I recently watched an interesting documentary about the lives of children in the Middle Ages, which completely dispelled the myths that childhood barely existed then and children were simply treated as small adults or commodities with specific jobs. Of course, in those days, children worked with their parents on the land but there was always plenty of time to play, too, and recent archaeological discoveries, as well as paintings, have shown that they had toys and games and played just as children do today.
In a cemetery close to a local hospital, which was built as a workhouse, there are rows of unmarked graves of pauper children. These children surely deserve a ‘blue plaque’ like those which mark the homes of philanthropists and businessmen who built this city. It was on the backs of these children that the British Empire was built. Pauper apprentices, whose names are long-forgotten, were the workhouse children whom factory owners bought like slaves. The official version was that they would be fed and clothed and taught a useful trade but many simply provided free labour. In the mills, their job was to clean the fluff from the looms since they were small enough to hurry in and out while the machine kept working. Exhausted and malnourished, many of them stumbled and were caught up in the machinery and lost limbs or even their lives. In the pauper apprentice house, many children shared one bed and often the children worked shifts so that the day shift would sleep then vacate the bed for the night shift to collapse into. The relentless machines never stopped working. The children were expendable and, being orphans or unwanted, no one missed them or noticed when they disappeared and now they lie in unmarked graves in city cemeteries. In mines, in potteries, in match and paint factories, children were employed in this way.
Happily, in the midst of this darkness, came light from men like Richard
Oastler – a Quaker, who not only spoke out against slavery but also against child labour. This man gave up so much of his time to this cause that he was imprisoned for his debts but continued to call for reform to protect children and reduce their working hours. He was not a Socialist but rather a man who saw a terrible situation and was prepared to sacrifice his own comfort to change it.
There is just one thing that is often misconstrued in this story. Industrialisation obviously brought terrible working conditions for many, many people. Consequently, people spoke out against such conditions and quite rightly demanded a change. The mistake, however, was the notion that somehow the monarchy or even the aristocracy created this terrible situation when, in fact, reading the lives of virtually all the royalties of that era, it is clear that they were as appalled as anyone by such things. Prince Albert was not alone in his attempts to improve conditions. In Germany, his daughter, Empress Frederick made numerous attempts to provide education for working people; in Russia, Tsarina Alexandra made similar efforts...the same is true in many other countries. The real problem lay in the heartlessness of certain factory owners, many of whom were proudly self-made men, and the totally bizarre idea that if the monarchs were disposed of, things would suddenly improve.
Regardless of the politics, the revolutions and the downfall of dynasties and empires, I believe that the forgotten children deserve to be remembered for their part in creating Victorian Britain.