Child employment prospects in nineteenth-century Hertfordshire in perspective: varieties of childhood?

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Child employment prospects in nineteenth-century Hertfordshire in perspective: varieties of childhood?
Interest in the history of child labour in the era of the industrial revolution has a long, if not always distinguished, pedigree. For much of the twentieth century it was dominated by concern over the exploitation of children in the new factories and mines that were seen to epitomise the economic developments of the era, a concern that was fuelled by the report of the Sadler Committee of 1832, with its heart-rending images of the gross exploitation of children still in their very infancy, a report that – despite its obviously biased testimony and extremely narrow evidential basis – had considerable influence upon contemporaries, as well as upon several generations of 20th century historians. Early twentieth century historians of factory legislation almost invariably took such a view, a view that was given ideologically inspired sanction in the widely read work of J.L. and Barbara Hammond. Of course by no means all contemporaries accepted the Sadler testimony, apologists and champions of the benefits of mechanisation such as Andrew Ure representing child factory workers as “lively elves” engaged in their “sport” as they mended broken threads on highly dangerous moving machinery. Historians too, or some of them, came to realise that – at the very least – the Sadler report was hardly representative of the experience of most child workers, and that the harshest of conditions were probably already in the past by the time it was published. Chaloner emphasised the political agenda that lay behind the over-emphasis in contemporary agitation on a small number of examples of brutal child exploitation, while R.M. Hartwell recognised that the issue was being clouded by moral judgements, made either by middle class contemporaries or by (usually also) middle class historians. The emphasis in more recent historical methodology upon the adoption of an empathetic approach, and the even more recent determination by social historians to discover the true ‘voices of the poor’, first through the testimony of working class autobiographies and more latterly through correspondence produced by the operation of the poor law, has resulted in a greater emphasis upon what the working classes themselves thought about child employment, rather than upon what the various JPs and clergymen who dominate royal commission reports thought about it. Not surprisingly, most of them seemed to think that it was generally rather a ‘good thing’, and in their turn historians have also come to realise that the economic contributions of children, while frequently quite modest when considered on their own, could make a fundamental difference to the household economy, and was particularly important to families who were relatively poor, either as a result of low wages or parental deprivation. The notion of the household economy is itself a concept that is at last beginning to thrust itself onto centre stage, having been too long obscured beneath the fog created by the almost unrivalled emphasis upon the real wages of adult males, warned against long ago by Sir John Clapham, in that most tortuous and inconclusive of debates – that over ‘the standard of living in the industrial revolution’.
But while the debate over child labour was framed in terms of “how bad were conditions for children working in factories”, it rather missed the point. For as understanding of the industrial revolution itself became more sophisticated, involving appreciation of the fact that its key element was an expansion of demand which impacted upon domestic industry and artisan production as well as upon centralised industry, it gradually dawned upon the historical community – both on the left and on the right – that factory work was by no means typical of child labour. Back in 1963 E.P. Thompson could write that “the most prevalent form of child labour was in the home or within the family economy” (Making, p, 367), but it has only been more recently that the point has been forcefully developed, notably by Clark Nardinelli in his Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution published in 1990. Nardinelli’s calculations suggest that at the peak in the early 1870s only 8.4% of children aged 10-14 were employed in factories and workshops, while traditional employments such as agriculture and service continued to engage more children than those employments created by the industrial revolution (p. 5).
