Child labour in 1851

With schools currently closed, our children are at home learning online (or not). Back in 1851 however, many would have been working for wages. Not all would have been in full-time employment but almost half of boys aged 10 to 14 in the 1851 census in Cornwall were recorded with an occupation. For girls the proportion was a lot lower, at just over 16%.

How did this compare with other places? The child labour rate for boys in Cornwall was higher than in most other regions. Only the woollen industry of west Yorkshire and the hat- making and lace districts of Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire employed more boys. For girls Cornwall was less unusual. The industrial and textile regions of the English north and midlands and even Devon and Somerset saw higher rates of female child employment.

Boys (10-14) with occupation 1851
Girls (10-14) with occupation in 1851

Most of the extra child labour in Cornwall was accounted for by surface work at the mines. A flavour of this might be gleaned from interviews conducted by Charles Barham in 1841 for a commission on children’s employment in the mines. (The following is adapted from pages 109-11 of my From a Cornish Study.)

Samuel Tippet was ten years old and worked at the dressing floors of Trethellan Mine near Lanner. His work for the previous fortnight had been ‘washing up’, cleaning the stones in wooden troughs prior to their dressing.

‘He lives with his grandfather about a mile off. He pays his wages to his grandfather. Had seven shillings a month on his first ‘spurs’ and now gets ten. He sometimes feels tired when he leaves work; chiefly in the back and legs. He brings potato ‘hobban’ with him for dinner. For breakfast he gets milk and water and bread, barley and wheat mixed. For supper baked potatoes, with pork sometimes. Goes to bed at eight; likes to stay up longer.’

The working day for surface workers in 1841 was generally seven in the morning to five or five thirty, or daylight hours in winter. If ten and a half hours work with just half an hour for dinner (at some mines this was an hour and at one mine two hours) was not enough, the surface worker was sometimes faced with a considerable walk to work.

Martha Buckingham began work at Consolidated Mines, Gwennap in 1837 at the age of ten. She lived at Bissoe Bridge, about two miles and a steep hill away. In order to get to the mine by seven she had to rise at four. She left work at 5.30 (apart from sampling ore, when the days were extended from six in the morning to eight at night) and would presumably be home by seven. After supper she went to bed ‘as soon as she can’, around 9.30 or ten. Apart from Sundays therefore, Martha’s employment left little room for activities other than sleeping, walking to work and selling her labour, just two or three hours a day and none at all at sampling times.

4 thoughts on “Child labour in 1851

  1. This is a really very interesting account. Thank you so much.

    Just a word about the employment of girls. My daughter did a study into the Cornish china clay industry recently (just a small one as part of a school project) and this data emerged. I have read a very similar report on the underreporting of women’s, and girls’ labour, in agricultural censuses. In fact, this remains a global problem and once I am much concerned with in my own work. For example, post-harvest processing is rarely captured in national agricultural statistics in countries like Bangladesh or Ghana, but women spend vast amounts of time on it. Also, the girls you mention above would almost certainly have contributed to household tasks as well. It is no wonder that Martha, in contrast to Samuel, longed for bed. This is not to decry that Samuel as much as Martha had a long day, but everywhere girls do household work too, and boys hardly ever.

    —- It is hard to know how many women worked in the china clay industry because official statistics rarely capture the age or gender of employees. Work that was done by women and girls was rarely included on official forms so it could not be counted. In Cornwall, women working in mines were called Balmaidens (Cornish ‘bal’ = mine, and maiden = unmarried or young woman). In 1841 (census) in St Austell parish, 97 men, 28 boys, 7 women and 22 girls worked in the china clay mines. The official mine report lists 98 men, 31 boys and no women or girls. The female workers were listed on inofficial forms as clay labourers, clay girls, clay women, and sand girl. The main jobs done by women and girls were to carry blocks of clay to the drying sheds (along with the boys), to scrape off the dirty bottom layer from the blocks of dry clay, and to pack them into barrels. For many years before 1847 adult male workers in the china clay industry earned 18 pence for a 8 hour day. Women and children earned as little as 4 pence a day.


  2. PS to last – rereading the above I could clarify a couple of the dates and sources, but the data itself is correct.


  3. I saw on an episode of Edwardian Farm (the lace episode), that despite child labour laws, and access to education, the are of Honiton and Sidmouth in Devon did not comply. As a result lace-making girls were under educated until County Devon stepped in in 1960. Do you have any data relating to this issue?


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