Child Labour in the Second City of Empire

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The prevalence of child labour in industrial cities coexisted uncomfortably with the middle classes’ idea of the sanctity of childhood. Projecting our current concept of childhood onto the Victorian and Edwardian child risks anachronism. For many working-class children a childhood without labour was not possible – Glasgow was no exception. Little hands, disposable workers and low wages were integral to many industries and child labour provided all of these. In 1856 the law stated that any child over the age of 9 could work 60 hours a week and this was not raised until 1901 and then it was deemed that 12 was a more acceptable age. The true disruption to child labour would come in the form of the 1872 Education Scotland Act that made primary schooling compulsory with poverty no longer an excuse for truancy.

After this working class children often spent their out of school hours trying to earn some money. Social reformers reported that children in Glasgow, referred to as ‘City Arabs’, frequently sold matches and newspapers on the streets. A boy of seven was reported as crying, standing bare-footed in melting snow attempting to sell newspapers at night. When approached he told the reporter “My mither tellt me I was tae bring hame seevenpence” and when asked about his father he replied “He’s deed” (1871). Although taken from a rather sensationalist report this was typical for many working-class families in Glasgow. Widowhood was almost inevitable for all classes of women but for the working classes the burden of support often fell as much on the children as the mother. Compulsory schooling undoubtedly meant that many working-class families felt both a loss of control and an economic loss in the form of their children’s wages.

Industrial schools

IMG_4820Glasgow City Archives, Industrial School Register (photograph my own)

Many were placed in industrial schools which became known as ‘feeding schools’ but it is unclear whether the comfort of a guaranteed meal for your child offset the financial loss of their labour. Rather than parents getting any meagre earnings from their child the school profited from their labour. For example, the Mossbank Boys’ Industrial School had both a tailors and a shoemakers and the girls of the Green Street Day Industrial school worked for two hours each Saturday in the laundry. The reports for the Boys’ House of Refuge in Glasgow were printed and bound by the boys themselves.

Working-class women in Glasgow’s experience of waged labour was often at home which contradicts the contention that industrialisation separated home and work so we must not consider the period as dramatic discontinuity. Children were integral to these operations as a huge number of items had to be produced to even break even. In November 2016 the BBC aired the reality show The Victorian Slum which painfully recreated these working conditions in a sort of ‘living history’. The reality would have been far tougher than the BBC could reproduce legally!

Sweated Work

Needlework was the biggest sector, followed by paper-bag and box making; workers had to buy their own paste, needles and thread which cut overheads for their employers.The work was low skilled but required considerable practise to ensure rapid production as workers were paid by piece. There was a conception that home-workers were supplementing their income and factory workers often blamed them for keeping wages low. However, for many women this was their livelihood and with the average wage for 50 hours finishing collars in Glasgow a mere 5s. 3d. it was poorly paid. Many women would have relied on their children’s help, with small fingers particularly suited to some of the most fiddly tasks.

There is still much work to be done on the reality of child labour in a Victorian Glasgow* but from what we know it was piecework and precarious and most often vital to their survival rather than truly supplementary. A scribble from a shocked teacher in the margins of the Glasgow Industrial School Register (Glasgow City Archives) noted that a 6 year old girl had left the school in order to ‘work at the bleach fields!!’ So perhaps we could start there.

Further Reading

Alice J. Albert, ‘Fit Work for Women: Sweated Home-workers in Glasgow c. 1875-1914’ in The World is Ill Divided (1990)

T. C. Smout, A History of the Scottish People: 1830-1950 (2010)

*This is perhaps a huge understatement as the above reading is although excellent, not really on child labour at all! There is very little written about child labour in Glasgow and certainly nothing comprehensive. This was mostly pieced together from many titbits from trips to the archives.


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