In the same year, 1990, Hugh Cunningham published his article on “The employment and unemployment of children in England c. 1680-1851” (P & P, no. 126, 1990, pp. 115-50). While Cunningham’s main purpose was to emphasise the lack of employment opportunities for children during the course of these two centuries, both his literary testimony from the 18th century and his analysis of the 1851 census report also highlighted the intense regional concentration of factory employment—notably in Cheshire, Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire—as well as revealing a surprisingly strong showing in terms of child employment opportunities in some more southerly agricultural counties—notably Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire. The “most striking fact” to emerge from this analysis, for Cunningham, was “the disparity of experience” between counties (p. 140), a disparity that must be born in mind when considering the significance of studies of child labour from ‘national’ samples of family budgets drawn from disparate areas and over long stretches of time, as conducted recently by Sara Horrell and Jane Humphries. It is to the significance of child labour in one of those southerly counties not usually strongly associated with the cutting edge of industrialisation – the county of Hertfordshire – that I want to draw attention today. But I also want to go further than this, to show that even analysis at the level of the county can be misleading, for the child labour market was often far more localised than that. My emphasis here therefore, will be very firmly upon the local and regional perspective, a perspective which is vital to a proper understanding of child employment in the mid-nineteenth century. Those local and regional variations could have profound implications, impacting demographically, educationally, economically as well as socially, implications that extend well beyond the personal experience of the children concerned. But Hertfordshire, of course, is only one small sub-set of a wider picture, and towards the end of my talk I am going to widen my remit, to briefly consider the broader range of factors that impacted upon child employment in the second half of the 19th century, including the rapid changes that occurred across the third quarter of the century, and will be suggesting that the Victorian era, possibly more than any period before or since, exhibited such a diversity of experience that it is more apt to think in terms of ‘varieties of childhood’ than it is to think in terms of a homogenous childhood experience.
My data is drawn from the census enumerators’ returns which, for all the concerns over their reliability, remain far and away the best single source available for the analysis of employment in the second half of the nineteenth century. It has, of course, been suggested that the census may well understate the extent of both female and child employment, particularly through the under-enumeration of part-time work, and the failure to count work performed in an informal, family context. This may well be the case, to some extent at least, and might be particularly likely to affect informal contributions to retail businesses as well as sporadic or seasonal agricultural employment. It may be true that in some areas child employment in agriculture was generally under-recorded, as some comparisons between the census returns and farm labour books have suggested (Speechley, & Gloucestershire). Kirby has suggested that the disparity between the number of boys and the number of girls aged 10-14 recorded as employed in the abstracts contained in the census reports is nothing more than a reflection of such distortions, though I personally find this argument rather more circular than convincing. Furthermore, both Anderson’s recent revisiting of female employment in Preston, and the clear evidence of the recording of both female and child labour, on a considerable scale, in counties such as Hertfordshire would seem to suggest that where a culture of child or female employment existed – with the occasional exception that can only be discovered through detailed examination of individual enumerators’ returns – it was generally faithfully recorded. If child labour in the 1851 enumerators’ returns for Hertfordshire was really substantially under-recorded, then the figures that I am about to reveal for some Hertfordshire parishes would be even more startling than they already are.
Table 1 provides a breakdown of child employment in Hetrtfordshire in 1851 by Superintendent Registrars’ District, age and sex, together with both county and national data as calculated by Cunningham from the published 1851 census report. A small number of very young children were employed in the county, 18 boys and 30 girls out of the 21,708 found in the 0-4 age range, the youngest among them just 3 years of age, one of whom was Fanny Clibbons of Weston, youngest daughter of James Clibbons, agricultural labourer, whose sisters aged 5 and 8 are also recorded as straw plaiters. Employment at this age, therefore, was not common, and hardly found at all outside of the four SRDs which head the list. In the next age group, however, the figures rise substantially, to produce county percentages more than treble those found nationally. 1,323 5-9 year olds out of 19,930 were in employment in 1851 (7%), with a bias in favour of girls that also contradicts the national picture. Across broad swathes of the county, however, to the east and north-east, child employment amongst this age group was low, while in the Berkhamsted, St Albans, Hemel Hempstead and part of the Hitchin SRDs it reached levels that, to my knowledge, have hitherto not been reported for such a substantial region, reaching 18% in Hemel and fully 21% in Berkhamsted, while the figures for female employment in these two districts stood even higher at 21% and 26% respectively. At ages 10-14 the disparity between these four SRDs and the rest of the county is to a considerable degree maintained for girls, while the figures for boys converge, with the notable and as yet unexplained exception of the Edmonton and Barnet districts. In Berkhamsted, St Albans and Hemel, total employment within this age group stood at or very close to 50% compared with just 30% for England and Wales as a whole, while the proportion of females employed was almost 2.5 times the national average, marking the area out as a major employer of child labour even in comparison with those areas more commonly associated with the employment, or exploitation, of children. What were they all doing? Some were employed in the silk mills of Tring and St Albans, while in the case of boys aged 10-14 more substantial numbers had already embarked on their lives as agricultural labourers. But the distinctive feature of the region was, of course, the straw plait and hat trades, and the associated production of Brazilian hats in the St Albans district, with plaiting dominating rural and sometimes urban employment too (as in Hemel) and hat-making and trimming featuring strongly in St Albans. It was largely responsible for the high male empoyment found at ages 5-9, provided additional employment for boys that boosted the figures at ages 10-14, and was almost wholly responsible for the extraordinarily high figures for girls of all ages.
