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Glad ur not... at work | Life for children in Victorian Britain | Birmingham City Council

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Glad ur not... at work

What would you rather do today? Go to school or work for 12 hours in a dirty, dangerous factory? During the 19th century, the children of the poor didn’t have to go to school, but many went to work instead. The Industrial Revolution saw Britain’s huge factories produce goods to be traded across Britain and the world. Jobs were plentiful but worker’s wages were extremely low, so every member of the family was expected to work in order to support each other.

Thousands of children worked in the city’s factories, at coal mines and in the homes of the wealthy. Children were cheap to pay and could be bullied and forced to carry out the jobs that no-one else wanted to do. The working day was long; children often spent 12 hours in physically demanding jobs leaving them exhausted. If they fell asleep whilst at work, children could be beaten by the factory foremen and have their wages docked. In the early part of the 19th century, few laws existed to protect children and these laws were often ignored by factory owners anyway. The Factory Act of 1833 stated that children aged 9 to 13 could work no more than 9 hours per day. Working families would have had little money to spend on food and their poor diets meant that children didn’t grow properly, were weak or developed rickets. It was usual for children to go to bed every night feeling hungry. Being weak and working in dirty, dangerous conditions with no safety equipment or protective clothing meant that children died either at work or as the result of hard work.

Street children had to live on their wits in order to get together enough money to buy some food and not have to resort to petty crime. A penny could be earned from running an errand or delivering a message for a passing gentleman. Crossing sweepers, flower girls, shoe-blacks, newsboys and milk maids, all earned their living on the city streets.

Families often had 7 or more children and finding enough food for everyone to eat was a struggle. Sending your child away to find work or agreeing for them to be bound to an apprentice for several years meant that you had one less mouth to feed. Older children were often sent by their parents to find work as servants in grand houses. At large estates, lots of servants were employed in different roles to help run the home. Each servant had a defined job to do and knew their place in the pecking order. Even smaller homes of the middle classes employed at least one servant, usually a maid of all work whose job it was to help with the enormous quantities of laundry that needed washing by hand. Young people would often consider a life in service, as it was one of the only ways to escape the misery of life in the slums.