Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Child Slaves of Britain

The horrors of the Industrial Revolution are further exposed in a new work of scholarship.
These were the real David Copperfields and Oliver Twists. Beaten, exploited and abused, they never knew what it was to have a full belly or a good night's sleep. Their childhood was over before it had begun. Using the heartbreaking first-person testimony of these child labourers, Humphries demonstrates that the brutality and deprivation depicted by authors such as Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy was commonplace during the Industrial Revolution, and not just fictional exaggeration.

She also reveals that more children were working than previously thought - and at younger ages.
As British productivity soared, more machines and factories were built, and so more children were recruited to work in them. During the 1830s, the average age of a child labourer officially was ten, but in reality some were as young as four.

While the upper classes professed horror at the iniquities of the slave trade, British children were regularly shackled and starved in their own country. The silks and cottons the upper classes wore, the glass jugs and steel knives on their tables, the coal in their fireplaces, the food on their plates - almost all of it was produced by children working in pitiful conditions on their doorsteps.

But to many of the monied classes, the poor were invisible: an inhuman sub-species who did not have the same feelings as their own and whose sufferings were unimportant. If they spared a thought for them at all, it was nothing more than a shudder of revulsion at the filth and disease they carried.

Living conditions were appalling. Families occupied rat and sewage-filled cellars, with 30 people crammed into a single room. Most children were malnourished and susceptible to disease, and life expectancy in such places fell to just 29 years in the 1830s. In these wretched circumstances, an extra few pennies brought home by a child would pay for a small loaf of bread or fuel for the fire: the difference between life and death. A third of poor households were without a male breadwinner, either as a result of death or desertion. In the broken Britain of the 19th century, children paid the price.
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R J said...

Didn't William Cobbett write something to the effect that he would rather, given the choice, have been the hardest-working slave on a Jamaican sugar plantation than a "free" laborer in England's factories?

I know that I would have preferred the former.

Julygirl said...

The poor are still invisible to many in our society.....and are considered inferior because we look at how much one owns rather than the condition of one's soul in terms of placing value on a person. I am not denying that conditions generally were worse then, just that one would think poverty would be close to non-existent now. Between the Wolves of Wall Street, Government spending, natural disasters, many are currently in dire straits.

tubbs said...

We should bring back child labor!!!
We should get the indolent, insolent larvae out of the malls, off the curbs and skateboards, and back in the mills where they belong. We could have a rebirth of manufacturing, we could end illegal immigration, we could reverse the trade deficit!
Gentle Readers - don't think for one moment that labor conditions in China today are any better.

CR Wall said...

Thank you for posting, Elena. What an unspeakable tragedy.

I do also believe that witnessing such horror is what provoked Dickens to write so many stories based on the poverty he had witnessed, and endured early in his life.

Those poor little souls, whom God surely holds in remembrance.

We are going through a tough economy, and yet few of us can complain. We simply cannot know the suffering of those poor little innocents.

Yet still, and so often we stop our ears and close our eyes to the poor, whether in our own country or elsewhere.

God help us! We will give account.

Julygirl said...

Tubbs, right on!! I could not pull into my driveway today because they had parked their bikes, skateboards, etc. there. Oh for those 90 degree days when the little buggers stayed indoors playing on their electronic equipment and tormenting their parents instead of the neighbors. (Of course, MY children were perfect angels.)

Anonymous said...

Funny coindicence - I found these interesting details about a penitentiary that stood for 300 years on the site of Westminster Cathedral before being closed for being TOO GOOD (ie encouraging recidivism as an escape from indigency)


Blessed John Henry Newman, pray for us!

Clare Krishan

Michael J. Russell said...

Other than Tubbs' sardonic riff on Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, I'm thanking God the comments on this post have been mercifully free of Ayn Rand-ian, homilies on this as being a cruel-but-fair example of the "free market" in action.

Although they'd be reluctant to admit it, more than a few U.S. conservatives (like their British forbears), would profess horror at this, then quickly get in touch with their inner Glenn Becks, and recall that "…'Social justice' is always coded language for socialism!" (Unfortunately, it's a safe bet that most of that gentleman's followers have probably never read any of the papal encyclicals on labor.)

This is, after all, essentially the same exploitative business model (with young adult labor force) that now fills Wal-Mart with what one truth-teller has called the "abundant, cheap crap from China" that has all but decimated American manufacturing.

Julygirl said...

American labor unions 'decimated' American manufacturing, China just picked up the slack (and India, Guatemala, etc.) Almost all 'jobs' in this country are service oriented which do not pay what manufacturing jobs paid.

tubbs said...

We should collaborate on a (or yet another) 'A Christmas Carol'---a screenplay about a misanthropic Mormon who finally sees the Light.

On second thought, nah. I'm just not christian enough to want to see anything less than a Faustian plummet to the Ninth Circle for any fictional Beck.

Michael J. Russell said...

@Julygirl, thanks for your comment. FYI, I grew up in a single-parent, teachers union-member household. I was so (not) impressed by what I saw at the interminable union functions I was a captive audience for as a child, that I immediately became a conservative activist upon entering college. So, I've seen both sides of this issue usually framed as Big Labor vs. Right-to-Work.

Likewise, I carry no brief whatsoever for the politically-corrupt monstrosities that many unions have become, however I also totally reject the notion that they're primarily responsible for the decline of manufacturing in the U.S., for which the policy elites of *both* nominal major parties bear a heavy burden. This was clearly planned, and no amount of whiggish inside-the-beltway talking points will make it otherwise.

I recall a certain former Speaker of the House (with presidential ambitions in 2012) assuring us in the 1990's with a straight face that NAFTA/GATT/WTO-enabled tranfers of manufacturing capacity and national sovereignty would result in countless "new manufacturing jobs" for U.S. workers, not their wholesale loss to China and the developing world.

To paraphrase TV's Dr. Phil, "How's that working out for you, America?"