Child Labor in Nineteenth-Century Literature Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.