Tables 2a-c and 3a-c add further detail to this broad outline, and provide a stark indication of the local nature of the child labour market. Tables 2a, b and c present proportions of children aged 5-9 employed for all 142 Hertfordshire parishes, ranked by total employment, male employment and female employment respectively. From Table 2a we see that in two small parishes the employment of 5-9 year-olds exceeded 60%, but of course the numbers involved here are particularly small, amounting to 24 of 38 in this age range in Willian and 12 of 20 in Puttenham. Proportions exceeded the county average in 33 of the 142 parishes, with roughly half exceeding the national total (1.74%), some 50 exceeding that total by a factor of 2, and as many as 31 exceeding it by a factor of 5. The bottom end of the rank order presents a very different picture indeed, with the number employed standing below half a percentage point in 52 of the 142 parishes. The figures for males in Table 2b offer a similar pattern, though with lower proportions evident at the head of the rankings, while those for females in Table 2c reveal the greater concentration of female employment in this age range at the top of the table, with an earlier tailing off as one moves away from the straw plait regions of the county, though an even larger number of parishes exhibit proportions employed in excess of 5 times the national average, which for girls stood at 1.4%.
In Tables 3a-c the data for 10-14 year-olds is organised in the same way. No longer do we see the stark contrast between parishes with relatively high employment levels and those with virtually none at all, but the disrepancies between the top and bottom of the rank order are considerable nonetheless, even if the trajectory down the table is now a more steady one. From Table 3a we see that the 30 parishes at the top exhibit overall employment levels at 50%, compared to just 30% nationally, while as many as 45 parishes at the bottom achieve levels of 25% or less, with proportions in the bottom 21 standing fully two-thirds lower than those in the top 30. For males, ranked in Table 3b, a similar proportion of parishes exhibit levels of employment above the national average, but the trajectory of decline is less steep again, though the contrast between the top and bottom quartiles of the ranking remains considerable. For girls age 10-14 (Table 3c), despite the extraordinarily high levels of employment to be found towards the top of the rank order, proportions fall away quite steeply, leaving only 55 parishes above the national average and fully 87 below.
It is the regional pattern that dominates all of this data, and it is the presence or absence of the straw plait and hat trades that effectively determines the rank order of the parishes, and explains why some urban parishes feature prominently (such as Tring, Hemel Hempstead or St Albans) while others (such as Ware, Hertford or Cheshunt) do not, particularly for female employment. If there is an urban/rural contrast to be discovered it lies not in the quantity of child employment available, but in the range of opportunities that existed in the towns, particularly for boys, with small numbers of openings appearing in craft industries, the service and retail sector, in general labouring and as errand boys.
These enormous variations, even within one small county, in the levels of child employment in 1851, clearly demonstrate the importance of the local perspective: in some parts of the county children aged 5-9 barely worked at all, while in others the proportions were employed were very significant; and for those aged 10-14 the proportions could range from 10% or less at the bottom end of the scale to 70% or even more at the top.
Clearly, childhood could take very different forms in different Hertfordshire parishes, particularly when we remind ourselves that what we are dealing with here is contrasts in the extent of employment that was formal enough to be recognised as such by the census enumerators. But the implications go further than the simple fact of whether children worked or not. Working children had less opportunity to gain a proper education, and the impact of their employment opportunities upon educational attendance and interest echoes through the pages of the relevant parliamentary papers, as well as featuring strongly in school log books and a variety of other contemporary comment. Nor can this be dismissed as special pleading or class propaganda, for the evidence of signatures in marriage registers—comprehensively analysed by W.B. Stephens— indicates that Hertfordshire as a county stood virtually at the bottom of the literacy hierarchy in the mid-19th century, with a proportion illiterate only bettered by Bedfordshire, itself a straw plait county, and Monmouthshire.
