In the spring of 1843, Charles Dickens read a government report on child labour in the United Kingdom. The report, compiled by a journalist friend of Charles Dickens, comprised of a series of interviews with working children. It detailed the long hours, crushing work, and poor conditions suffered by these children.
The new and heartless attitude towards child labour was a result of three things:
- an increase in the population by 64% in 30 years;
- workers leaving the countryside and crowding to the cities in search of work; and
- the demise of cottage industries and there replacement with mundane and menial labour in factories.
Employers thought of the workers as commodities whose labour was measured purely on output and productivity.
There was a lot of controversy among the wealthy classes and the clergy as to whether assistance should be extended to the poor. A lot of people were of the opinion that people were poor due to their own laziness and malingering and that giving help would exacerbate these tendencies.
The work houses of the day split up families, provided minimal food, and extracted hard labour from its occupants, including children, in an effort to discourage the poor from seeking help.
I am reminded at this point of the song Food, Glorious Food from the musical Oliver based on the book by Charles Dickens:
Rev. Thomas Malthus advocated letting the poor go hungry to decrease the population. His view was that it was better to let the poor starve to “decrease the surplus population”.
Charles Dickens’ response was to write the novella, A Christmas Carol, which eloquently expressed his views on employer responsibilities towards workers.
If you don’t know the story of A Christmas Carol, this is a very brief overview:
The story opens with Ebenezer Scrooge sitting in his counting house on Christmas Eve. His clerk, Bob Cratchit, is sitting shivering in the anteroom because Scrooge won’t spend any money on heating. He turns down his nephew, Fred’s, invitation to a Christmas party and chases away two men collecting money for charity. At the end of the day, he returns to his cold, dark home.
After Scrooge has retired for the night, he is visited by the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley. Marley is weighed down by heavy chains and is destined to make his way through the afterlife dragging them after him because of his mean-spirited and selfish life.
Marley tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three ghosts that night, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. The ghosts show Scrooge where he made mistakes in his past life due to choosing money over love and life, how his clerk and the Cratchit family are suffering because of his present day meanness, and show him a lonely future death. Scrooge is offered, and takes, an opportunity to change his ways and find redemption.
If you are interested in listening to A Christmas Carol beautifully read by Stephen Humphreys, you will find the links on Rebecca Budd’s blog: Clanmother: https://clanmother.com/2021/12/07/stephen-humphreys-reads-a-christmas-carol/
Wishing you all a Merry Christmas if you celebrate or Happy Holidays.
Although I cannot compare my take on Victorian child labour to Charles Dickens’ brilliant works, I have written several times about this and I thought I would share this short extract from my book, Through the Nethergate, about a serving girl in a tavern in Bungay in 1589.
“The rich, amber fluid flowed into the waiting tankard, in striking contrast to the damp, darkness of the barrel filled cellar.
The small, frail girl stood with the tankard in her trembling hand. She was hungry, thirsty and cold. She hadn’t had anything to eat or drink since last night’s frugal supper of leftovers in the Inn’s kitchen. A wave of dizziness washed over her as she contemplated the drink. Its golden depths seemed to entrance her as she lifted it to her lips.
At least the kitchen was warm, she thought, remembering the delicious heat of the enormous, roaring fireplace. The kitchen was a much better place to steal a moment of rest than this freezing cold
cellar, in the bowels of the building.
The strong, rich taste of the ale brought a smile to the girl’s pale face. She greedily drained the tankard, closing her eyes and allowing a feeling of well-being to permeate through her skinny, undernourished body. The girl, called Lizzie, worked as a servant at the pub and she was twelve years old.
She knew she should be grateful for the job, but it was hard to forgive the heavy-handed punishments metered out to her by Will, the owner of the establishment.
A rough hand grasped her shoulder, its thick fingers digging viciously into her flesh.
“What have you done?” the loud, grating voice of Will blasted through her euphoria.
Lizzie jerked with fear and the tankard fell from her fingers, clattering to the stone floor before rolling away.
She looked up into piggy eyes staring out of a fat and well-fed face. Will’s usually florid complexion looked even ruddier and coarser than usual.
“Why, you little thief,” continued Will. “You know what we do with thieves in this Inn.”
A short while later, Lizzie found herself chained to the wall of the cellar. Her pleas and cries for mercy had fallen on deaf ears as Will, filled with righteousness and piety at her ungodly action, attached the manacles to her wrists and ankles.”
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