Reign of Queen Victoria - M. B. Synge

Britain's Children

While a handful of British men, women, and children were suffering untold agonies in the Khyber Pass in distant Afghanistan, a great number of British children were suffering acutely at home. Years before this time, Englishmen, in their wisdom and mercy, had decided that forty-five hours a week was long enough for a negro to work, but they did not realize that there were little white slaves in their midst—children of the growing empire—working sixty-nine hours a week under miserable conditions.

"Climbing boys" are now entirely of the past, but in the early Victorian days the chimneys of England were swept by little children. These children were stripped of their clothes, and forced up narrow, dark chimneys by cruel masters, who but a few years before this time, had been found applying wisps of lighted straw to the children's feet to urge them up. It was terrifying work; sometimes the child died of suffocation from the soot lodged in the chimney; sometimes terror, bruises, and disease did their work of disabling the child for life. Again and again attention had been drawn to this evil, but it was not till 1840 that an Act was finally passed forbidding children of eight and ten years old to be sent up chimneys.

The sweep with his long brushes took the children's place, but the law was often evaded—as late as 1873 a little chimney-sweeper of seven and a half was suffocated in a flue at Durham—till further legislation wiped this disgrace from our land.

The man who fought the little children's battles in the first half of the century was Lord Ashley (afterwards Lord Shaftesbury). He now turned his attention to the unhappy children working in the factories. He found children of four, five, and six years old, ignorant, stunted in growth, miserable, working all day long in calico factories, button factories, glass, hosiery, and tobacco factories. Children were looked on as wage-earners, and both parents and factory owners were opposed to shortening the hours of work. It was not till 1845 that Britain forbade the employment of children under eight years old.

Earl of Shaftesbury


Far worse were the conditions under which children were employed in coal-mines. An inquiry in 1812 resulted in a report being published, Never was a Blue Book more widely read; it unveiled a state of things that the warmest friends of the poor could not have imagined. Righteous wrath filled the land when it became known that children of four and five toiled all day long below ground in the coal-mines, To a young and nervous child the terror of descending into the dark mine was intense, nor were matters improved when the lowest depth was reached. Damp, dark, and close, the wall of the mine often had water trickling down its sides, and the ground was deep in black mud.

The first employment of a very young child was that of a "trapper". A little five-year-old would sit all day long beside a low door in a dark narrow passage at the bottom of the mine. On the approach of a small coal-truck pushed by other children, he must pull open the little door, and quickly shut it up again. In pitch darkness and intense silence he sat there all day alone, among rats and beetles. If he fell asleep, a strap was applied with brutal severity. As the children grew older they passed to other employments. Along narrow passages they crawled on all fours, with girdles round their waists, harnessed by a chain between their legs to the coal-truck they drew. They were just little beasts of burden—very different from the happy children attending our schools to-day.

"I found a little girl," said one report, "six years of age, carrying half a hundredweight (or one sack) of coals, and making regularly fourteen journeys a day." Each journey she ascended a height exceeding that of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. No wonder many of these poor children died very young.

The report of all these infant miseries moved Lord Ashley to bring in his great Bill, which forbade mine-owners to employ children under ten years old at all, and after that age only within limited hours.

"Is it not enough", he said, at the end of a famous speech, "to announce these things to an assembly of Christian and British gentlemen? For twenty millions of money you purchased the liberation of the negro, and it was a blessed deed. You may, this night, by a cheap and harmless vote, invigorate the hearts of thousands of your country people, enable them to walk erect in newness of life, and to enter on the enjoyment of their freedom. These, sir, are the ends that I venture to propose; this is the barbarism that I seek to remove."

The Bill was passed, and the little children under ten years old were set free. In 1847 the famous Ten Hours Bill was passed, which gave all the workers in the country more freedom to enjoy life, more leisure in their homes, more rest for their bodies.

So a spirit of mercy and pity grew up in Britain, encouraged by the young Queen. All through her long reign, the conditions of child life became better and better, till at her death the children of the empire were happier and healthier than ever before in the whole history of our country.