The employment created by the straw industry had demographic implications too. Many contemporaries felt that the greater independence that the trade gave to female workers resulted in lax morality: “fornication”, the report of the Children’s Employment Commission of 1843 tells us, “(was) lamentably frequent” amongst straw plait workers, though the only statistical evidence to support such a view comes from the Luton Union, whilst in the Leighton Buzzard Union in Bedfordshire and in Edlesborough in Bucks the data on bastardy suggests that these areas were either no worse in this respect, or were better, than the country as a whole (Horn, ‘The Buckinghamshire…’, p. 50; Grof, pp. 79-89). If the straw plait and hat trades had a general impact upon female fertility, it operated in a much more subtle way, for analysis of the Berkhamsted and St Albans regions suggests that the skewed sex ratio associated with areas of concentrated female employment opportunities served both to delay female age at marriage and to produce higher proportions never married than were found amongst the national population.
But the demographic implications do not end there, for there are indications that the industry may also have impacted upon levels of mortality. Where child labour was available so too was female labour, which raises the controversial issue of the potentially deleterious effects of working mothers, quite clear to the contemporary middle class moralisers who commented on the issue though far less so to middle class historians writing today. Recent research by Eilidh Garrett for the early 20th century has shown that statistical attempts to demonstrate such a link are seriously flawed (Cont and Change, 13, 1998), but Garrett’s more recent research has discovered a dramatic improvement in child mortality in the later 19th century in a number of agricultural counties where high proportions of women worked—Hertfordshire included—which appears to coincide closely with the decline of the straw plait trade. A connexion with lack of maternal care can only be inferred from these data, however, and there may well be a more direct connexion. For in 1861 the Medical Officer to the Privy Council, John Simon, reported on the research conducted the previous year by Dr Greenhow into those places with habitually high death rates from lung diseases, most prominent amongst which was pulmonary tuberculosis, or consumption or phthisis as it was usually called. The results of these investigations are presented in Tables 5 and 6. The Berkhamsted Superintendent Registrar’s District was one of the primary straw plait areas, as we have seen, and a major employer of both female and child labour, and at both of the dates examined exhibited high death rates from pulmonary diseases and—more significantly—markedly higher rates for women than for men. The explanation favoured by Simon and Greenhow was the deleterious effects of work conducted in an overcrowded and ill-ventilated environment, and particular attention was drawn to the poor housing in the Berkhamsted sub-district, and the overcrowded and confined conditions to be found in the straw plait schools there, especially in winter. The fact that Berkhamsted was low-lying and subject to fogs was also invoked to explain the higher rates there than in Tring. But Greenhow also concluded that “the influence which operates injuriously upon the health of the females of Berkhamsted is a contingent, and not a necessary condition, of the manufacture of straw-plat”, because mortality rates from these diseases were far lower in nearby Hemel Hempstead and Leighton Buzzard, where straw plaiting likewise formed the main female employment. The conditions in which the straw plait trade was conducted in some areas, therefore, substantially raised death rates from pulmonary diseases (particularly for women), while when it was conducted in more salubrious environments it does not appear to have had this effect.
Notwithstanding these deleterious consequences, child labour also produced substantial benefits in the form of additional family income, the marginal impact of which must have been particularly important to families in areas of relatively low agricultural wages such as Hertfordshire. Accurate data on wage levels in domestic industry is notoriously difficult to come by, and is particularly hard to ascertain for children. Straw plait wages were remarkably high in the late 18th century, and had declined considerably by the mid-19th, but the pitifully low wages mentioned in the 1843 Childrens Employment Commission report and so often quoted of a mere 18d per week for a child aged 8-13 are most unlikely to be typical, and the report itself recognises that this at this time the trade was “in a very depressed state” (p. A11). The informed opinion of A.J. Tansley from the 1860s gives a more realistic picture, indicating wages for children in this age range of anywhere between 4-5 shillings, or as much as 7 shillings “after they become skilful” (Tansley, p. 71). Good adult plaiters too could earn between 5 and 7 shillings, once the cost of straw had been deducted, and hence Tansley concluded that “a well-ordered family will obtain as much or more than the husband who is at work on the neighbouring farm” (p. 72). Furthermore, “Plait is made all the year round” (p. 71), which explains the distinction drawn between winter plait and summer plait, and its clear that the purported seasonality of the trade has been much exaggerated. It is not surprising, therefore, that participation rates were so high, or that education was neglected, for the benefits to the standard of living of labouring households could clearly be very substantial indeed.
