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Child labour in the brickyards, 1871: ‘permanent weakness or deformity’

Our pictures (SO127, SO145) show little girls labouring in a brickyard. These engravings first appeared in the Graphic magazine of 10 June 1871, and the accompanying article had this to say about child labour:

‘There are not wanting advocates in favour of the present system of child labour in brickfields, and by these it is contended that many of the alleged instances of improper child-employment are simply cases of children bringing meals to their parents or other relatives, and staying for an hour or two … But this does not in any way invalidate the statements respecting the excessive amounts of labour exacted from thousands of children of tender years …

‘There are many upon whose tender frames the excessive labour tells with terrible effect, sometimes producing permanent weakness or deformity. This is particularly the case with the pusher-out, who has to carry 210 to 270 lbs weight of bricks at one time on a one-wheeled spring barrow, a distance of fifty yards or more. Children often begin at a very early age this kind of work, and we hear of both boys and girls becoming crippled thereby. In like manner the “pug-boys” are injured by continually lifting heavy masses of clay, weighing from 30 to 40 lbs each. A boy of twelve years old will lift from the ground this weight of clay and bear it a distance of five yards up an incline 123 times in the course of a single hour. The heavy loads carried by market-porters seem insignificant compared with those of the brickyard children. By the time the young worker has attained the age of thirteen or fourteen, he will have carried or lifted a far heavier aggregate weight than many of the strongest Covent Garden porters have borne during a whole lifetime.

‘The physical results of such undue exertion are often most injurious. We are told that a girl who began at nine years old to load for her father had at thirteen a crooked ankle and a knee grown out at one side … The pug-boys frequently suffer from having to carry the lumps of cold wet clay against their chests, especially in damp weather. “After a frosty night in April, for instance,” said a workman, “the damp clay strikes very cold.” We should think so. How many English parents are there who would like their little ones to be so employed? It reads like a page from the history of negro slavery in America …

‘The sifting of coal dust is a very unhealthy process, and for hours afterwards those so employed are continually expectorating coal dust. Punching out the holes is sometimes done while the brickkilns are still full of fire, or when they have to be cleansed out before being relighted. It is done by means of heavy crowbars and hammers. The children keep the fires fed with coal, and it often follows that the girls, from the ragged character of their dress, catch fire, and have their limbs and hair singed …

‘All industrial establishments should be placed under the Factory Act’.

The Factory Act (1833) had prohibited the employment in factories (but not in other places of work) of children younger than nine, and had ordered that children of nine to thirteen should only work for a limited number of hours. In 1878 the Act was revised so that children no younger than ten should be employed, and this was to apply to all trades, not just factories. This was reinforced by the Education Act of 1880 which made schooling compulsory up to the age of ten. By the end of the Victorian era schooling was compulsory up to the age of twelve.