Child Labor in Nineteenth-Century Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Child Labor in Nineteenth-Century Literature


Child Labor in Nineteenth-Century Literature

Child labor did not begin with the advent of the industrial revolution. The young had always worked alongside their parents in the home, in the field, and as apprentices in skilled and semi-skilled trades, but the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw a drastic change in the type of labor children performed. Increasingly employed in factories and mines, children were thrust into dangerous and unhealthy situations within the adult working world, prompting reformers to call for legislative change and Romantic and Victorian writers to offer sympathetic representations of working children in their poetry and fiction.

In the early part of the nineteenth century thousands of children in England were employed in textile factories, workshops, and mines, usually working long hours for very low wages. Although the Factory Act of 1833 set at nine the minimum age for children working in factories, it was rarely enforced. Parents who depended on the wages of their offspring could easily obtain certificates testifying that their children met the required age. Mining was not regulated until much later when the Report of the Children's Employment Commission in 1842 exposed the dangerous and unhealthy conditions under which children as young as four and five labored underground. The smallest workers were most commonly employed as “trappers,” sitting alone in the dark shafts and opening the trap doors for approaching coal carts. Older children, six and up, worked in the mines as human beasts of burden, dragging loaded coal carts through narrow passages. Other industries, such as the manufacture of glass, lace, pottery, paper, and tobacco, were subject to no regulations at all until well past the mid-century mark.

An almost exclusively British practice was the tradition of using small boys, and sometimes girls, to climb narrow chimneys as apprentices to adult chimney-sweeps. George Phillips reports that elsewhere in the world chimneys were most often cleaned with a weighted rope operated by two men and later by machinery invented for the purpose, but it was an English tradition to use climbing boys. “Once he had started to employ climbing-boys, the Englishman did not wish to change his habit; and the custom of sending small children … up chimneys continued in a country noted for its tenacity in maintaining its traditions,” writes Phillips. Children as young as four, the smaller the better, were apprenticed by their poverty-stricken parents or by unscrupulous overseers of workhouses.

In America, just as in England, minimum age laws were routinely ignored. Catherine Gourley reports that at the end of the nineteenth century girls as young as eight worked in the infamous Triangle shirtwaist factory in New York City, although state law prohibited the employment of children under fourteen. When infrequent inspections took place, factory owners would hide the littlest workers or push them out one door as the inspector was entering another. Every industry posed special hazards for children, from the unfenced machinery in mills to the toxic chemicals associated with tanning and printing.

Canada, still an agricultural country in the nineteenth century, became the host for thousands of indigent and abandoned British children sent to the Dominion as agricultural apprentices. Fueled by the desire to remove urban children from the unhealthy atmosphere in industrial cities (and in some cases, off the public dole), the emigration movement was based on the assumption that the pure air of Canadian farm country would naturally be more suitable for the youngsters. Joy Parr reports, however, that in the absence of legislation regulating this “traffic in children,” overwork and abuse were common features of the arrangement. Yet government debate on the importation of British children into Canada most often centered on the threats posed by the children to public health and to the local labor markets rather than on concern for the welfare of the young workers themselves.

Another international practice rife with abuse and scandal was the custom of sending Italian children to Paris, London, and New York City, where they acted as street musicians and figurine sellers under the care of a master who allegedly supervised the children in exchange for a percentage of their wages. Reports of overcrowded and substandard housing for the youngsters were common, as were allegations of physical abuse for those who returned at the end of the day with insufficient profits. Despite numerous reports that the Italian children were being held in virtual slavery, complaints to the British government and calls for reform attacked the problem only as a health menace and public nuisance. John E. Zucchi reports that “the government and the courts seemed to show less interest in the possibility that a slave system existed in their ‘liberal Christian’ country than in the possibility that vagrants and beggars should overrun Britain's major cities and towns.”

British children in factories and mines inspired calls for reform from such notable literary figures as Robert Southey, who visited textile factories in the early part of the nineteenth century; Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who authored several pamphlets and letters on child labor; and William Cobbett, who addressed the House of Commons, although he appeared to believe the claims of factory owners that British prosperity was dependent on the labor of youngsters. Cobbett reported to the ministers that “a most surprising discovery has been made, namely, that all our greatness and prosperity, that our superiority over other nations, is owing to 300,000 little girls in Lancashire.” The plight of the climbing-boys and chimney sweeps seemed particularly to capture the imagination and sympathy of authors and reformers. William Blake's famous poem “The Chimney Sweeper” appeared in 1789, and was followed in 1822 by Charles Lamb's essay “The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers,” wherein Lamb changed their cry from Blake's “'weep, 'weep, 'weep,” to the “peep peep of a young sparrow,” and referred to the soot-blackened climbers as “young Africans of our own growth.” Charles Dickens dealt with the horrors of the chimney-sweeping trade in Oliver Twist (1838), having the cruel sweep Mr. Gamfield describe the appropriate way to dislodge a young apprentice stuck in a narrow flue: “there's nothink like a good hot blaze to make 'em come down with a run.”

