Shawl-Fringeing to Coffin Tassel-Making: Children at Work – Amie Slade

… children toil early and late, often during, as well as after and before school hours, to complete their tale of work […] the suffering of the children carries with it a stronger appeal for help; after all it is with them that the future lies. “Indoor work …. In insanitary homes, is generally bad and accounts for many of the pale faces and stunted frames to be found in the schools” says that Inter-Departmental Committee’s Report on the Employment of School Children, and one of the cases officially cited, in which four children, aged from eight to ten years, were employed at home from 44 to 50 hours a week […]” [1]

The notion of childhood which comprises innocence and play has only been dominant since the closing years of the Victorian era. Prior to this, children were often seen as an important part of the family economy, being employed particularly in the agricultural trades in the centuries preceding the Industrial Revolution.

Historians of childhood, such as Clark Nardinelli, have argued that it was entirely sensible for parents to put their children to work so they could contribute to the family income. [2] The most popular method of employment for children following the industrialisation of towns and cities was the Sweating System. This system grew considerably from the beginning of the nineteenth century and was typically carried out in workers’ homes or small workshops. Sweated labour was characterised by overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, low wages and long hours: for instance in the tailoring, boot making and cabinet making shops of the East End it was normal for employees to work for 15-18 hours a day. [3]

If reports of children working hours such as those, in unsanitary conditions, were made in the present century, it would be a case of child neglect or something equally corrupt. However, it was not until the late Victorian era that the need to protect children became paramount. Indeed, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was established 67 years before the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Children, which was created in 1891. While Sweated Labour was not always directly considered ‘cruelty’, it was a cruel industry for children to partake in.

Punch, 1845

The conditions in which employees of the Sweating Industries toiled were well publicised. Charles Kingsley, for instance, published Cheap Clothes and Nasty in 1850 in an attempt to expose the workings of the ‘dishonourable’ trades. [4] Punch magazine also had its say  when, in 1845, it released this image of a comfortable sweater watching his employees quite literally work themselves to death.[7]

Later in the century, particularly the 1880s and 1890s, there was renewed interest in ‘sweating’, largely due to investigations conducted by a select committee of the House of Lords. However, Beatrice Webb believed the only thing to come out of these investigations was an updated definition of sweating:

“…unusually low rates of wages, excessive hours of labor, and unsanitary work-places. When we get any one of these conditions in an exaggerated and extreme form, . . . then we may say, that the labor is sweated, and that the unfortunates are working under the sweating system.” [6]

In order to improve the lot of the child workers, various reform bills had been passed since the 1830s but these had not covered many of the ‘sweated trades’. The 1833 Factory Act improved conditions for children working in factories and stipulated that no child under the age of 9 years old should work, and children between 9 and 13 years old should work no more than 9 hours a day. [7] The following year saw the Chimney Sweeps Act. The enforcing of these acts were surely positive for working children within Britain, yet the child employees of the sweated trades would have to wait until the early twentieth century for their reform .

Sir Charles Dilke, in an attempt to enforce reform legislation on the sweating industries, presented the Wages Board Bill annually to the House of Commons from 1899-1906, but to no avail.

In 1909, however, The Trade Boards Act was passed. Churchill, speaking to Parliament in 1909 regarding the Act, said:

“It is a serious national evil that any class of His Majesty’s subjects should receive less than a living wage in return for their utmost exertions.” [8]

The Trade Boards Act was primarily concerned with low wages,  culminating in the setting up of boards to negotiate minimum wages in the box, lace, chainmaking, and tailoring trades.Dilke therefore did not have long to wait to see reforming efforts succeed, yet it was not his efforts which gained credit for the passing of the Act.

A publication edited by Richard Mudie-Smith was particularly influential in the passing of the Trade Boards Act of 1909 . Mudie-Smith, an early-twentieth century journalist and writer for the Daily News, published the Handbook of the “Daily News” Sweated Industries’ Exhibition in 1906). This was written to accompany an exhibition in London, which followed the example of similar exhibitions in Germany in ‘acquainting the public with the evils of Sweating’. [9] The quotation at the top of this page was from this catalogue. By pointing out the “pale faces and stunted frames” of the children working in sweating conditions, Mudie-Smith provides us an example of how over-work can negatively impact the health of young workers. Such a morbid description of their conditions was designed to provoke action amongst reformers.


‘Cardboard-Box Making’, R. Mudie-Smith (ed.), Handbook of the “Daily News” Sweated Industries Exhibition, May 1906, p. 3

Mudie-Smith used his membership of the Royal Statistical Society to his advantage by employing the relatively young discipline of statistics to create the Handbook. He focused specifically on the sweated trades of London and the substantial contents page ranges from Shawl Fringeing to Coffin Tassel Making. Alongside the topics included are multiple images demonstrating different sects of the Sweated Industry, such as this photograph of cardboard box makers.

As previously mentioned, the sweated industries were those carried out primarily in the home, therefore it is important to note that the children within this industry were not able to escape their working conditions upon returning home, as the workshop was the home. This fact, alongside the growing concern regarding the sanctity of childhood, contributed to the campaign for the reform of the sweating system in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Amie Slade


Further reading suggestions



[1] Mudie-Smith, R., Handbook of the “Daily News” Sweated Industries’ Exhibition May 1906 (Bayswater: Burt and Sons, 1906), p.13.

[2] Cunningham, H., ‘Childhood Histories’, Journal of Victorian Culture 9:1 (2004), p.92-93.

[3] Haggard, R.F., ‘Jack the Ripper as the threat of outcast London’, in Willis, M., Warwick, A. (eds) Jack the Ripper: Media, Culture and History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), p.198.

[4] Kingsley, C., Cheap Clothes and Nasty (1850). Available online: Date accessed: 4 December 2015.

[5] Kingsley, C., Cheap Clothes and Nasty (1850). Available online: Date accessed: 4 December 2015.

[6] Holcombe, A.N., ‘The British Minimum Wages Act of 1909’, The Quarterly Journal of Economics 24:3 (1910), pp. 574-577, p.575.

[7] National Archives, ‘1833 Factory Act’. Available online: Date accessed: 30 November 2015.

[8] Hilton, S., The Living Wage is a Conservative idea. Now let’s make it happen (2015). Available online: Date accessed: 3 December 2015

[9] Mudie-Smith, R., Handbook of the “Daily News” Sweated Industries’ Exhibition May 1906 (Bayswater: Burt and Sons, 1906), p.9.

[10] Mudie-Smith, R., Handbook of the “Daily News” Sweated Industries’ Exhibition May 1906 (Bayswater: Burt and Sons, 1906), p.35.