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Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Child Lace Workers

Child labour was used in the manufacture of machine-made lace (bobbin-net) as well as hand-made lace. Young children tended the lace-making machinery. Finishing processes such as lace ‘running’, ‘dressing’ and ‘drawing’ were done by hand, mostly by women, young persons and children in large workshops or private houses. ‘Running’ was a type of embroidery which added extra decoration to the lace.
The girls who did this work suffered from increasingly poor eyesight and spinal problems because of the long hours they spent bent over the lace.
In the ‘dressing’ process, the lace was dipped in a starchy paste, then stretched over a frame. When it had dried, it was cut to size and pressed ready for sale.

Machine-made lace came off the machine in sections joined by threads, and ‘drawing’ meant removing these joining threads with a needle. An investigator in the 1840s found one Nottingham mother forcing her two year old child to work at ‘drawing’. This little girl’s older sisters worked at lace-drawing from six in the morning until darkness fell during the summer months. The machine-made lace industry was based in Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Derbyshire, the West Country and the Isle of Wight.

Images: Lace running by hand. Lace dressing at Nottingham. Charles Knight’s Pictorial Gallery of Arts, Vol. I, c.1862.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Schools Which Weren’t Really Schools

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.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Nails and Screws

Children were widely used as cheap labour in the making of nails and screws. Nails could be made by hand using wrought iron (as in the Wigan area, and Black Country), and all the family joined in the manufacturing process. ‘Cut’ nails were not as strong as wrought-nails, and were made by machine, worked by a child or man.

Screw heads were also made by machines worked by children. Birmingham was the major centre for screw manufacture in the 1860s. At Hawkins’ screw factory on Princip St, thirteen year old Mary Regan worked from 8am until 7pm, with an hour for dinner. Mary first went to work when she was about six years old, in a button factory.

These child workers had little time to go to school. Charles Sidwell (age 11), when shown a picture of a bird’s nest with eggs, said he didn’t ‘know what that picture is’. He was also shown a picture of a cow being milked: ‘ that’s a lion’, he said. (Children’s Employment Commission, 3rd report, 1864, XXII, 3414-I).

Making cut nails, and making screw heads. Charles Knight’s Pictorial Gallery of Arts, Vol. I, c.1862.

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.