Tracks from Millbridge led uphill towards Headlands and Balk, these names a reminder of medieval open-field farming. Beyond were ancient farmsteads, at Bullace Trees, Pogg Myers and Thornbush, and the open land in between these places was punctuated by long-abandoned remains of small coal workings, day holes. In past times, children had worked long hours, unregulated, in isolated hamlets like this. They laboured in all kinds of manual jobs, in roles supporting adults in textiles and agriculture: fetching and carrying, winding yarn, working on the land. In particular, here at the centre of the woollen districts, before 1850 children set wire teeth in card-clothing, which was used to comb wool.
And then things began to change. The first water-powered cotton and woollen mills, built from around 1780, were set near the river, on the valley floor, or on hillside streams out-of-the-way from where most people lived. The natural playgrounds of Strawberry Bank and Primrose Lane, with their becks and grasslands, were already partly despoiled by waste heaps and industrial premises. To the factory children, these quickly became routes to work, shortcuts on dark mornings for a six o’clock start a mile or two’s walk from home.
Balk well, Hightown
Before the first Factory Acts, very little restricted the hours young children worked, or stopped their employment on nightshifts or underground in collieries. From 1833, the under-nines were banned from working in factories, though the age later dropped again to eight. Under-13s had to attend school for two or three hours a day in order to be allowed to work. 10 to 12 year-olds could not work more than nine hours a day. A Mines Act in 1842 barred the employment of boys under 10, and of all girls and women, underground in collieries. Later, in 1861, boys under 12 were excluded from work below the surface – unless, that is, they were over 10 and could read and write. Later, an exemption to the 12 year-old rule was made, for mines working very thin seams. And none of these laws stopped child labour altogether, for they applied only to certain types of workplace.
Schooling had become compulsory in 1880, for children aged five to 11. Otherwise the system that Edgar and Edith encountered in the 1910s had changed little since their grandparents were young. And their family’s poverty meant that as soon as that minimum age was reached, on the day they turned 12, the older children must start work. Edith knew the necessity: ‘my only desire’, she said of her 10 year-old self, ‘was to reach the age of 12 when I could go to work half-time and earn some money for the family’.
20 Sept 2016