassion for children inspired him to run a ‘model’ yard, excluding boys under 12 and girls altogether. A factory inspector, Robert Baker, became an ally and produced a report on brickyards in 1864; this was followed by a report by Inspector H.W. Lord for the Royal Commission on Employment of Children in 1866. 2 Boys and girls as young as 4 were employed

-51-

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