From the cradle to the grave (work, that is)


As the government sets about dismantling the welfare state, I thought I would look at people’s working lives during the nineteenth century, in the days before old age pensions, children’s rights and disability benefits.

I remember helping my mother to do some family history research and being shocked to find that on my great-great-grandfather’s death certificate (1906), it stated that he had been a road labourer when he died at the age of 78. He had been a hairdresser for most of his working life and, judging by the causes of death on the certificate, he had not been in good health, but for some reason, he had ended his days working on the roads. It started me thinking about the whole nature of work before the welfare state. I have been privileged to live in an era when state help was available almost literally “from the cradle to the grave,”  but the census returns from the early twentieth-century show quite clearly that no-one – including children as young as 5 and old people in their 90s – would dare suggest that they were not employed in some useful manner or had some means of income. This was almost certainly because to admit that you were not working (unless you were wealthy) meant that you were at risk of being defined as a ‘pauper’ and might end up in the Workhouse.

 So here are a very few examples of old people who were still working, taken from the 1901 Census of England & Wales. I’d like to have included screenshots of the actual census documents, but can’t because they’re Crown Copyright:

 Address: 3/23 Backer Street, Ladywood. Birmingham.Robert Adam, aged 111, Carriage Examiner (worker), born in Birmingham.

 Address: Southwood House, Wonersh, Surrey. Fredrick Abbott, aged 95, Farmer (employer), born in Sevenoaks, Kent

 Address: West Torrington, Lincolnshire.Thomas, Stones, aged 75, Labourer for a gardener (worker), born in Holton Beckering, Lincolnshire

 Address: Moon Hill, Sibertswold, Kent.William Dawson, aged 80, agricultural labourer (worker), born in Shephersdwell, Kent

 Address: 141 Munster Road, Fulham, London. William Adams, aged 91, Boot maker (own account), born in Northampton

 The list goes on and on.  Of course, many more people of this age were not working. They were “living on their own means,” or supported by their children/grandchildren (if they had any) or in the Workhouse.

 Here’s another, from the 1881 Census:

Address: Westlegate Street, Norwich. Thomas Artiston, aged 70, Scavenger, born in London.

“Scavenger” was not a common way of earning a living in Victorian England but it occurs in the census as an official occupation frequently enough, especially among the old and the infirm. Another good one was “sewer-hunter.”

 Of course, many older people needed employment, but because of the increasing demands of industrialisation, they were no longer required. leaving them to what became the standard jobs for the old before the state pension came in: road labourer, gardener, scavenger. This is taken from The Case for Universal Old Age Pensions by John Metcalfe (London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., 1899). He is quoting a manager at the Barrow Steel Company: “From this date forward please note that no men are to be engaged who are known to have any defects, such as the loss of a limb, defective sight or hearing. Further, no men to be engaged in any department who are older than fifty… . Any man already in the employ of the company in the excess of he age may be retained, but in case of their leaving they are not to be re-engaged.”

At the other end of the scale, I had to go further back. After the 1870 Elementary Education Act, children were required to attend school between the ages of 5 and 12 (although it is not now well remembered that the reason the school summer holidays are when they are is so that children could help work on the harvest).

 My examples of child labour come from the proceedings of the Sadler Committee [Parliamentary Papers, 1831-1832, vol. XV], which inquired into the working conditions in factories of women and children. I am quoting from just two witnesses although there were many other examples [I have taken these from here, where you can find others]:

 Mr. Matthew Crabtree, called in; and Examined.

What age are you? – Twenty-two.

What is your occupation? – A blanket manufacturer.

Have you ever been employed in a factory? — Yes.

At what age did you first go to work in one? — Eight.

How long did you continue in that occupation? — Four years.

Will you state the hours of labour at the period when you first went to the factory, in ordinary times? — From 6 in the morning to 8 at night.

Fourteen hours? — Yes.

With what intervals for refreshment and rest? — An hour at noon.

When trade was brisk what were your hours? — From 5 in the morning to 9 in the evening.

Sixteen hours? — Yes.

With what intervals at dinner? — An hour.

How far did you live from the mill? — About two miles.

Was there any time allowed for you to get your breakfast in the mill? — No.

Did you take it before you left your home? — Generally.

During those long hours of labour could you be punctual; how did you awake? — I seldom did awake spontaneously; I was most generally awoke or lifted out of bed, sometimes asleep, by my parents.

Were you always in time? — No.