Dickens had a unique perspective on the subject of child labor, reflecting upon his own experience working at Warren's Blacking Factory at the age of twelve when his father was held in debtor's prison. Completely on his own, working long hours in rat-infested quarters, young Dickens felt abandoned by his family, and his bitterness over this period of his childhood continued to influence his life and writings. Numerous critics and biographers have studied the details of the Warren's Blacking episode and note that it informed the author's sympathetic treatment of working and abandoned children in many of his novels, particularly Oliver Twist and the largely autobiographical David Copperfield (1850). Like Dickens, David later recalled feeling utterly abandoned as he labored in the Murdstone and Grinby warehouse: “I know enough of the world now to have lost the capacity of being much surprised by anything; but it is a matter of some surprise to me, even now, that I can have been so easily thrown away at such an age.” By making his fictional persona only ten years old, rather than twelve, Dickens made the incident even more poignant in the novel than it had been in his own life.

In Frances Trollope's The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy (1840), an entire novel is devoted to the subject of child labor rather than a single chapter as in David Copperfield. But this approach caused special problems for authors: how to expose the social problem without sacrificing artistic integrity. Sympathetic writers, such as Mrs. Trollope, were charged with propagandizing as they sought to represent conditions and characters in a manner that would garner support for their young victims. Some critics felt Trollope went overboard in her characterization of Sir Matthew Dowling, the factory owner, as the embodiment of evil. One contemporary reviewer claimed that the novel was “an exaggerated statement of the vices of a class, and a mischievous attempt to excite the worst and bitterest feelings against men who are, like other men, creatures of circumstances, in which their lot has been cast.” Critic W. H. Chaloner cautions that although Trollope visited factories in the north of England while writing her novel, her fictional accounts of factory life for children should not be confused with historically accurate reports of their conditions.

Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna's factory novel, Helen Fleetwood (1840), drew on historical sources such as blue books, parliamentary records, and the Sadler Committee report. Critics Ivanka Kovačević and S. Barbara Kanner compare Tonna's fictional incidents with actual testimony from parliamentary witnesses and find many similarities. Kovačevic and Kanner state: “While Helen Fleetwood is unashamedly propagandistic and self-consciously reliant upon the dry bones of parliamentary and other reports, it is a genuinely moving assault upon the reader's conscience in its graphic account of what it is like to be a woman or child forced by compulsions of poverty to work in a factory.”

As obscure as these and similar novels had become in popular literature, nineteenth century novels centering on child labor conditions and reform movements are now being studied by a new generation of critics and scholars interested in the current problem of child labor in developing countries as part of the global economy.

Representative Works

William Blake
“The Chimney Sweeper” (poem) 1789

Elizabeth Barrett Browning
“The Cry of the Children” (poem) 1843

John C. Cobden
The White Slaves of England, Compiled from Official Documents (essay) 1859

Charles Dickens
Oliver Twist (novel) 1838
The Personal History of David Copperfield (novel) 1850

Benjamin Disraeli
Sybil, or The Two Nations (novel) 1848

Elizabeth Gaskell
Mary Barton (novel) 1847

Charles Kingsley
Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet (novel) 1850
The Water Babies (fairy tale) 1886


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Criticism: Overviews

Sheila Ferguson (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Ferguson, Sheila. “Children at Work.” In Growing Up in Victorian Britain, pp. 54-61. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1977.

[In the following excerpt, Ferguson discusses the various trades in which children were employed in nineteenth-century England and the abuses associated with each particular form of child labor.]


In the 1830s thousands of children worked in factories, workshops and mines in the most appalling conditions, often for a mere pittance in wages. Their employers, the manufacturers who had successfully carried through a revolution in industry, resisted the demand for factory reform on the grounds that...

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Pamela Horn (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Horn, Pamela. “Introduction: 1780-1850s.” In Children's Work and Welfare, 1780-1890, pp. 1-11. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

[In the following excerpt, Horn provides an overview of child labor in the first half of the nineteenth century in England.]


