Critical Essays Children and 19th-Century England


For thousands of years, families put their children to work on their farms or in whatever labor was necessary for survival — only children of the wealthy and powerful escaped this fate. Until the last one hundred years or so, children were considered by most societies to be the property of their parents. They had little protection from governments who viewed children as having no human or civil rights outside of their parents' wishes, and Great Expectations brings some of these conditions to light.

The industrial revolution in early nineteenth-century England (the industrial revolution started about one hundred years later in the United States) made things worse. Laborers were in greater demand than ever. Mines, factories, and shops needed help, and not enough men or women could fill their needs. Children were cheap, plentiful, and easy to control. Orphanages — and even parents — would give their children to the owners of cotton mills and other operations in exchange for the cost of maintaining them.

At that time, the government didn't establish a minimum age, wage, or working hours. Children as young as five or six were forced to work thirteen to sixteen hours a day for slave wages and barely any food. The Sadler Committee, investigating textile factory conditions for Parliament in 1832, discovered children working from six in the morning to nine at night with no breakfast, one hour for lunch, and a two-mile walk home. Children late for work were often beaten, and if they worked too slowly or fell asleep at the machines, they were hit with a strap, sometimes severely. There was no family time and some of them did not get supper because they were too tired to wait for it. Children who were "bound" to companies often tried to run away. If they were caught, they were whipped. Aside from being underfed, exhausted, sick, or injured, children spending so many hours a day over factory machines often had bowed legs and poorly developed limbs and muscles.

The coal mines were worse, with young children having to travel through the mines without any light, often carrying loads while walking in water that was up to their calves. The main reason for employing women and children in the mines was that they would work for less than a man would accept.

If a child was not "lucky" enough to be employed in these manners, they had the unpleasant option of life on the streets, with its raw sewage, rotting animal and vegetable wastes in the streets, rats, disease, and bad water. They also had to find food and a place to stay out of the rain and cold. Turning to crime for survival was not an act of greed so much as one of pure need. Small wonder, then, that Magwitch turned to crime at a young age.

As the century progressed, laws were passed that outlawed infant abandonment and failure to provide shelter, clothing, food, and medical care. In 1884, national laws in Britain protected children in their own homes. In addition, Parliament regulated working conditions, minimum age for working, and the length of the workday for children. Laws for mandatory schooling, however, did not come until the twentieth century.