The opportunities for women as well as children to work also underlines the financial advantages that labouring families must have had, on average, in the south-west and west of the county as compared to their counterparts in the east and north-east, and here we might invoke the ‘McKendrick effect’, which emphasises a link between the incidence of child and female labour, domestic demand and the fortunes of the economy (N. McKendrick, ed., Historical Perspectives. Studies in English Thought and Society, 1974). This may well be one crucial reason why south-west Hertfordshire was considerably more economically advanced than the north-east of the county, with the leading straw plait and hat districts of Berkhamsted, Hemel Hempstead and St Albans exhibiting levels of urbanisation of 52%, 43% and 40% respectively, albeit urbanisation of the small towns variety, in comparison with a figure for the county as a whole of just 24%.
There is also the question of change over time to consider, the mainsprings of which remain unclear. Historians writing about the decline in child employment in the second half of the 19th century almost invariably invoke a range of factors, which include unspecified general changes in the economy, alongside the introduction of compulsory or quasi-compulsory education as well as the extension of factory legislation to employment situations more generally, enhanced enforcement, and occasionally too changing parental attitudes. (see Kirby, however). Clark Nardinelli argues forcefully that it was the growing returns to education alongside technological changes that reduced the demand for child labour, rather than employment legislation, though most other historians remain vague as to the hierarchy of causation. For Hertfordshire it is particularly difficult to unravel these various factors, for the start of the headlong decline of straw plaiting in the 1870s coincided precisely with the crucial Education Acts of 1870 and 1876, and the Factories and Workshops Act of 1878. In 1861 there had been 8,598 female straw plaiters in Hertfordshire, their number growing to 12,089 by 1871; a further ten years later there were only 7,543, and by 1891 just 3,133. Foreign competition from cheap Chinese plait from the late 1860s, which was well suited to the new sewing machines just then being introduced, was the key factor at work, and this appears to have impacted most severely (as one might expect) upon child labour before it hit adult employment. The 1867 Factory and Workshop Act may have only limited relevance as straw plait schools were not classified as workshops (Grof, p. 68). Whatever the cause, by 1871, the published census report reveals that only 3.4% of children aged 5-9 were now employed in Hertfordshire, which compares with the figure of 6.6% found in 1851. Over the same period there was relatively little change in the employment of children aged 10-14, which fell from 34% down to 31%, most of this small decline being accounted for by boys rather than girls. The proportion of girls aged 5-9 employed had fallen from 7.4% to 4.3%, the proportion for boys in this age group from 5.7% to 2.5%. (Stephens, Education, literacy and society, App. B, pp. 318-19. See also Horn, Children’s work and welfare, p. 74, for marginally different figures.). Both can be explained by reduced participation in the straw plait trades, for although plaiting was predominantly a female occupation, detailed analysis of the Berkhamsted and St Albans regions has shown that for boys of this age the straw plait, straw hat and Brazilian hat trades had been the prime employers of their labour. It is widely held that the Agricultural Gangs Act of 1867 had little impact (e.g. by Stephens, p. 179), and anyway it has little relevance to Hertfordshire where gangs were not prevalent, while the Forster Education Act of 1870, even if it had had teeth, had not yet had time to bite by 1871. So if the legislation of the 1860s relating to both workshop and farm was as ineffective as is often suggested, and concerted educational reform still lay in the future, the decline in employment of children aged 5-9 by 1871 appears to have been largely due to the impact of foreign competition upon the least productive sector of the straw plait labour force. This said, although the employment of small children in the straw plait counties appears to have fallen particularly fast, the national trend was decidely downwards as well, with proportions of both boys and girls employed falling by more than half, albeit from a low base, a trend that was already underway in the 1850s, but gathered pace in the subsequent decade (See B.R. Mitchell, Brit, Hist. Stats. Ca. 1988, pp. 16-17, 103; and Kirby, p. 112). Furthermore, this trend across the years 1851-71 is evident in every English county except for Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Rutland. Regulation of factory and workshop is therefore likely to be only a small part of the story, and the widespread decline in the employment of children aged 5-9 by 1871 may, therefore, lend support to Nardinelli’s view that widespread technological changes and the growing returns to education may have been influential factors. Alternatively, agricultural wages were rising across the third quarter of the century, both in Hertfordshire and nationally, and this—allied to the increasing tendency for older working children to remain within the parental home, recently stressed by Peter Kirby (p. 133)— may well have rendered the labour of very small children increasingly unnecessary.
