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What was child labour like?

The Times 11 April 1914 p4

The Times 11 April 1914 p4

It would appear that the busy-bodies of a hundred years ago have it in for child labour (or “half-time” working, as it was then known). Luckily, there are some willing to defend the practice:

I worked for nearly 20 years in the same factory. Contrary to the opinions expressed by some people, my health never suffered as a result of the half-time system, and I was never at home for more than a few days during the whole of my factory life. Again, I never had any trouble to pass the required “standard” at school, and I certainly cannot remember to have fallen asleep over my lessons, or even to have felt inclined to do so.

Love the scare quotes.

So, why do we have child labour?

To speak generally, the half-time children belong to parents of the unskilled labour class, where every shilling earned makes a difference at the week-end…

Unfortunately, our correspondent then makes a serious error:

In my estimation the half-timers employed in the factories are far better off than the unfortunate children who work in barbers’ shops, hawk newspapers in the streets, run about mornings and evenings on milk rounds, card hooks and eyes or make match-boxes.

Don’t give them ideas!

I had to laugh at this:

In these progressive days parents almost invariably allow their children to sit up until their own bed hour: the children have just what they fancy for supper, not what is most suitable…

Plus ça change…

18 comments to What was child labour like?

  • Paul Marks

    Child labour was hard – any form of labour is hard.

    Work is Adam’s curse – we do not live in the Garden of Eden. We earn our bread from the sweat of our face.

    If families grow wealthy (as most families in Britain now are wealthy – by historical standards) they can afford for their children not to work. If families are poor and a rigid ban on child labour is enforced then the children go hungry – or get sold to the sex trade (as is the case in some Third World country).

    Working hard in a factory (or on the farm – for thousands of years most children worked on the land, often harder than factory children do) may harm your health (mostly it will not – at least not for most people), being sold to the sex child as child certainly will harm your health.

    Let us hope that all families (everywhere in the world) grow wealthy enough so that their children do not have to work.

  • veryretired

    Some fascinating photos concerning this subject at “Shorpy”, a website actually named after the child laborer pictured in one of its initial photos.

    The opposition to children working was closely tied to the progressive campaign for mandatory universal education.

    In the current era, childhood has been extended well into the 20’s. I imagine most of our ancestors would think such a system was crazy, but what did they know?

    Much better that our young people never mature than that they have to go to work for a living, eh? Oh, yes, much better now…

  • Lee Moore

    I don’t share Paul Marks desire to keep children from working. I think early experience of work is a good education, and far better than being bored in a classroom. I don’t insist on hard manual labour in an atmosphere of poisonous fumes, nor forty hours a week, nor do I insist on children who are actually learning something in the classroom abandoning school to go down t’mine. But as veryretired suggests, postponing adulthood till your mid twenties is a very bad idea, and getting children used to actual work by say the age of 12 would be good for most of ’em.

    It would certainly have been good for me. It was only when I had to go to work that I discovered that I hadn’t really been trying for the previous ten years.

  • I wouldn’t presume to speak for Paul, but I read his comment as wishing that children did not have to work, not wishing that they would not work. It is one thing for a child to work because he or she wants to do it out of interest, or out of desire to feel like an adult or to earn some money to buy a new game console. It is quite another for a child to have to work in order not to go hungry. The latter may still be a reality in many places, but I share Paul’s view that it is not a good reality.

  • Richard Thomas

    I had a paper round and it was a lot of getting up early and lugging papers around for rubbish pay. I gained no useful perspective, drive or anything else positive from it other than being able to look back and see what a mug I was. I never really got my arse in gear until I started trying to make my own way in the world. So no, I don’t think that child labour has much value in and of itself. Of course, certain types are likely beneficial (such as working in the family business or where you can actually increase your skill-set)

  • Roue le Jour

    I also did a paper round, Richard, and to me it was just a job. I can’t see why you consider yourself to have been a mug. Would somebody else have paid you more? If you think low paid jobs are in of themselves a mugs game, then congratulations, you have discovered socialism.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    I too had a paper round. I can’t honestly say it was a lot of getting up early and lugging papers around for rubbish pay, because I was quickly fired for not getting up early enough, given my slower than average rate of delivering papers. That did give me useful perspective: I – wonderful, clever, educated I – could be so bad at an unskilled job that I got fired from it.

  • So no, I don’t think that child labour has much value in and of itself

    I agree – in fact, I’d say that it’s like any other labor: it depends on circumstances, reasons, incentives, the person (child) and job in question, or any other many factors that may come into the decision of whether to take a certain job or to work at all. The important question is not whether children should work, but whether they should be allowed to work. I absolutely think they should be.

  • Steph Houghton

    What is really interesting about this article is that it seems to be from a labour party paper.

  • Patrick Crozier

    @Natalie Suddenly, I don’t feel so bad about being fired as a shelf stacker in a supermarket for similar reasons

  • Patrick Crozier

    @Steph Sorry, but at the time The Times was decidedly Unionist ie Conservative.

  • Lee Moore

    So no, I don’t think that child labour has much value in and of itself

    Harrumpf. “Of itself” rather narrows the analysis. No doubt much the same could be said of school and education generally, for the 90% or so of children who’d prefer to be playing football or hanging out with friends, over the excitement of quadratic equations. But deleting those two words, we’re left with the same value as any entry level job. You learn the value set by employers on arriving for work at a regular time, the premium set by employers on achievement over excuses, the association between work that you don’t really want to do and the arrival of money; and you may acquire the motivation to study harder and so qualify yourself for a less dull job, while you’re still in a position to learn something. Each of these is a valuable thing – if not “of itself.” And learning these things at twelve rather than at twenty four is both possible and desirable, in my view.

  • Pardone

    There’s a reason why orphans are so often successful; they are not held back by parents. Mothers have a vested interest in their children failing; all the better for mum to stay in control, permanently.

  • Yes, Pardone: lets orphan all children and thus make them all successful. Or at least put them in the care of the ever-benevolent State upon birth, lest they are held back by their overbearing mothers. FFS.

  • staghounds

    You learn the value set by everyone you will encounter on arriving anywhere at a regular time, the premium set by the whole world on achievement over excuses…

    And what better “education” is there?

  • Laird

    Pardone has that completely backward. Only mothers with serious psychological problems would desire to see their children fail merely to remain “in control.” However, it is most definitely in the interest of the state (or more precisely, of the functionaries who run it) to remain “in control” and to do everything they can to prevent people’s success. Witness the demonstrable failure and yet continued expansion of the welfare state. Politicians and bureaucrats want dependence; parents don’t.

  • Paul Marks

    Lee Moore and Alisa.

    Yes – there is a lot of difference between “doing chores” which I agree is good for children (otherwise they will grow up not being able to do anything practical – and thinking all basic things are done by some form of magic), and full time employment.

    Hence what I said about from the sweat of one’s face one earns one’s bread.

    If a person can still stand after a day’s work – they have really been working (not as our ancestors, or some of us, understood work).

  • Paul, I was talking about more than doing chores – what I meant was actual paid work outside the home. Whether it would be part or full-time is a totally separate matter, and would depend on several factors.