Children in the 19th Century

By Tim Lambert

The industrial revolution created more demand for female and child labor. In the early 19th century when children worked in textile factories they often worked for more than 12 hours a day.

In the early 19th century parliament passed laws to curtail child labor. However, they all proved to be unenforceable. The first effective law was passed in 1833. It was effective because for the first time factory inspectors were appointed to make sure the law was being obeyed. The new law banned children under 9 from working in textile factories. It said that children aged 9 to 13 must not work for more than 12 hours a day or 48 hours a week. Children aged 13 to 18 must not work for more than 69 hours a week.

Furthermore, nobody under 18 was allowed to work at night (from 8.30 pm to 5.30 am). Children aged 9 to 13 were to be given 2 hours of education a day.

Conditions in coal mines were also terrible. Children as young as 5 worked underground. In 1842 a law banned children under 10 and all females from working underground. In 1844 a law banned all children under 8 from working. Then in 1847, a Factory Act said that women and children could only work 10 hours a day in textile factories.

In 1867 the law was extended to all factories. (A factory was defined as a place where more than 50 people were employed in a manufacturing process).

In the 19th century, boys were made to climb up chimneys to clean them. This barbaric practice was ended by law in 1875. Gradually children were protected by the law more and more.

In the 19th century, families were much larger than today. That was partly because infant mortality was high. People had many children and accepted that not all of them would survive.

In the early 19th century the churches provided schools for poor children. From 1833 the government provided them with grants. There were also dame schools. They were run by women who taught a little reading, writing, and arithmetic. However many dame schools were a childminding service.

The state did not take responsibility for education until 1870. Forsters Education Act laid down that schools should be provided for all children. If there were not enough places in existing schools then board schools were built. In 1880 school was made compulsory for 5 to 10-year-olds.

However, schools were not free, except for the poorest children until 1891 when fees were abolished. In 1893 the minimum age for leaving school was raised to 11. From 1899 children were required to go to school until they were 12.

Girls from upper-class families were taught by a governess. Boys were often sent to public schools like Eton.

Middle-class boys went to grammar schools. Middle-class girls went to private schools where they were taught ‘accomplishments’ such as music and sewing.

Discipline in Victorian schools was savage. Beatings were common although in the 19th century, the cane generally replaced the birch. Furthermore, children who were poor at lessons were humiliated by being forced to wear a cap with the word ‘dunce’ on it.

Before the 19th century, children were always dressed like little adults. In Victorian times the first clothes made especially for children appeared such as sailor suits.

In the 19th century, middle-class girls played with wood or porcelain dolls. They also had dollhouses, model shops, and skipping ropes. Boys played with marbles and toy soldiers as well as toy trains. (Some toy trains had working engines fueled by methylated spirits). They also played with toy boats. However poor children had few toys and often had to make their own.

In a well-off family, children played with rocking horses and clockwork toys like moving animals. Clockwork trains were also popular. So was the jack-in-the-box.

Simple toys like spinning tops were also popular. So were hoops and games like knucklebones and pick-up sticks in which you had to pick up colored sticks from a pile without disturbing the others.

On Sundays, children often played with toys with religious themes like Noah’s arks with wooden animals. Children also loved magic lanterns (slide) shows and puppet shows.