National figures for child employment are not available for 1881, but those for Hertfordshire indicate that the downward trend in child employment, already evident by 1871, escalated rapidly during the 1870s, and at last began to impact substantially upon the higher age group. Table 4, which presents data for the Berkhamsted SRD and other selected parishes, shows the local implications for child employment very clearly. As the top part of the table reveals, in the Berkhamsted SRD and in virtually all of the individual parishes listed, chosen because they stood towards the top of the child employment league tables in 1851, the employment of children had fallen dramatically. It had fallen particularly dramatically for girls, the figures at least halving in every parish except Redbourn, where the establishment of a new silk factory was providing employment for 18 boys and 33 girls in the 10-14 age category in 1881, while employment in the straw trade among children had dwindled to just 4 representatives. The employment of boys aged 10-14 had fallen substantially too and, particularly in parishes such as Wigginton and Aldbury: here in 1851 boys in this age group had participated in straw plait in substantial numbers, but by 1881 the trade had become wholly a female one. Indeed, there was not a single male straw plaiter in the 10-14 age group across the whole of the Berkhamsted SRD by 1881, whereas in 1851 there had been 100. If we remove straw plait from the equation for boys in this age group we get a very interesting result indeed: in 1851 30% were employed in occupations other than straw plait, while by 1881 the figure had fallen by just one point to 29%. Of course we can easily get ourselves in a counterfactual fix here: if straw plaiting had been unavailable in 1851 it is quite possible that these boys have taken up other occupations. It is clear, however, that declining opportunities in the straw industry impacted upon boys as well as upon girls, and the figures at least appear to suggest that other male employments in this age group remained largely unaffected.
In the younger age group, 5-9, the reduction in employment is so dramatic that it can only have been the result of legislation, notably the Education Act of 1876 which forbade the employment of children below the age of 10. By 1881 just two children in this age group are recorded as employed in the entire Berkhamsted SRD, so unless parents were lying in considerable numbers child labour below the age of 10 had been virtually eradicated. Even in the 10-14 age group, by 1881 relatively few 10 or 11 year-olds are recorded as employed, which suggests that by now parents were indeed withdrawing their younger children from the labour force, even those who were only obliged by law to study part-time. In the four selected parishes at the foot of Table 4, chosen as sizeable parishes where child employment had been particularly low in 1851, three show further declines even from these low levels in the employment of boys, while the picture for girls is more varied. At the very least, they provide no evidence of compensation for the quite dramatic decline in child employment found in other parts of the county. How this impacted upon the household economy is unclear, but it may well be that in the south-west of the county the decline of both child and female employment in the straw plait trades resulted in a reduction of family incomes during the very period when rising real wages for adult males was elsewhere increasing their standards of living.
Whether we take a snapshot at one point in time, therefore – in this case 1851 – or if we look at changes over time across the third quarter of the 19th century, the levels of child employment in Hertfordshire varied enormously in both time and space. This in turn profoundly affected their personal experiences, and those of their families, in a variety of ways: educationally, demographically and economically. Whether we compare locality with locality, or generation with generation or—across much of the county at least—the experience of girls with boys, for mid-Victorian Hertfordshire, one of the smaller English counties, the labour force participation of children varied so dramatically that we are compelled to abandon hope of identifying a homogenous childhood experience, and are forced instead to think in terms of varieties of childhood.
