Y S Lee was born in Singapore and raised in Vancouver and Toronto. In 2004, she completed her PhD in Victorian literature and culture. This research, combined with her time living in London, triggered an idea for a story about a women’s detective agency. The result, A Spy in the House, is her first novel.
Hello! This is the 2nd of 8 guest posts I’m making as part of the T2T blog tour. As an ex-professor and writer of historical fiction, my theme is Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About the Victorians. Yesterday, I talked about Sexy Victorian at GreenBeanTeenQueen. Today’s topic is Extreme Child Labour.
How old were you when you got your first job, and what was it? Babysitting at the age of 12? Weeding your grandmother’s flowerbeds at age 10? Mine was cleaning my parents’ bathroom when I was 11. I hated it. Hated it. Hated it. Every Saturday morning. Not optional. But at least they paid me ($5) – and at least I wasn’t a poor child in Victorian England.
Child labour was routine for the Victorian poor. A six-year-old might be responsible for looking after other, younger children, then graduate to minding a neighbour’s flock of sheep at the age of 8. Notice the hierarchy, here: you had to be older and more responsible to look after livestock, because they were more valuable than kids! In a different district, work might involve crawling through a coal mine, because skinny bodies and tiny fingers were good at collecting little bits of coal. Urban children went to work in factories, where their small fingers were useful once again – until they lost them in industrial accidents, and were thus unemployable.
It wasn’t that children’s labour was particularly valuable – they earned much lower wages than women, who in turn earned less than men (for the same work). And it wasn’t that parents thought their kids might as well be useful. But going to school cost money, and most poor families simply couldn’t afford it. Even the pennies earned by their children were essential to paying for basics, like rent and food. Alfred Quigley, a minor character in my novel, A Spy in the House, earns a bit more running errands and delivering messages, but his incentive is the same: to help his widowed mother pay the bills.
Child labour was a frequent subject of concern for Victorian social reformers. In 1847, a new law limited the working day to 10 hours for children and adults! And despite its end in affluent countries like Britain and the States, it continues today in poor countries. I, for one, should still be grateful that I’m not a poor child in China.
You can find Lee at her website, follow her on twitter, and figure out who's next on her online book tour!
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