The Gallery : Matthew Murray - Steam Engineer | Working Children in Britain

Working Children in Britain

Working children were not uncommon before the 1800s. Children helped out in house and farm work and also in their parents' business. But in the midst of the industrial revolution child labour reached new dimensions:

Children were sent out to work by their parents to support their families. Many also lived on their own without parents, often together with other children in lodging houses.

Dinner at a cheap lodging house
Dinner at a cheap lodging house

Factory Work

Group of young factory workers, early 1900s
Group of young factory workers, early 1900s

Factory owners employed children, because they were cheap labour and did not have to be very skilled to work on the machines. The job was hard with long working hours. Accidents were common and the impact was deformity of spines and limbs or bent knees and more.

Acts by the government to regulate juvenile labour failed till the Factory Act of 1833. It set the minimum age of workers at 9, the working hours were not to exceed 48 hours a week and it also set requirements for education.

Climbing Boys

Climbing Boys
Illustration of a case in Lothbury: two climbing boys who got stuck in the flue could only be taken out by opening the brick-work. Both of them were pulled out dead.

The task of chimney sweep apprentices, the so called climbing boys, was to climb up the flue of a chimney and clean it using their bodies. Some were employed at the early age of 4 and worked till they were too big for the flues.

There had been no real successful regulation of this trade till the act of 1834, which limited the minimum age of climbing boys to 10 and set requirements for trial periods for the apprentices. Further acts banned children under 16 from climbing chimnies.

Climbing boys often suffered from wounds and deformities and cancer. Some died in accidents at work.


Circus Boy
Circus Boy" ca. 1911 by Glyn Warren Philpot

Children performed in theatres, the circus, or on the street, for instance as pantomimes. Regulations of the work of children in public entertainment only really started in 1879 with the Children's Dangerous Performances Act. It stated that no children under the age of 14 were to perform dangerous acts, like acrobats, and that special training was required.

Further acts followed, regulating acting and street performances.

Street Sellers

Apart from being employed by an adult street seller as an assistant, children also worked on their own. They sold small and cheap things, like matches, flowers or fruits.

Flower Girls

Flower Girl
The Wallflower Girl (from a photograph)

Selling of cut flowers was a job mainly done by girls. The selling of water cresses was regarded as the lowest grade of street sales. Depending on the time of the year different sorts of flowers were sold.

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Flower Girl
The Mudlark (from a photograph)

With worn out trousers, their legs and feet covered with chilblains, mudlarks waded through the mud that is left on the shore by the retiring tide and collected whatever they could find and what they were able to sell. The children were from very poor families or were orphans and they had little or no education.

Crossing Sweeping and other Odd Work

Crossing Sweepers
The Boy-Crossing Sweepers (from a photograph)

Boys and girls were casual sweepers, working on their own or in groups with own rules and a leader. In the group they helped each other and shared their money.

The sweeps also usually had their own territory they cleaned, fighting away others who wanted to take their crossings.

Children often had more than one way to make money. When it was dry and the streets were not muddy the crossing sweepers, for instance, would do occasional work like catching and opening cabs for people. In the evening they would go outside theatres and operas and tumble for money. Girls mixed ballade singing or lace selling.

However, activities like tumbling were considered begging, which was punished with imprisonment.


Boys exercising at Tothill Fields Prison
Boys exercising at Tothill Fields Prison

If the money still wasn't sufficient, some were driven to occasional theft. On the other hand there were also children who chose to become thieves, since one was often able to gain more money by stealing from people and from shops than through honest work.

In the 1800s, although penalties were high, crime prevention was very low and the hard life of the children softened the threat of prisons. Child crime was widespread till compulsory schooling in the 1870s.


A Monitory School
Teacher and school boys in monitory school

Children working during the day seldom attended school, many did not at all. Their knowledge would not go beyond the necessary things they had to know to do their job.

Up to the second half of the 19th century mostly only rich people could afford a proper education. Poor children went to diverse charity schools with low fees when they had the time.

The Factory Act of 1833 required factory owners to provide schools for their child workers. However, state schools only developed in the 1870s and in the 1880s education became compulsory up to the age of 10.

Child Labour Regulations Today

In Britain the current school leaving age is 16 and the legal age to start work is 13. Younger children may only work in entertainment, sports, doing odd jobs or babysitting.

For being issued a performance licence for a child in entertainment one must guarantee acceptable working conditions and sufficient education. There are diverse regulations of working hours for the different kinds of entertainment for children of different ages.

Working children need an employment permit issued by the education department of the local council and they are not allowed to work during school hours. During term time they may work a maximum of 12 hours per week.

During school holidays 13 to 14-year-olds may work 25 hours per week. Children this age can only do "light" work, so they are not allowed to be employed in factories. 15 to 16-year-olds may work 35 hours per week during school holidays.

This webpage was written by Ivonne Winkler - Student Placement, Summer 2007