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Thursday, 30 August 2012

Growing Up at Work

If you search through the censuses for your ancestors , you may be surprised at how early youngsters were expected to work, compared with the present day. When my great-grandfather, William Kirkwood Dickman, was fourteen years old, he was a coach-painter’s apprentice in Gorton (1871 census). According to later censuses, when he grew up he continued working as a railway coach painter, and his death certificate in 1931 gives his occupation as railway coach painter.

Another ancestor, my great-great-grandfather Arthur Lomas, born in Alstonefield, Staffordshire, was a child silk worker – a ‘silk picker’ - he cleaned loose fibres from the warp threads for the weaver. Arthur, aged 12 at the time of the 1881 census, lived in Leek with his parents. He was a ‘half-timer’, i.e. he went to school for half a day, and worked the rest of the day.
Some of my other Lancashire ancestors worked in the county's famous industries, cotton and coal mining. My great-grandmother, Sarah Jane Pickvance, was a ‘sheet weaver’ at Farnworth when she was fifteen years old in 1881. In the same year, my great-grandfather John Richard Tudge (who later married Sarah) was a coal miner in Little Hulton; he was fifteen years old, too.

John was lucky to be born later in the century; the the 1842 Children's Employment Commissioners found children as young as five working in Lancashire pits. The 1842 Mines Act banned boys under ten, and all females, from mine work.

Images from the author’s collection:
A Spitalfields weaver weaving silk by hand in the 1880s. Engraving, unknown artist, Cassell’s Family Magazine, 1883.
A disused miners’ cage (lift) at Astley Green Colliery Museum.
This early twentieth century postcard shows a cotton weaving shed and a Lancashire lass in her holiday finery.

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