4/17/13 - the precious children of england

In today's selection -- in the 1700s and 1800s, the new factories of the Industrial Revolution took a gruesome toll on the underprivileged children of Great Britain, all under the complicit eye of factory overseers, physicians, and government officials:

"Children went to work after their sixth birthday. The Industrial Rev­olution did not invent child labor, but it did expand and systematize the exploitation of the very young. The reign of George III saw a rising trade in orphans and pauper children, collected from the parish workhouses of London and Birmingham, who were shipped off in thousands to the new industrial centers of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Lancashire. One London child-slave, Robert Blincoe, who was placed in the St. Pancras Workhouse in 1796 at the age of four and sent off with eighty other abandoned children to the Lambert cotton mill outside Nottingham, gave testimony to a Parliamentary committee on child labor some forty years later:

Q. Do you have any children? -- Three.

Q. Do you send them to factories? -- No; I would rather have them trans­ported. ... I have seen the time when two hand-vices of a pound weight each, more or less, have been screwed to my ears, at Lytton mill in Der­byshire. These are the scars still remaining behind my ears. Then three or four of us have been hung at once on a cross-beam above the machinery, hanging by our hands, without shirts or stockings. Then we used to stand up, in a skip, without our shirts, and be beaten with straps or sticks; the skip was to prevent us from running away from the straps. . . . Then they used to tie up a 28-pounds weight, one or two at once, according to our size, to hang down our backs, with no shirt on.

"Doctors tended to side with their class allies, the factory-owners, and went on record again and again with their considered opinions that cot­ton lint, coal dust and phosphorus were harmless to the human lung, that fifteen hours at a machine in a room temperature of 85 degrees did not cause fatigue, that ten-year-olds could work a full night shift without risk of harm. Employers, naturally, resisted the very thought of reform. Some of them were cultivated men like Josiah Wedgwood, uncle to Charles Darwin and heir to his father's great pottery in Staffordshire, who employed 387 people -- 13 under ten years old, 103 between ten and eighteen -- in such work as dipping ware in a glaze partly composed of lead oxide, a deadly poison which, as he admitted, made them 'very subject to disease,' though no more so than plumbers or painters. Yet 'I have a strong opinion,' Wedgwood told the Peel Committee in 1816, 'that, from all I know at present of manufactories in general, and cer­tainly from all I know of my own, we had better be left alone.'

"Of all the testimony offered to the Royal Commissions on factory labor, there is perhaps none more chilling than the evidence of Joseph Badder, a children's overseer in a Leicester mill, to the Factory Commis­sion of 1833. It has a prophetic ring: Here, the factory-induced dystopic visions of man as automaton that would run from Mary Shelley's Fran­kenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818) to Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926) are made pitiably concrete:

'I used to beat them. ... I told them I was very sorry after I had done it, but I was forced to it. The masters expected me to do my work, and I could not do mine unless the children did theirs. Then I used to joke with them to keep up their spirits.

I have seen them fall asleep, and they have been performing their work with their hands until they were asleep, after the billy [yarning machine] had stopped, when their work was over. I have stopped and looked at them for two minutes, going through the motions of piecening [joining threads in spinning] fast asleep, when there was really no work to do, and when they were really doing nothing.' "


Robert Hughes


The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding


First Vintage Books Edition


Copyright 1986 by Robert Hughes


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