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Bates Speaks on History of Child Labor

Dr. Rebecca Bates, Berea College assistant history professor, educated a large group of her peers at a recent Friday Faculty Colloquium using information she gathered while working on her dissertation, which she defended at the University of Kentucky this past October. In it she focused on working-class childhood, labor and philanthropy in England between 1839 and 1914.

Jeff Richey introduces Dr. Rebecca Bates

Her lecture at the colloquium focused on the period from the 1830s to the 1890s and her theory as to why many working class males between 17 and 21 were classified as children by the charity organizations who gave them aid in the 1890s. “This was very dis-settling to me …. It doesn’t fit right.”

She said in 1881 in Great Britain, children were considered adults at age 12. Welfare agencies had different guidelines, defining adulthood beginning at 14 for boys and 16 for girls in the 1870s. “This idea that philanthropies were out of sync puzzled me. I’m hoping I can shed some light on it today.” Bates said the answer to the puzzle is directly tied into child labor.

One element in the enigma is the value of work and industriousness in the Victorian society. Bates explained that labor was touted as “the foundation of the civilized world” and was considered moral because it helped keep the lower classes from being idle and provided for their needs. At that time, only people who could work were eligible for aid. At the infamous workhouses, families were divided by gender and age and even those as young as 5 were given tasks to earn their keep.

Bates noted that many refer to the 19th century as the “golden age of welfare policies in England.” It was a time when the work-based system of welfare was being challenged by urban industrial society. People became aware that there was not a job for everyone who needed it and not everyone was able to work. “Some people were falling through the cracks." Bates said. "The very old, the very young we give help to now easily, but the idea was new in 19th century England. They recognized that industrial society wasn’t keeping up with the needs of the people and it created categories of people at risk.”

Children under the age of 15 made up approximately 40 percent of England’s population in the 1830s and many of them were living on the street. At that time, children were believed to be poor because their parents were poor or they were lazy. The first ideals of welfare societies were to get youngsters off the streets by putting them to work. Often this was accomplished by sending them to rural areas or even deporting them to the colonies or dominions. By the 1880s, minds had changed and it was recognized that children were indigent as a result of urban industrialization and solutions must be found.

During the period between 1830 and 1890, the definition of childhood was moving steadily from one of labor to education and play. “There is not one way of describing a child of this period,” Bates said. She noted that childhood eventually came to be seen as the opposite of adulthood, “a period of innocence and non-labor.” Suffering and work was seen as something only adults should experience. “The idea that play is the highest experience of childhood was established around the 1850s or 60s,” the professor said.

Bates noted how quickly ideals were changing at that time through legislation and new social beliefs. In the 1870s, 25 percent of children 10 to 14 were working. Just 20 years earlier, statistics showed 50 percent were employed in that age range.

Great Britain experienced an economic depression in the 1880s and there were a large number of unemployed “lads” in their late teens and early 20s who were unable to support themselves, so charity organizations classified them as children to assist them in getting on their feet. In looking through archives in London and Liverpool, Bates found examples of the types of young men or “boys” that fell into this category. For example, most were either orphans or had families who were unable to care for them. They had made attempts at making a living, but through no fault of their own, had been unsuccessful. According to information found in her research, most of these poor “lads” were trained for farm labor or crafts. “For older children … labor was valued as an educational opportunity that could assist the children in securing specific employment positions that were valuable to the nation.”

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