Testimony of Ann and Elizabeth Eggley, Child Mine Workers
Testimony of Ann and Elizabeth Eggley, Child Mine Workers
By: Ann and Elizabeth Eggley
Date: c. 1842
Source: The Longman Anthology of British Literature, edited by David Damrosch. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2004.
About the Author: Ann and Elizabeth Eggley, ages eighteen and sixteen respectively, were child workers called to testify before Parliament as part of the investigations into the 1842 Factory Acts.
Child labor has been an integral part of families in most societies, whether the child worked on farms, tended to younger siblings, managed household tasks, or worked in family businesses. As the industrial revolution changed the nature of labor and economics in Great Britain and the United States, however, the structure of children's work changed as well.
Children began to work as wage earners, earning one half to one fourth the wages of a grown man, and often even less. For lower-income families, families that lost farming rights or land, or those in search of jobs in general, the acceptance of child wage earners in settings such as factories and mines made the difference between starvation and subsistence living. In mining communities in Wales and in the Appalachian Mountain region in the United States, children as young as three worked in the mines as runners, gathered coal by hand, or dragged loads of coal through small shafts that required a child-sized body for passage. Mary Barrett, age fourteen, described her experience working as a "hurrier," one who pushed bundles or trams full of coal: "I hurry for my brother John, and come down at seven o'clock about; I go up at six, sometimes seven; I do not like working in pit, but I am obliged to get a living; I work always without stockings, or shoes, or trousers; I wear nothing but my chemise; I have to go up to the headings with the men; they are all naked there; I am got well used to that, and don't care now much about it; I was afraid at first, and did not like it; they never behave rudely to me; I cannot read or write."
Initial objections to child labor came from adult male workers, who claimed that the employment of children took away jobs from grown men who needed to support their families. Mining companies and textile mill owners claimed that the children did work that no one else could or would, and at wages that helped keep the entire company running and profitable. Other objections to the mine work included fears of vice; grown men often worked naked in the mines, to combat the heat, and young girls worked with chemises or very little clothing, side by side with the men. As J.C. Symons, a Sub-Commissioner investigating the mines, referred to such conditions as "the picture of a nursery for juvenile vice."
The third objection, that children so young were working fourteen hour days, six and seven days per week, and were sent into the mines at the age of four or five and dying by their mid-20s, came to the forefront of British society by the early 1840s. Demand for coal skyrocketed with industrialization; coal-powered factories, railroads, and steamships fed the need, and labor in the mines was backbreaking and deadly. New workers were constantly needed, but reformers began to argue that children were being abused not only by fellow workers but by an economic system that deprived them of their education, their health, and their childhoods.
In addition, the Victorian view of the child changed; childhood innocence and emotional and spiritual significance became a popular Victorian ideal. The contradiction between such an ideal for children of the upper and middle classes and the working conditions for poor children in the mines led to calls for reform.
The following testimonies by two teenage girls paints a dramatic picture of life in the mines.
Ann Eggley, eighteen years old.—I'm sure I don't know how to spell my name. We go at four in the morning, and sometimes at half-past four. We begin to work as soon as we get down. We get out after four, sometimes at five, in the evening. We work the whole time except an hour for dinner, and sometimes we haven't time to eat. I hurry by myself, and have done so for long. I know the corves are very heavy they are the biggest corves anywhere about. The work is far too hard for me; the sweat runs off me all over sometimes. I am very tired at night. Sometimes when we get home at night we have not power to wash us, and then we go to bed. Sometimes we fall asleep in the chair. Father said last night it was both a shame and disgrace for girls to work as we do, but there was nought else for us to do. I have tried to get winding to do, but could not. I begun to hurry when I was seven and I have been hurrying ever since. I have been 11 years in the pit. The girls are always tired. I was poorly twice this winter; it was with headache. I hurry for Robert Wiggins; he is not akin to me. I riddle for him. We all riddle for them except the littlest when there is two. We don't always get enough to eat and drink, but we get a good supper. I have known my father go at two in the morning to work when we worked at Twibell's, where there is a day-hole to the pit, and he didn't come out till four. I am quite sure that we work constantly 12 hours except on Saturdays. We wear trousers and our shifts in the pit, and great big shoes clinkered and nailed. The girls never work naked to the waist in our pit. The men don't insult us in the pit. The conduct of the girls in the pit is good enough sometimes and sometimes bad enough. I never went to a day-school. I went a little to a Sunday-school, but I soon gave it over. I thought it too bad to be confined both Sundays and weekdays. I walk about and get the fresh air on Sundays. I have not learnt to read. I don't know my letters. I have never learnt nought. I never go to church or chapel; there is no church or chapel at Gawber, there is none nearer than a mile. If I was married I would not go to the pits, but I know some married women that do. The men do not insult the girls with us, but I think they do in some. I have never heard that a good man came into the world who was God's Son to save sinners. I never heard of Christ at all. Nobody has ever told me about him, nor have my father and mother ever taught me to pray. I know no prayer; I never pray. I have been taught nothing about such things.
