Social Issues in Victorian England
Child Labor as discussed in Dicken's Oliver Twist
Introduction and Back-story
Child labor was most common in pauper families and orphanages or parishes that housed homeless children. A population boom in the previous years led to a large population of children in Victorian times. According to Marah Gubar of the University of Pittsburgh, during Queen Victoria's reign, approximately 1/3 of her subjects was under the age of fifteen. This staggering number was combined with an increase in industrialization of society, leading to a greater need for laborers. The obvious solution here at this time was child labor.
Working conditions for poor Victorian children were terrible. For example, children working in coal mines frequently developed respiratory conditions because of a large amount of dust and poor ventilation in the mines (Price 2013). Welfare of the children that were working was rarely thought about by those upper class people that did not have first hand experience with the horrors that the children went through. Because these upper class people were the only ones with a public forum and access to influence the government at that time, little was done to protect the child workers.
Child labor became popular in England in the very early 1800's but it was not until 30 years later, when most of those first working children were either deceased or adult workers, that the very first measly laws were past to improve child working conditions.
"The Society for the prevention of cruelty to animals was created in 1824. Which was 67 years before the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which was created in 1891" -The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) – Thomas Agnew
Charles Dickens is perhaps the most well known writer to tackle the issue of child labor. At the age of twelve, Charles was sent to work in a factory after his father was sent to debtor's prison. The experience stuck with him throughout his life and he wrote several novels that mentioned the subject of child labor such as: Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, A Christmas Carol, and Bleak House. The most popular of these novels,Oliver Twist (1837), was written in response to a new law enacted in 1834 that sent poor people to workhouses, separated families, put them in horrible living conditions, and forced them into hard labor. Dickens' novels were revolutionary for their time and his tackling of these issues in his works helped lead to social reform and child protection acts.
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens