Child labour in the Victorian countryside was not confined to working on farms or in the fields. Families turned to domestic industries and handicrafts to bring in a few more pennies. Children worked for long hours in close, stuffy rooms in the straw-plaiting, shirt-button making, glove-making and pillow-lace industries. (Straw plait was used to decorate bonnets or make hats).
During the nineteenth century, thousands of women and children were employed making pillow-lace (hand-made lace) in Oxfordshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Devonshire.
Children as young as five years old worked in lace ‘schools’, which were really workshops.
Bedfordshire children worked an eight hour day, for which they earned just a penny or three halfpence. The children became ill and had eye problems after doing such intricate work for long hours. Sometimes the children were taught a little reading and writing, but their parents expected them to perform a minimum amount of work per day.
The ‘schoolmistress’ who supervised the children used a big stick to keep their minds on their work.
Some of the children who worked in straw-plaiting ‘schools’ were very tiny. An investigator for the Children’s Employment Commission in the 1860s found George Tompkins, aged only three and a half years old, making straw plait in a school at Houghton Regis in Bedfordshire.
There are some images of children making pillow lace, and more info on the lace schools, here.
Image: The lace on these morning dresses was almost certainly hand-made. Lady's Monthly Museum, December 1798.