Shocking Labor Practices That Were Legal In Charles Dickens’ Age

Published February 5, 2016
Updated January 11, 2017
Published February 5, 2016
Updated January 11, 2017

Child Labor: The Mills and the Chimneys

Charles Dickens Child Labor

A young girl drags a load of coal through a mine shaft in 1800s England. Source: Industrial Modernization

Although the late 18th century Industrial Revolution did not create child labor, it did allow for its wide use throughout Britain. Kids could often be found working in factories and mines, and dropping out of school in order to do so was by no means a problem.

Regulations at these factories and mines were few and far between: the Cotton Mills and Factories Act of 1819 put the minimum working age at 9 years old. The law also stipulated that children between 9 and 16 years old could work a maximum of 12 hours per day.

In 1832, the Ten Hour Bill passed. As its name implies, the law limited working time to a “generous” 10 hours a day. In 1834’s Chimney Sweeps Act, Parliament pushed the legal age for cleaning chimneys up to 14 years old.

Dickens himself saw what horrible consequences child labor could have on childhood. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens describes children Ignorance and Want as follows: “Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility.

Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds.” In Bleak House, Dickens’ humor is almost too painfully wry when he writes, “It is said that the children of the very poor are not brought up, but dragged up.”

Teresa Cantero
Teresa is a freelance journalist and former Fulbright scholar now based in Spain. She has an M.S. in Global Affairs from New York University and a Bachelors in Journalism from the Universidad de Navarra.