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Thursday, 24 November 2011

Was your ancestor a child worker in a factory?

In my latest feature for the December issue of Family History Monthly, I investigate nineteenth century child workers and how to research them for your family tree.

For many centuries, the children of the poor entered the workplace from an early age. It was considered part of growing up. They helped with their parents' work at home, in workshops or on the land. Child workers played a vital role in the nation’s economy. They were employed in textile factories, down the mines, in metal manufactures, potteries, glass manufacture, on canal boats, in domestic service, as chimney sweeps: the list is almost endless.
When news broke about abuses in the early factories, this led to a reform movement in the nineteenth century to limit children’s working hours. Lord Ashley (1801–1885), later the seventh earl of Shaftesbury, helped to push factory legislation through parliament.
Parliament vetoed Lord Ashley’s proposal for a ten hour day, but the government passed the Factory Act of 1833, which children under nine years old from working in textile factories, except silk mills. Children aged nine to thirteen were limited to a eight hour working day; teenagers no more than twelve hours. Night work was banned. Children had to attend school for two hours each day. Factory inspectors were appointed to enforce the law.
The age at which children began full-time work gradually increased, thanks to Lord Shaftesbury and other reformers gradually succeeded in their fight to limit children's working hours in factories, workshops and in agriculture. The Factory Act of 1891 increased the age of beginning full-time work to eleven years.
Your local record office may have registers of children exempted from school under the factory and workshop acts in school attendance records. The factory acts said that firms must keep statutory records of children and young persons, and your ancestor’s name could be listed there.

Images from author’s collection: Anthony Ashley Cooper, seventh Earl of Shaftesbury. Engraving by unknown artist, Rev. Edward Lightwood’s The Good Earl, (London, 1886).

The factory chimneys of cotton town Manchester, 1870s. Nationally, over 43,200 children under thirteen were employed in the cotton industry alone in 1871. Cassell’s Illustrated History of England Vol. 7, (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, c.1873).

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