The harsh working conditions for ordinary people marked the Industrial Revolution in England. Places such as factories and coal mines employed even children, who had to spend hours on hard physical labor almost as much as adults did. Although the power of wealthy industry business owners was high, some governmental officials, being astonished by the suffering of the working class, succeeded in passing laws targeted at its weakest members. This paper reviews the evidence from workers documented in the XIX century, as well as provides examples of laws that helped to improve the working conditions.
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Factories were the driving power behind the Industrial Revolution, requiring thousands of people as a workforce. They spend long hours performing the same set of tasks, often for years without enough time to eat, rest, or perform other necessary duties. One of the worst forms of such labor, of course, was associated with engaging children in factory work. The Sadler Committee of 1982 used a report on the matter, revealing such facts to the Parliament, all of which seem shocking to modern people (“The Life of the Industrial Worker in Nineteenth-Century England”). For example, Elizabeth Bentley was sent to the flax mill as young as six, and her regular working hours were from 6 am to 7 pm, with only forty minutes a day to rest and eat.
Matthew Crabtree, another interviewee, worked as a blanket manufacturer since he was eight years old. He admitted that working hours had been too long, and many children had become tired and lost attention to what they had been doing. In return, they were beaten and strapped by their masters, and there was “never an hour” without hearing someone crying (“The Life of the Industrial Worker in Nineteenth-Century England”). The same measures were applied to children who showed up late to work, which often happened since they had little time to sleep at home.
Unfortunately, such examples were ordinary in the early XIX century. As historians note, the poor class of England was forced to send all their family members above the age of 4 to work (Cody par. 1). Not more than twenty percent of children attended schools, and the remaining usually stayed illiterate. People often worked 16 hours a day independent of their age, and deaths among young workers were common.
Nowadays, the mining industry is considered a demanding sphere that requires substantial physical input from men. However, during the times of the Industrial Revolution, women of all ages were employed in this field. While men were usually getting the coal, female workers used to draw curves, as well as perform other tasks (‘Modern History Sourcebook”). Many of them started working since they were six years old and remained in the industry for many years. Drawers have belts with chains put between their legs for carrying loads, doing it mostly by crawling through narrow tunnels.
The conditions down the coal mines are often humid and hot, with water sometimes covering parts of the pits. Isabella Read, a coal-bearer, admitted that issue and noted that she sometimes had to carry a corve in the darkness, and it was possible to fall asleep while waiting for another load (Del Col). The other two girls, Patience Kershaw and Mary Barrett told that male coal-getters often worked naked (Del Col). Female workers themselves usually wore little clothes as well due to heat and humidity.
The stories mentioned above were presented to the British government to show the officials the source of agitation for the working class. They were investigating the topic brought up the issue of child labor as the most problematic one. In the early XIX century, the Parliament tried to regulate the sector, as in 1802 and 1819, attempts were made to limit the working day to 12 hours for children (Cody par. 2). However, the acts did not work, and people in England became more agitated. Finally, in 1833, a recommendation was issued that allowed anyone aged 11-18 to work twelve hours maximum and eight hours for those between 9-11 (Cody par. 2). Children younger than that were prevented from joining the workforce.
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However, the new law covered only the textile industry, leaving out, for example, the inadequate conditions in the coal mining sector. It was not until the commission created by Lord Ashley in 1842 that the changes took place. Reports giving insight into how female workers suffered in this industry helped to pass the act, which prohibited women and girls from engaging in this work (Del Col). Moreover, no boys under the age of 13 could be hired anymore. Finally, in 1847, the ten-hour working day was adopted for both children and adults (Cody par. 2). This became the start of liberating the most impoverished class in England, giving it an opportunity for a better life.
In the times of the Industrial Revolution, entire families engaged in hard labor, independent of age and gender. Reports provide evidence from children and young people about long working hours, poor treatment, inadequate rules, and harsh overall conditions. The mining sector stood apart, as it engaged women in hard work, often putting them in a community of men who treated them with neglect and disrespect. The steps taken by the government to limit the working hours, as well as the use of female and child populations, were required for relieving the social agitation among the working class.
Cody, David. “Child Labor.” The Victorian Web, Web.
Del Col, Laura. “Testimony Gathered by Ashley’s Mines Commission.” The Victorian Web, Web.
“Modern History Sourcebook: Women Miners in the English Coal Pits.” Fordham University, Web.