Britain was a land of farmers for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
Agriculture has always been part of our country’s landscape but it was in the Victorian era that our farms began producing more than ever!
This was for a number of reasons… As the population increased, demand for food increased too.
The building of new railway networks meant that fruit, vegetables and grain could be delivered to markets all over the country and so farmers could sell in greater quantities to customers almost anywhere.
To meet this new demand farms started using traction engines to plough fields as much as twenty times as quickly as the horses could.
The fields and villages expanded, eating up the land all around. Factories and mills were springing up, able to package and process the grain and produce, to send it far and wide.
Even with the new technology farm workers were still needed – in larger numbers than ever.
At the start of the 19th century, the rural economy was very important and employed the most people in the country.
Children have always been involved in the work – helping with farm animals and their care; milking, cleaning stables and feeding would fall into this categories.
Collecting water from the wells, sowing and collecting crops and scaring birds from the fields would also be examples of child labour.
It wasn’t sufficient just for men and women to be employed but children too, not least because they were cheaper.
Whereas in the past children may have helped their families get a harvest in, pick vegetables or help to tend the land, in Victorian times children worked in large “gangs” for people they didn’t know – often doing repetitive and hard work, in all weather for very low pay.
Some jobs that children did
• Children were employed as live scare crows to run up and down the fields all day chasing birds away so they didn’t eat the seeds.
• Some kids used slingshots, others were given a clapper made of three bits of wood. If you didn’t have a slingshot or any wood, you could just shout and flap your arms.
• One of the coldest hardest tasks was picking turnips for the animals to eat and it was a job that went mostly to kids.
• Turnips had to be picked in the middle of winter when it was freezing in the fields. The ground would be frozen solid and it would be really hard to pull the turnips up. Your fingers would also be very cold and as turnip leaves became frosty, they would cut you.
• Oh, and you would be bending down all day.
• Chaff is part of the grain that you don’t eat. It’s so light that when you hit the grain hard, the chaff flies off. This is called threshing. In Victorian England machines were invented that could thresh grain more quickly and more efficiently than ever before but they spewed out huge amounts of chaff which children had to clear up.
• Scything the corn at harvest time was the man’s job, but when the men had been through a field and taken all the corn away, children came in with their mums to glean.
• They would walk along searching between the cut off stalks for any tiny bits of corn that’s been missed by the harvesters. It was worth doing because you could gather enough flour to make bread that would last through the winter but only if you work really long hours.
• Girls as young as six worked 10 hours a day in flour mills to make sure that grain went on the millstones fast and consistently. If not, the rotating stones could send a spark.
• Doesn’t sound much of a problem. But as flour dust is explosive and the air was full of flour dust, any spark could make the mill explore.
• She also had to be careful not to get caught in the machinery. If she did, she could be ground to bits along with a flour.
• Families from the East End went to Kent every summer and to help pick hops which are used to make beer.
• Even the youngest children were put to work as soon as they were big enough to hold a branch.
• The hops were spiky, wet and covered in sticky pollen and they made a right mess of your hands. At 7 a.m. there was a bugle call to wake everyone up and then you had to work for 10 hours.
You can find out more about farming and the jobs that children did at the Museum of English Rural Life
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