Elizabeth Eggley, sixteen years old.—I am sister to the last witness. I hurry in the same pit, and work for my father. I find my work very much too hard for me. I hurry alone. It tries me in my arms and back most. We go to work between four and five in the morning. If we are not there by half past five we are not allowed to go down at all. We come out at four, five, or six at night as it happens. We stop in generally 12 hours, and sometimes longer. We have to hurry only from the bank-face down to the horse-gate and back. I am sure it is very hard work and tires us very much; it is too hard for girls to do. We sometimes go to sleep before we get to bed. We haven't a very good house: we have but two rooms for all the family. I have never been to school except four times, and then I gave over because I could not get things to go in. I cannot read; I do not know my letters. I don't know who Jesus Christ was. I never heard of Adam either. I never heard about them at all. I have often been obliged to stop in bed all Sunday to rest myself. I never go to church or chapel.
The testimony from Ann and Elizabeth Eggley, and from other children working in the mines, shocked Victorian sensibilities. In this testimony, the girls' ignorance regarding basic Christianity was startling for investigators; not only were children working in mines deprived of a basic elementary education, but many were also denied the time or freedom to attend Sunday school and receive rudimentary Christian education, a condition Victorian reformers used in their crusade to change child labor laws.
When possible, fathers and other male relatives attempted to have their daughters and sisters "hurry" for them, to supervise their children and relatives from unwanted sexual advances; while Ann and Elizabeth Eggley testify that there were no sexual harassment issues for them in the mines, many reports indicate that men working in mines sexually assaulted young girls and women. As Ann Eggley notes, her father stated that it was a "shame and a disgrace" that his girls worked such long hours and under such harsh conditions, but for large, poor families, the children's income was a requirement for survival.
Most married women did not work in the pits, instead staying at home to manage children and household, though Ann Eggley's testimony is telling. Some families were so poor as to require the mother's mine work for survival. From a social status standpoint, marriage for young girls such as Ann and Elizabeth could mean relief from heavy mine work; domestic management, even as the wife of a low-paid mine worker, was far preferable to the life of a teenage girl working eighty to ninety hours a week in the pits.
Though Parliament had attempted to limit child labor as early as 1809, and the 1842 Mining Act prohibits women and children from working in the mines, the first act that had any strength came in 1847, when the working day was limited to ten hours for men, women, and children. Later legislation limited the ages for work, and compulsory education laws helped to provide basic education for all children. In the United States, where children and families experienced similar working and social conditions, the Keating-Owen Act of 1916 attempted to protect child workers, but it was not until the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act was passed that children gained legal protections from child labor abuses.
Dubofsky, Melvyn. Hard Work: The Making of Labor History. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
Hindman, Hugh D. Child Labor: An American History. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2002.
Zelizer, Viviana. Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Human Rights Watch. "Child Labor." 〈http://www.hrw.org/children/labor.htm〉 (accessed July 21, 2006).
OurDocuments.gov. "Keating-Owen Child Labor Act of 1916." 〈http://www.ourdocuments.gov/〉 (accessed July 21, 2006).
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