But these parameters are only part of the picture, for we have not taken on board the obvious disparities due to social class. If we accept the estimate of the government statistician Dr William Farr that 7% of the child population was “upper” or “middle” class (Rose, Erosion of childhood, p. 3), some of whom we find in the numerous boarding schools located in the county, others educated privately in their country houses, then we have another variety of experience to build into our picture. At the other end of the social scale, of course, were the desperate poor, with some 9,144 children in the 5-9 age group in 1851 in England and Wales recorded as “paupers of no stated occupation” or as “vagrants and others sleeping in barns etc” (Cunningham, from Table 2), while the incidence of begging on the streets of the cities such as London, Liverpool or Birmingham, as well as the characters sketched by Henry Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor (1851), remind us of a very different form of childhood altogether. In between these extremes we meet agricultural labourers, in Hertfordshire (if full-time employees) almost exclusively male by the mid 19th century, the straw plaiters representing domestic outworkers, some hat sewers in the same category, others working in the small factories of St Albans, silk workers in factories at Tring, Watford and elsewhere, general labourers in maltworks at Ware, and a range of other occupational openings in Hertfordshire towns and the larger villages, limited in 1851 though expanding as the century progressed.
But still we are only beginning to touch on the range and variety of childhood employments in mid-Victorian England, for the expansion of old crafts and trades alongside the development of new ones, and the rapidly burgeoning urban sector alongside an agrarian one as yet only in the early stages of decline – the very diversity that is now seen as characteristic of the whole process of industrialisation – had implications too for child employment, at least before the tightening of employment regulations and the instigation of educational provision that the later years of the century witnessed. In re-emphasising the relative importance of child labour in the domestic sphere and in the service trades, we must not fall into the trap of denying the fact that some children did indeed work in factories and mines, and in a host of other manufacturing industries too, and that this continued into the third quarter of the 19th century. A cursory glance at the Children’s Employment Commission Report published in 1863 (BPP 1863 Vol. XVIII), where children are defined as aged under 13 and young persons as those aged 13-17, gives a partial glimpse of the range of manufacturing occupations in which they were involved, and the number in each. Hence there were 11,000 in pottery (4,500 of these ages 8-13) (p. xiv para. 63); 1,800 in lucifer match manufacture (p. xlix para. 304); 1,150 in paper-staining (643 of them under the age of 13) (p. lix para 374); 2,300 in finishing and hooking (p. lxxv, para. 528); 1,563 in fustian cutting (508 of then under 13) (p. lxxvi, para. 540); 8-10,000 in machine lace finishing in warehouses alone, plus those employed in private houses, and those employed in lace making (p. lxxx, para. 574); “several thousands” still employed as climbing boys (p. lxxxvi, para 603), plus unspecified numbers in the hosiery trades for which the enquiry remained incomplete (p. lxxxii).
It may be true, as Peter Kirby has recently re-emphasised, that the employment of very young children, below the age of 10, was never widespread in British society (p. 131), though we must now recognise the existence of regions and localities where the numbers employed were far from insignificant. It is also true that there was a degree of convergence as we enter the 1880s, and if economic and demographic trends had a large part to play in this, the Hertfordshire evidence suggests that legislation—and particularly compulsory education—may not be so wholly irrelevant to the process as Peter Kirby has recently suggested (p. 133).
But even in the later 19th century a variety of experience was retained. Writing in 1894 in The State and its Children, the trade unionist Gertrude Tuckwell complained of the “extraordinary divergence in the views of the local authorities as to the value of education, and the age at which work should commence; thus while some districts permit their children to obtain partial employment at seven, after they have passed the lowest Standard, others fix the Standard for Exemption at the Sixth and in one case at the Seventh, when the exempted child would probably be thirteen or fourteen years old” (pp. 155-6). Local and regional variations persisted, therefore, even if they were narrowing, so that in 1901 Liverpool, Durham and York recorded levels of male employment age 10-13 at only 1%, while in mill towns like Oldham, Blackburn and Halifax between 10 and 18% of boys of this age were still employed as half-timers (Rose, Erosion, p. 5).
Despite considerable convergence as we approach the end of the 19th century, therefore, it is the diversity of experience that characterises child labour in Victorian England, producing varieties of childhood to a degree never seen before and not seen since, at least not after the Fisher Education Act of 1918. Even a traditional, southern, corn-growing county like Hertfordshire reflects at least some elements of this diversity of experience, a diversity which renders analysis at national or even county level virtually meaningless. What this means, of course, is that reliance upon the published census reports just won’t do: if we are to understand child employment in all its variety and complexity, we are going to have to continue to dust off the local census enumerators’ books, and examine the operation and development of the child labour market at the very local level.
© Nigel Goose

October 2003

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