Children work 12-hour day;Subject of the week;History

9th April 1999 at 01:00
Cotton on quick. A Year 8 lesson at Sackville school on factory children

My mother's still in the Bristol Workhouse. You didn't even tell her where we had been taken," Sara Carpenter shouted at Samuel Greg.

Greg looked uncomfortable as he shifted uneasily on his chair. The first part of his speech had gone well. He had just told the class he had been one of the first people to Britain to build a textile factory.

Greg then went on to explain the problems of finding adequate labour in such a remote part of Cheshire. Imported workers needed cottages, and the ones he built cost nearly pound;100 each. He boasted that each family (average of eight people) had a parlour, a kitchen, two bedrooms, a cistern and a good-sized garden where they could grow their own vegetables.

Greg proudly told the class how in 1790 he had the brilliant idea of solving his labour problem by obtaining children from the workhouse. He explained how he had persuaded the guardians of the Macclesfield Workhouse to pay him pound;4 for each child he employed. He also demanded that the guardians supplied the children with "two shifts, two pairs of stockings and two aprons".

"You lied to us," shouted Robert Blincoe. "You told us we would be fed on roast beef and plum pudding, have silver watches and plenty of cash." This was not strictly true, Blincoe had been taken from St Pancras Workhouse and sent to Nottingham.

Greg looked confused. He had not heard this argument before, and while he grappled for an answer, Jedediah Strutt came to his rescue by pointing out that the children in his factory were better off than those in the workhouse. He admitted that there were some bad employers but he looked after his children.

Edward Baines now joined the debate. He told the class how his investigations for the Leeds Mercury had revealed that factory reformers had been providing a false picture of what it was like to work in a textile factory. Baines claimed that working in a cotton factory was less harmful than other jobs.

At this point three students raised their hands to speak. They were all doctors who had terrible tales to tell of crippled children who had been forced to have limbs amputated and young women unable to give birth because of their damaged pelvic bones. They explained how these problems had been caused by young children standing on their feet all day when bones were still being formed. What they did not know, was that there were also three doctors in the class prepared to give evidence to support the claims of Edward Baines.

This lesson took place at Sackville last month. In the previous lesson all students had used the Internet to find out about child labour at the beginning of the 19th century. Each was given the name of an individual who took part in the debate at the time. This included factory owners, factory reformers, child workers, parents, journalists, religious leaders and doctors. The children were given details about the textile industry encyclopedia website (see box) and what they needed to do.

It is interesting the way students reacted when they found out about their character. Initially, they were much happier about playing the role of a factory owner. They quickly developed the idea that they were responsible for the wealth that the character had accumulated. Those who were given the role of a child worker became involved in finding ways of improving their lot.

The exercise helps explain the complexity of child labour in the 19th century. The students discovered that some factory owners, such as John Fielden and John Wood, were leaders of a group trying to end child labour. At the same time, reforming journalists such as Edward Baines were totally opposed to any attempt by Parliament to regulate the use of labour. Even doctors did not agree that standing for 12 hours a day in a factory where windows were closed and the air was thick with the dust from the cotton.

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