Primary History

Victorian Britain: Children in factories

  • What were Victorian factories like?

    Britain was the first country in the world to have lots of factories. Factory machines made all kinds of things. Machines did jobs, such as spinning, previously been done by families at home.

    Factories were noisy. People had to shout above the rattle and hiss of machinery. They breathed air full of dust, oil and soot. Iron and steel works got so hot that workers dripped with sweat. Flames and sparks lit up the sky darkened by smoke from factory chimneys.

    Back to top

  • What were cotton mills?

    Cotton mills were factories where cotton was spun into thread. In woollen mills, wool was spun in a similar way. Weaving machines turned the thread into textiles, such as cloth and carpets. In Victorian Britain, the cotton and wool industries employed thousands of workers, mostly in the north of England.

    Mill workers lived in small houses close to the factories.

    Back to top

  • Why was factory work dangerous?

    Factory owners employed children because they were cheap, did not complain, had nimble fingers, and could crawl about under machines.

    Small girls worked in mills as 'piecers'. They mended broken threads. 'Scavengers' crawled beneath clattering machines to pick up scraps of cotton. They risked getting caught in the machinery, losing hair or arms. Yet most mill-owners thought factory work was easy. At first, there were no laws to protect working children.

    Back to top

  • New laws to protect children

    People called reformers, such as Lord Shaftesbury (1801-1885), argued in Parliament for laws to stop child-work. Inspectors, called Commissioners, went into factories and mines. They talked to working children to find out the facts. These are three of the new laws passed by Parliament.

    1841 Mines Act - No child under the age of 10 to work underground in a coal mine.

    1847 Ten Hour Act - No child to work more than 10 hours in a day.

    1874 Factory Act - No child under the age of 10 to be employed in a factory.

    Back to top

Fun Facts
  • Victorians were excited by new machines like James Nasmyth's steam hammer (1842). It could bend iron bars, but also crack an egg resting on a wine glass!

  • The area of the Midlands in England, around Birmingham, was so smoky from iron works and factories that people called it 'The Black Country'.

  • Not all factories made enormous machines. Some made ribbons and pins.

  • Charles Dickens wrote about a nail-factory. One child had a nail driven through his ear, as a punishment!

  • Factory managers usually stopped workers from whistling or singing while they worked - not that they often felt like whistling or singing!

  • Many parents took their children with them to the factory, to work.

  • Working fast-turning weaving machines made some children ill. The spinning affected their brains.

  • One factory manager told inspectors in 1864 that machine-injuries were not common. He said 'They [workers] seldom lose a hand... it only takes off a finger.'

  • A punishment for sleeping at work was to be tipped upside down into a tank of cold water! This was reported by a Parliamentary report on child-workers in 1831.

  • In 1841, factory inspectors measured how far child-workers walked. A child in a textile mill walked 48 km (30 miles) every day.

  • By the 1830s one steam spinning machine could work more than 2,000 threads at the same time.

  • Standing for so long at a machine affected growing children's bones. It made some boys 'knock-kneed'.

  • Mill-worker children ate in the mill - porridge with onions for breakfast and oatcakes with milk for dinner. They had to eat standing up.

  • Sometimes hot boiled potatoes were dished out. Boys held out their shirt-fronts to catch the potatoes; girls used their aprons.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

This was a wooden frame with beads on it. It was used to help children with counting sums.
agricultural gang
This was a group of workers in the countryside, doing jobs like weeding, sowing seeds, and harvesting crops. Often these gangs would include young children.
barrel organ
A musical instrument which was taken round the streets. It played music when the handle was turned. Often the owners of barrel organs had tame monkeys.
Band of Hope
Temperance organization which tried to stop people, especially children, from drinking alcohol.
boarding school
A school where children live during term time, coming home for the holidays.
Boys' Brigade
Youth organization started in 1883 in Glasgow.
British Empire
Countries ruled by Britain; later became the Commonwealth.
Thin stick used by teachers to beat children who misbehaved.
This is the record of people living at a certain time. It records how many people there are, where people live, their age and what they do.
coal mine
A place where coal is dug from under the ground.
Remains of prehistoric trees, burned in fires. In Victorian times, coal heated homes and provided steam power for machines, trains and ships.
Another term for birth control, or stopping unwanted pregnancies.
Comes from a plant. It is spun into thread then woven to make cloth.

E to G

dame school
A school run in her home by an elderly woman, known as a dame, where children were taught basic reading and writing.
Infectious throat disease that killed many children.
To emigrate is to leave your own country to go and live in another.
The female ruler of an empire, or the wife of an emperor.
Building with machines for producing goods in large numbers.
factory commission
A group of men who travelled around Britain to investigate the working conditions of children in both factories and mines.
fire grate
The metal part of a fire and fireplace.
A map of the world drawn on a sphere, useful in geography lessons.
A woman who taught rich girls and young boys in their homes, as a paid, live-in servant.
grammar school
Boys' schools, started in the Middle Ages as an alternative to Church schools and giving free education to some boys.

H to L

hokey-pokey man
Icecream-seller, originally usually Italian.
A hopping game played in the street or playground.
A mechanical violin, played by a street musician.
industrial Revolution
The era of rapid and great change in industry and manufacturing with the growth of factories, beginning in the late 1700s.
ink well
A small pot for ink, used by school children.
Diary or record book of events.

M to O

magic lantern
A slide projector for showing pictures on a screen.
Tall pole with long ribbons, for dancing around on May Day.
A lesson often in a story, about right and wrong.
music hall
Popular Victorian theatre with variety acts such as singers, dancers and comedians.
servant who cared for rich young children in their nursery at home.
A room or several rooms where rich children would play and sleep.
Child with no living parents.

P to S

Law-making body made up of elected Members of Parliament (MPs) and non-elected Lords.
A child who worked in a mill joining pieces of thread together.
The number of people in a country or city.
public schools
Fee-charging schools for children from richer families.
Punch and Judy show
A hand-puppet show which features Mr Punch and his wife Judy. Common at the seaside in Victorian times.
ragged school
A school for poor children in the early 19th century.
Person who seeks change for the better, to help others.
The length of time a king or queen rules.
school board
A group of people who were responsible for the running of their local school after 1870.
Small room with a sink, for washing up.
Deep vertical hole leading down to the tunnels and underground workings of a coal mine.
These were pieces of slate (like a flat stone), sometimes set inside a wooden frame, used for writing - with a special slate pencil. At the end of the lesson the slates were wiped clean with an old cloth.
Disease causing fever and, in those who did not die from it, leaving 'pockmarks' on the skin.
steam engine
Engine driven by steam from water heated in a boiler, used to drive machinery.
An area of bad housing, with poor hygiene and sanitation.
Sunday School
School to teach Christianity: the National Sunday School Union was founded in 1803.

T to Z

Workers' pay.
Comes from sheep. It is spun into thread then woven to make cloth.
Place where people without means of support (usually the very poor, young and elderly) were sent to live; they got a food and a bed in return for work. Most Victorian towns had a workhouse.