The plight of child labourers in Victorian Britain is not usually considered to have been a happy one. Writers such as Charles Dickens painted a grim picture of the hardships suffered by young people in the mills, factories and workhouses of the Industrial Revolution. But an official report into the treatment of working children in the 1840s, made available online yesterday for the first time, suggests the situation was not so bad after all.
The frank accounts emerged in interviews with dozens of youngsters conducted for the Children's Employment Commission. The commission was set up by Lord Ashley in 1840 to support his campaign for reducing the working hours of women and children.
Surprisingly, a number of the children interviewed did not complain about their lot -- even though they were questioned away from their workplace and the scrutinising eyes of their employers.
Sub-commissioner Frederick Roper noted in his 1841 investigation of pre-independence Dublin's pin-making establishments: "Notwithstanding their evident poverty ... there is in their countenances an appearance of good health and much cheerfulness."
A report on workers at a factory in Belfast found a 14-year-old boy who earned four shillings a week "would rather be doing something better ... but does not dislike his current employment". The report concluded: "I find all in this factory able to read, and nearly all to write. They are orderly, appear to be well-behaved, and to be very contented."
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