At the end of the eighteenth century two opposing philosophies underpinned contemporary attitudes towards childhood. The first, and most widely held, stemmed from a belief in the innate sinfulness of all humanity and the consequent need to curb and control youthful high spirits. Habits of industry must be...

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Criticism: Climbing Boys And Chimney Sweeps

Charles Lamb (essay date 1822)

SOURCE: Lamb, Charles. “The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers.” In The Works of Charles and Mary Lamb, edited by E. V. Lucas, Volume II, pp. 108-14. London: Methuen & Co., 1903.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1822, Lamb comments on the young children employed in London as chimney sweeps.]

I Like to meet a sweep—understand me—not a grown sweeper—old chimney-sweepers are by no means attractive—but one of those tender novices, blooming through their first nigritude, the maternal washings not quite effaced from the cheek—such as come forth with the dawn, or somewhat earlier, with their little professional notes sounding like the peep...

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George L. Phillips (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: Phillips, George L. Introduction to England's Climbing-Boys: A History of the Long Struggle to Abolish Child Labor in Chimney-Sweeping, pp. 1-6. Boston: Baker Library, Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration, 1949.

[In the following excerpt, Phillips provides an overview of the practice of employing small children as chimney sweeps and notes the numerous references to them in literature.]

Climbing-Boys, shouting their shrill cry of “All up” from the chimney-tops, were heard more and more frequently throughout eighteenth century England as the demand for their services, resulting from narrow flues and coal fires, constantly increased. As an...

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Criticism: The International Traffic In Children

Joy Parr (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Parr, Joy. “British Working Children,” “The Promised Land.” In Labouring Children: British Immigrant Apprentices to Canada, 1869-1924, pp. 14-26, 45-61. London: Croom Helm, 1980.

[In the following excerpt, Parr examines the working conditions in late nineteenth-century Britain that led poor parents to send their children to Canada as agricultural apprentices. Parr also discusses the conditions encountered by the children when they arrived in Canada.]

England does not know what childhood is.1

There were visitors who came away from Salford, East London and East Glasgow eighty years ago claiming...

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John E. Zucchi (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Zucchi, John E. “‘The Organ Boys’ in London.” In The Little Slaves of the Harp: Italian Child Street Musicians in Nineteenth-Century Paris, London, and New York, pp. 76-110. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Zucchi discusses the treatment of Italian children working as musicians and figurine sellers in the streets of London in the nineteenth-century.]

The young boys from Parma made their first appearance in London soon after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. In March 1820 the Times reported that “the public have of late been exceedingly annoyed by the appearance of a number of Italian boys with monkeys...

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Criticism: Critics And Reformers

John Spargo (essay date 1906)

SOURCE: Spargo, John. “The Working Child.” In The Bitter Cry of the Children, pp. 125-217. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1968.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1906, Spargo explores the physical, moral, social, and economic implications of child labor in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.]

“In this boasted land of freedom there are bonded baby slaves,
And the busy world goes by and does not heed.
They are driven to the mill, just to glut and overfill
Bursting coffers of the mighty monarch, Greed.
When they perish we are told it is God's will,
Oh, the roaring of the mill, of the mill!”


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Linda Atkinson (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Atkinson, Linda. “The Children.” In Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America, pp. 114-33. New York: Crown Publishers, 1978.

[In the following excerpt, Atkinson discusses the work of American labor activist Mary (“Mother”) Jones on behalf of working children.]

Children at work, either beside their parents or at tasks which they could handle alone, was not a new thing in the nineteenth century. Children had always worked on the farm and in the home. But children at work in mines and factories from sunrise to sunset, children who were stoop-shouldered and ill by the time they were ten, and who were commonly crippled on the “job”—that was...

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Clark Nardinelli (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Nardinelli, Clark. “The Critics of Child Labor.” In Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution, pp. 9-35. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, Nardinelli examines the agendas of groups seeking regulation of child labor.]

Most civilized people consider the mistreatment of children to be an outrage. Because the employment of children in factories and workshops has long been considered to be the worst sort of treatment, child labor has never lacked critics. Indeed, by far the greater part of the commentators on child labor have been highly critical of the practice. In this chapter, I will assess the views of some of the...