What was the consequence if you had been too late? — I was most commonly beaten. Severely? — Very severely, I thought.

In those mills is chastisement towards the latter part of the day going on perpetually? — Perpetually.

So that you can hardly be in a mill without hearing constant crying? — Never an hour, I believe.

Do you think that if the overlooker were naturally a humane person it would still be found necessary for him to beat the children, in order to keep up their attention and vigilance at the termination of those extraordinary days of labour? — Yes; the machine turns off a regular quantity of cardings, and of course, they must keep as regularly to their work the whole of the day; they must keep with the machine, and therefore however humane the slubber may be, as he must keep up with the machine or be found fault with, he spurs the children to keep up also by various means but that which he commonly resorts to is to strap them when they become drowsy. At the time when you were beaten for not keeping up with your work, were you anxious to have done it if you possibly could? — Yes; the dread of being beaten if we could not keep up with our work was a sufficient impulse to keep us to it if we could.

When you got home at night after this labour, did you feel much fatigued? — Very much so.

Had you any time to be with your parents, and to receive instruction from them? — No.

What did you do? — All that we did when we got home was to get the little bit of supper that was provided for us and go to bed immediately. If the supper had not been ready directly, we should have gone to sleep while it was preparing.

Did you not, as a child, feel it a very grievous hardship to be roused so soon in the morning? — I did.

Were the rest of the children similarly circumstanced? — Yes, all of them; but they were not all of them so far from their work as I was.

And if you had been too late you were under the apprehension of being cruelly beaten? — I generally was beaten when I happened to be too late; and when I got up in the morning the apprehension of that was so great, that I used to run, and cry all the way as I went to the mill.

 Elizabeth Bentley, called in; and Examined.

What age are you? — Twenty-three.

Where do you live? — At Leeds.

What time did you begin to work at a factory? — When I was six years old.

At whose factory did you work? — Mr. Busk’s.

What kind of mill is it? — Flax-mill.

What was your business in that mill? — I was a little doffer.

What were your hours of labour in that mill? — From 5 in the morning till 9 at night, when they were thronged.

For how long a time together have you worked that excessive length of time? — For about half a year.

What were your usual hours when you were not so thronged? — From 6 in the morning till 7 at night.

What time was allowed for your meals? — Forty minutes at noon.

Had you any time to get your breakfast or drinking? — No, we got it as we could.

And when your work was bad, you had hardly any time to eat it at all? — No; we were obliged to leave it or take it home, and when we did not take it, the overlooker took it, and gave it to his pigs.

Do you consider doffing a laborious employment? — Yes.

Explain what it is you had to do? — When the frames are full, they have to stop the frames, and take the flyers off, and take the full bobbins off, and carry them to the roller; and then put empty ones on, and set the frame going again.

Does that keep you constantly on your feet? — Yes, there are so many frames, and they run so quick.

Your labour is very excessive? — Yes; you have not time for any thing.

Suppose you flagged a little, or were too late, what would they do? — Strap us.

Are they in the habit of strapping those who are last in doffing? — Yes.

Constantly? — Yes.

Girls as well as boys? — Yes.

Have you ever been strapped? — Yes.

Severely? — Yes.

Could you eat your food well in that factory? — No, indeed I had not much to eat, and the little I had I could not eat it, my appetite was so poor, and being covered with dust; and it was no use to take it home, I could not eat it, and the overlooker took it, and gave it to the pigs.

You are speaking of the breakfast? — Yes.

How far had you to go for dinner? — We could not go home to dinner.

Where did you dine? — In the mill.

Did you live far from the mill? — Yes, two miles.

Had you a clock? — No, we had not.

Supposing you had not been in time enough in the morning at these mills, what would have been the consequence? — We should have been quartered.

What do you mean by that? — If we were a quarter of an hour too late, they would take off half an hour; we only got a penny an hour, and they would take a halfpenny more.

The fine was much more considerable than the loss of time? — Yes.

Were you also beaten for being too late? — No, I was never beaten myself, I have seen the boys beaten for being too late.

Were you generally there in time? — Yes; my mother had been up at 4 o’clock in the morning, and at 2 o’clock in the morning; the colliers used to go to their work about 3 or 4 o’clock, and when she heard them stirring she has got up out of her warm bed, and gone out and asked them the time; and I have sometimes been at Hunslet Car at 2 o’clock in the morning, when it was streaming down with rain, and we have had to stay until the mill was opened.


 All the illustrations are taken from Mayhew’s London Labour & London Poor (1840s)


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