As children everywhere toil away at their summer jobs, Ancestry.co.uk has taken a look back at the child workforce of Victorian Britain. Think your summer jobs were tough? Think again. Victorian children’s jobs were nothing like the newspaper routes, babysitting, camp counselor, and dog-walking jobs kids have these days. Children 160 years ago took on far more unusual and dangerous occupations.
Eighteen million census records reveal that Victorian youngsters no older than 15 had jobs assisting surgeons and working in mines. The most common occupations for children were domestic servants, shoemakers, and nurses, followed by tailors and hat sellers. Now it seems nearly impossible to imagine a 14-year-old assisting at a surgery, but it was a common reality in Victorian Britain.
Others were skilled laborers, working with their hands as butchers, plumbers, carpenters, and paper stainers. According to the 1851 census of England and Wales, most 10 to 14 year olds were employed as 'domestic servants' - 7,382 teens and pre-teens were employed at the time in London alone. The nation’s capital was also home to 414 child butchers, 200 plumbers and glaziers, 403 tailors, and 270 carpenters. There were even 238 boys working as 'dealers in stimulant drinks’...perhaps a Victorian precursor to Redbull?
The interesting cast of characters uncovered included Johanna Nicholas, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, who worked as a 'mine girl' and John Cater, a 12-year-old from Durham, who was an 'engine worker.' The census also provided an introduction to 13-year-olds Anna Clara Davies, from Somerset, who worked as a surgeon’s assistant, and Sarah Weston, who was a 'needle dealer' in Worcestershire.
It’s clear that much has changed since the Victorian era. The number of 10 to 14 year olds in employment has decreased dramatically, from 28% in the 1850s to just 11% today. Victorian children earned just 5 shillings (or 25 pence) per week or less. Today there is no minimum wage for children aged 15 and under, but those 16 and above a minimum wage has been placed at £3.68.
Today’s jobs are also significantly less dangerous than their Victorian counterparts. The majority of contemporary under-15s work primarily as paper boys and girls, dog walkers, or babysitters, while the next most popular jobs are as stablehands, office, shop and cafe workers. A far cry from working in mines!
“It’s extraordinary how many Victorian families had children going out to work in order to help make enough money to get by,” says Miriam Silverman of Ancestry.co.uk. “It’s hard to imagine a ten-year -old working in a butcher’s shop or as a plumber today but that was a reality of the Victorian era.”
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