This Day In Literary History
On August 29th, 1833, Britain's Parliament passed the Mills and Factory Act, the first of many reforms enacted to improve the "health and morals" of child laborers - the most exploited members of the working class.
The Mills and Factory Act made it illegal for children under nine years old to work, limited the work week of children aged 9-12 to a maximum of 48 hours and limited the work week for teenagers to a maximum of 68 hours.
The Act also included minimum provisions for facilitating the education of child laborers and for protecting their health and safety. Although woefully inadequate by today's standards, the law was revolutionary for its time.
Why would Parliament, then notorious for its extreme reluctance to regulate British businesses in any way, pass the Mills and Factory Act, which for the first time ever granted national government inspectors unprecedented, unlimited access to factories?
And why, over the years, were more regulatory acts passed by Parliament - acts that were increasingly stricter, leading to the total outlawing of most forms of child labor?
It was all due to the efforts of England's greatest writers, whose works brought the horrific nature of unregulated child labor to national attention, sparking national outrage and demands for reform.
In 1789, the legendary poet William Blake published his classic poem The Chimney Sweeper, in which a child laborer tells of his unhappy plight:
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue,
Could scarcely cry weep weep weep weep.
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep...
Blake died in 1827 - six years before the Mills and Factory Act was passed. He spent his last years living in rooms off the Strand, near the alleyways where a child laborer named Charles Dickens walked en route to the job he detested.
Another great English writer who brought the horrors of child labor to national attention was Frances Trollope, whose classic novel, The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, The Factory Boy was published in 1840.
To ensure the accuracy of her novel, Trollope thoroughly researched child labor, combing through contemporary documents and reading the testimony of the victims of unregulated child labor. Most influential was a memoir written by a man named Robert Blincoe.
Blincoe became a workhouse orphan at the age of four. When he was seven, he and eighty other workhouse children, both boys and girls, were taken to work in a horrific textile mill in Nottingham. He would later testify before a Parliamentary committee investigating child labor abuses:
I have seen the time when two weights have each been screwed to my ears. Then three or four of us have been hung on a beam over the machinery, hanging by our hands. Mind, we were apprentices without a mother or father to take care of us. Then we used to stand up, in a skip, without our shirts, and be beat with straps. Then they used to tie up a 28-pound weight to hang down our backs.
Of course, the English writer who contributed the most to reforming child labor was the aforementioned Charles Dickens, who exposed the horrors of child labor in classic novels such as Oliver Twist (1837) and David Copperfield (1850).
As a child laborer himself, he saw these horrors firsthand. Dickens, a child prodigy, had lived a comfortable upper middle class life. Like many others in a similar position, he had felt a sense of superiority and entitlement.
Then, when he was twelve, his father went broke and was sent to debtor's prison. Charles was forced to work to pay off his father's debts. Angrily bemoaning his situation at first, he soon developed a deep compassion for the poor and oppressed of all ages.
The passage of the Mills and Factory Act in 1833 and subsequent reforms to end the suffering caused by unregulated child labor is proof that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.
The Mills and Factory Act was passed not because of a violent revolution at the workplace, but because England's greatest writers had the courage to speak out against the suffering of child laborers and use the power of their words to bring about change.
Quote Of The Day
"In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice." - Charles Dickens
Today's video features a complete reading of Charles Dickens' classic novel, David Copperfield. Enjoy!