Primary History

Victorian Britain: Children at Work

  • Rich and poor families

    In Victorian times, many families had 10 or more children. Sadly, many children died as babies, or from diseases such as smallpox and diphtheria. Child-death struck rich and poor families.

    In a Victorian town, it was easy to tell who was rich and who was poor. Children from richer homes were well fed, wore warm clothes and had shoes on their feet. They did not work, but went to school or had lessons at home.

    Poor children looked thin and hungry, wore ragged clothes, and some had no shoes. Poor children had to work. They were lucky if they went to school.

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  • Why did children go to work?

    Many Victorian children were poor and worked to help their families. Few people thought this strange or cruel. Families got no money unless they worked, and most people thought work was good for children. The Industrial Revolution created new jobs, in factories and mines. Many of these jobs were at first done by children, because children were cheap - a child was paid less than adults (just a few pennies for a week's work).

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  • When did children start work?

    Many children started work at the age of 5, the same age as children start school today. They went to work as soon as they were big enough. Even a tiny child could feed chickens. Older brothers and sisters took small children to work, perhaps to a factory at the end of the street. Other children worked at home, doing jobs such as washing, sewing, sticking labels on bottles or making brushes.

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  • What jobs did children do?

    Children worked on farms, in homes as servants, and in factories. Children often did jobs that required small size and nimble fingers. But they also pushed heavy coal trucks along tunnels in coal mines. Boys went to sea, as boy-sailors, and girls went 'into service' as housemaids. Children worked on city streets, selling things such as flowers, matches and ribbons. Crossing boys swept the roads clean of horse-dung and rubbish left by the horses that pulled carts and carriages.

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Fun Facts
  • The average wage in the 1850s was about 15 shillings (75p) a week. Many children got just 5 shillings (25p) a week, or less.

  • If a Victorian child had bumps on his head and a pointed chin, people said he or she would probably grow up to be thief!

  • Poor people often ate poor food. They had to buy cheap tea with blackberry leaves added, sugar mixed with sand, and milk thickened with powdered chalk! Meat once a week was a treat.

  • There were millions of horses in Victorian Britain - horse-drawn vehicles jammed the streets, like cars and trucks today.

  • In 1841 Thomas Cook ran an excursion train from Leicester to Loughborough to take people to a meeting. It was the first 'Cook's Tour'.

  • Girl flower-sellers also sold oranges (when the fruit was available,not all-year- round like today) Oranges kept fresh longer than flowers.

  • Boy servants in grand houses wore short jackets with lots of buttons - so the boys were called 'Buttons'.

  • Workers went to 'hiring fairs' to find jobs. A cook might hold a wooden spoon, to show what she did. A maid might hold a broom.

  • Boy chimney sweeps rubbed salt into their elbows and knees, to toughen the skin.

  • Poor country families collected wheat stalks after harvest. This was 'gleaning'. With luck, they collected enough grain to make a bag of flour

  • 'Mudlarks' were poor children who waded in the mud beside the River Thames in London, looking for lost rings or bits of scrap metal to sell.

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

A to D

abacus
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.
cane
Thin stick used by teachers to beat children who misbehaved.
census
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.
coal
Remains of prehistoric trees, burned in fires. In Victorian times, coal heated homes and provided steam power for machines, trains and ships.
contraception
Another term for birth control, or stopping unwanted pregnancies.
cotton
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.
diphtheria
Infectious throat disease that killed many children.
emigrated
To emigrate is to leave your own country to go and live in another.
empress
The female ruler of an empire, or the wife of an emperor.
factory
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.
globe
A map of the world drawn on a sphere, useful in geography lessons.
governess
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.
hopscotch
A hopping game played in the street or playground.
hurdy-gurdy
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.
logbook
Diary or record book of events.

M to O

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

P to S

parliament
Law-making body made up of elected Members of Parliament (MPs) and non-elected Lords.
piecer
A child who worked in a mill joining pieces of thread together.
population
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.
reformer
Person who seeks change for the better, to help others.
reign
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.
scullery
Small room with a sink, for washing up.
shaft
Deep vertical hole leading down to the tunnels and underground workings of a coal mine.
slates
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.
smallpox
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.
slum
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

wages
Workers' pay.
wool
Comes from sheep. It is spun into thread then woven to make cloth.
workhouse
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.