There were over 73,000 boys aged ten to fourteen at work in the countryside in 1851. Over ten thousand girls worked as 'live-in' farm servants. Boys were not usually considered physically strong enough to do full-time jobs such as ploughing until they were about ten years old (age fifteen for girls). However, they did odd jobs such as scaring birds from the crops, or helping to glean after the harvest. The Poor Law 'reforms' of 1834 had resulted in a large increase in child labour in the countryside; children worked in the fields or helped with hedging and ditching at far younger ages than in former times. The restriction of parish relief meant that parents were desperate to find work for their children.
In counties such as Norfolk, a system of ‘gang labour’ grew up. It was a way of getting labour-intensive jobs such as turnip harvesting done as cheaply as possible. A farmer would pay a gang master to do the job at a fixed price. The gang master recruited workers at the lowest page possible to maximise his profit. Children as young as six worked in the gangs. Because they had to travel where the work was, they often walked miles to work, and back home again after their day’s toil. The parish of Castle Acre became notorious for its use of gang child labour. You can find out more about the gang children and reformers' battle to stop the gangs in The Children History Forgot.
Image: Oxen pulling haycart. Unknown artist, c.1790.