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by Paul Asling 6 months ago in Historical
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‘I have two boys working for me. After work their arms and legs are bleeding so I rub them with saltwater, before sending them up another chimney.’ Sweep Master.

The average age at which children started work in early 19th-century Britain was ten years old. In London and other industrial areas, children started work earlier, on average at eight and a half years old. Many of the young workers started in factories, crawling beneath the machinery to clear it of dirt, dust, or anything else that might interrupt the workings of the machines. Most children worked under the same disadvantages, working for low pay, performing work that was dirty, dangerous, and working long hours.

Many children worked 16-hour days under atrocious conditions. Ineffective parliamentary acts to regulate workhouse children’s work in factories to 12 hours per day had been passed as early as 1802 and 1819, made no difference.

Science and technology developed rapidly in the 1800s and brought wealth and improvement into many sectors of life. But it was also the time of great misery, exploitation and tremendous class differences between a very wealthy upper-class and an extremely poor working-class. Although the British economy expanded to become the richest in the world, many working-class families did not benefit at all.

In the early part of the Victorian age, only two per cent of the population formed the upper-class, which comprised aristocrats and landed gentry whose most distinctive feature was the fact that its members didn’t have to work for a living, but relied on rental revenues and the income of investments made instead.

The Victorian Age was a very ambiguous time, with great prosperity and terrible poverty going side by side. Because of rapid urbanisation, London became large, densely populated and overcrowded in a short time. The results were that large parts of London deteriorated and became slums.

In the 19th century, childhood was a heavily idealised and romanticised time. Children were seen as sweet little angels who were entirely good and innocent since they weren’t corrupted by the cruel world yet. But despite this obsession with children, the child mortality rate, especially in poorer districts, was appallingly high.

What jobs did Victorian children perform?


Being a pure finder was a lucrative occupation, as London’s tanneries were significant users of the stuff. Despite the name, the work involved collecting dog faeces from London’s streets to sell to tanners, who used it in the leather-making process. The children sold the dung on by the bucket load and could get between 1s and 1s 2d a bucket, depending upon quality.

Dog shit was known as ‘pure’ because it was used to purify the leather and make it suppler. Leather was in great need in Victorian times, as it was used for tack for horses, shoes, boots, bags, and bookbinding. Pure collectors walked the streets where stray dogs amassed, scraping up the muck, putting it into a bucket and selling it to the tanners. Some collectors wore a black glove to protect their hands, but others considered it harder to keep a glove clean than a hand and avoided the protection altogether.


Matchsticks were made by cutting wood into very thin sticks and then immersing the ends into white phosphorus, a highly toxic chemical. This work was mostly performed by young girls who worked in diabolical conditions, often upto16 hours a day with few breaks. They forced the young girls to eat at their workstations, meaning the toxic phosphorus got into their food, leading to some developing the horrible condition known as ‘phossy jaw’—whereby the jawbone becomes infected, leading to severe disfigurement.


‘I have two boys working for me. After work, their arms and legs are bleeding, so I rub them with saltwater, before sending them up another chimney,’ Sweep Master.

They employed small children as young as four years old as chimney sweeps, their small physique making them the perfect size to climb up the brick chimneys. The climbing in the oppressive space of a chimney meant many sweeps elbows and knees were scraped raw. Breathing in the dust and smoke from the chimneys meant many of the children suffered permanent lung damage. Smaller sweeps were the most sought-after, and most had outgrown the profession by the age of 10. Often children became stuck in the chimneys or were unwilling to do the climb, and evidence suggests their bosses might light a fire underneath to make the child find its way out at the top of the chimney. In 1840, they passed a law to make it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to climb and clean a chimney, though some unscrupulous employers continued the practice.


About the author

Paul Asling

I share a special love for London, both new and old. I began writing fiction at 40, with most of my books and stories set in London.


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