The Industrial Revolution saw a tremendous demand for unskilled factory labor, and with it the competitive pressures to maximize profits by paying workers as little as possible and exploiting them as much as possible.
Child workers were thought to be ideal for this situation. Parents, however, were reluctant to send their children to work in places like these:
In England, child workers were acquired through Parish Apprenticeships. In England, poor families and children would be fed, housed and supported as needed through charity programs run by the local parish officials. Along with this there was the possibility of poor children becoming apprentices to learn a trade. Mark Herber’s “Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History” describes the situation:
“…from 1601 parish officers (and later Guardians of the Poor) were also empowered to arrange apprenticeships for orphans and for paupers’ children, since this relieved the parish of the cost of supporting the child. The children were usually apprenticed to masters, such as farmers, tradesmen or factory owners, in the parish, but in some cases the masters lived miles from a child’s home. Children were apprenticed from the age of seven and often against the will of their parents (if they were still alive). May apprenticeships were purportedly for the children to learn the trades of husbandry or housewifery, but the children were, in effect, a cheap supply of labour for masters who needed agricultural or factory workers and domestic servants. The children had little protection from ill-treatment or overwork and the conditions were often little better than slavery.”
This article has further details about the lives of “pauper apprentices”, along with (at the bottom of the page) excruciating testimonials by the child workers themselves.
Always discouraging to see something that started out humane and high-minded – investing in the future of our children! – corrupted and perverted to serve the interests of the powerful. Happily, sometimes things turned out the way they should. When my great great great great great great great grandfather John Drawbridge died in Cranbrook, Kent, England in 1717, he left behind a young widow with children that she was unable to support. For several years, until her death, they became reliant on parish charity to pay for rent, children’s clothing, firewood and even a fine for some unspecified trespassing infraction. Also, two of her sons, John and Benjamin, were farmed out as apprentices to local tradesmen. Here’s the parish relief note on payment for John’s son John (also my ancestor):
Masters expected payment in advance for feeding, housing, clothing and training an apprentice, and the cost was certainly beyond the means of the Drawbridges. Because of parish relief, John got to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a blacksmith. He ended up a pillar of the community, smithing in Cranbrook for four decades, and in 1769 even became one of the parish Overseers, responsible for managing the parish charity function for that year.