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Criticism: Fictional Representations Of Child Laborers

John Forster (essay date 1890)

SOURCE: Forster, John. “Hard Experiences in Boyhood (1822-4).” In The Life of Charles Dickens, pp. 19-33. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1966.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1890, Dickens's friend and biographer John Forster offers Dickens's own recollection of the Warren's Blacking Factory period of his boyhood and how this was incorporated into his fiction from Oliver Twist to Martin Chuzzlewit and David Copperfield.]

The incidents to be told now would probably never have been known to me, or indeed any of the occurrences of his childhood and youth, but for the accident of a question which I put to him one day in the March or...

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W. H. Chaloner (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: Chaloner, W. H. “Mrs. Trollope and the Early Factory System.” Victorian Studies 4, no. 2 (December 1960): 159-66.

[In the following essay, Chaloner examines the manner in which Frances Trollope researched her novel about child labor and cautions against regarding fictional representations of social problems as historically accurate.]

Mrs. Frances Trollope, the mother of Anthony Trollope the novelist, is not generally associated with the North of England and its cotton industry, although her now rather rare novel, The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy, which appeared in twelve shilling parts during 1839-40,1 purports...

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Ivanka Kovačević and S. Barbara Kanner (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Kovačević, Ivanka, and S. Barbara Kanner. “Blue Book into Novel: The Forgotten Industrial Fiction of Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 25 (1970-71): 152-73.

[In the following essay, Kovačević and Kanner discuss the writings of Tonna, whose fictional works on factory conditions and child labor are based on factual accounts and witness testimony recorded in parliamentary blue books and other official reports.]

Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, by her persistent reading of Government reports, laboured to penetrate the underground life of thousands of women hidden away in small and dirty shops. Her exhaustive treatment of so...

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Roger P. Wallins (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Wallins, Roger P. “Victorian Periodicals and the Emerging Social Conscience.” Victorian Periodicals Newsletter 8, no. 2 (June 1975): 47-59.

[In the following essay, Wallins claims that social problems such as child labor, poor housing, and overcrowded, unsanitary graveyards brought to the attention of the middle class by nineteenth-century novelists had been exposed by popular periodicals much earlier.]

For much of the twentieth century, critics of Victorian ‘social-problem’ novels have tended to view such works as exposing the working and living conditions of the lower classes. The novels, these critics imply, materialized out of the authors' personal...

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Albert D. Hutter (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Hutter, Albert D. “Reconstructive Autobiography: The Experience at Warren's Blacking.” Dickens Studies Annual 6 (1977): 1-14.

[In the following essay, Hutter discusses distortions of the accounts of Dicken's childhood labor at Warren's Blacking Factory in the author's own narrative and in various versions of his biographers and critics.]

Any autobiographical statement is a fabrication. Facts are distorted, relationships colored, not necessarily to deceive or persuade an audience, but rather because of the individual's desire to make sense out of the past as he understands it—and always incompletely understands it—in the present. I hope to clarify and...

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Roger P. Wallins (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Wallins, Roger P. “Mrs. Trollope's Artistic Dilemma in Michael Armstrong.Ariel 8, no. 1 (January 1977): 5-15.

[In the following essay, Wallins examines Trollope's attempt to balance the artistic integrity of her novel with her concern for the plight of children working in factories.]

The nineteenth-century social novel generally establishes a limited area in which to identify and perhaps offer solutions to a particular problem, often some aspects of the living and working conditions of factory workers, miners or, less frequently, agricultural laborers. It seems to have begun with Oliver Twist,1 Charles Dickens' first attempt to...

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Patrick Waddington (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Waddington, Patrick. “Russian Variations on an English Theme: The Crying Children of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” Studies in Browning and His Circle 21 (November 1997): 95-115.

[In the following essay, Waddington discusses Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem on child labor, “The Cry of the Children,” and its considerable influence in Russia where it inspired imitations by several Russian literary figures.]

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Russian fame preceded that of her husband, but afterwards declined. In an article of 1860 the eminent critic A. V. Druzhinin casually referred to her as a ‘celebrated name’ in English letters.1 As late...

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Further Reading


Bolin-Hort, Per. Work, Family and the State: Child Labour and the Organization of Production in the British Cotton Industry, 1780-1920. Lund, Sweden: Lund University Press, 1989, 328 p.

Provides a complete study of child labor in Great Britain's mechanized cotton factories from the late eighteenth century until child labor was abolished in 1920.

DePaolo, Charles. “Coleridge on Child-Labour Reform.” The Charles Lamb Bulletin n.s. 4-5 (January 1984): 187-94.

Considers the pamphlets and letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge protesting the employment of children in factories and mills.


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