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Thursday, 1 September 2011

The Child Gangs of Castle Acre

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.

4 comments:

rumpydog said...

I'd not known about the system of gang labour. I wonder if anything like this was done here in the US. Of course there was slave labor until after our Civil War. I'll have to research this. Thanks!

Sue Wilkes said...

Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment! There were some 20,000 children working in rural 'gangs' in the mid-1860s in the UK. Do let me know if there was a similar system in the US, as I'd be really interested in hearing about it.

Ali Flower said...

I would be interested to know what happened to children who through illness or disability were unable to work? Did these children get left by the wayside and eventually die of neglect?

Sue Wilkes said...

Hello, Ali. Children who were too ill to work would be dependent on their family for support. If they were 'disabled', they could perhaps earn some pennies for their family by begging. If they had no family, or their family could not afford to feed them, then they'd have to rely on help from the parish overseers or poor law guardians. If the parish overseers would not or could not give them 'relief' (food,blankets etc) in their own homes,the children would be taken into the workhouse.