Child Labour

Child Labour

Working Children

Child labour was an integral part of the 19th and early 20th century economy. Imported children – the Bernardo children and youths from Vimy Ridge, supplied the farmers with labour. The local children were found in shops and factories and on the streets – peddling newspapers, shining shoes, delivering parcels and messages, and selling flowers. They worked in the following Guelph factories:

            • Stewart’s Planing Mills
            • Guelph Carpet Mills     
            • Victoria Wheel Works
            • Burr Brothers Furniture Factory
            • IMICO                

As part of the home economy, young boys and girls first entered the crafts as apprentices.  Later, as the economy changed, they became a component in the factory system. During the mid to late 19th century, apprenticed or not, Guelph children put in long hours for extraordinarily little cash. Under the early factory system, children were absorbed as one cog in a ravenous wheel that had little or no interest in considering their wants or needs. They were simply a means to meet the end in the new economics of production. No legislated hours or wages and no protection from unhealthy or unsafe, dangerous and/or toxic working conditions were available for them until the Factory Act of 1884.

Dangerous Jobs/ Cheap Labour

Many manufacturers opted to hire children over adults; women over men because they were cheaper. Bell’s, Worswick’s, Massie, Weir & Bryce Confectionary & Biscuits, Raymond’s, Stewarts’ and McCrae’s all hired children to work long hours in hazardous conditions. Lizzie Coutts at McCrae’s paid the price for working with dangerous equipment. She was grabbed by a machine and suffered painful injuries to her head and leg. Henderson was carrying out his daily tasks when he fell, breaking his forearm just above the wrist.  Fowke was operating a circular saw when he lost three fingers.

The Factory Law

The Factory Act of 1884 addressed several items in their attempt to protect vulnerable children.

  • It was illegal to employ any “child” under 14 in a factory, where more than 20 people work
  • It demanded that they be registered by their employer.            
  • Girls under 18 and boys under 16 could not work in places considered dangerous to their physical health.
  • Children could no longer be forced to clean the moving parts of machinery.
  • Their hours were now restricted by law to no more than 10 hours a day and no more than 60 hours a week, with an hour each day at noon for lunch.

As usual, exceptions to these rules were allowed. During the summer months, children of any age could be hired by canneries to do the picking and preparation of fruits and vegetables. Other exceptions to the legally stated hours and legislated employment could be obtained from an inspector.

The employers also made excuses. They could argue that the child had lied about his or her age, that they hadn’t realized that all were to register, or that they had never thought to ask for a birth certificate. As an Inspector for 1892 remarked: “I found an inclination to employ boys without paying much attention to their age so long as they appeared sufficiently able-bodied to do the work required of them.” 

Moreover, such legislation did not cover all types of work. Home work was not included. It remained unregulated until the government was forced, by unions, and child and women advocates, to realize the increasingly unsanitary and unsafe conditions of this form of employment.  Nor did the legislation address factories of under five employees or any of the following occupations:

        • Newspaper Sellers
        • Shoeshine Boys
        • Pin Boys
        • Store Clerks
        • Errand Boys

Alfred Addy was a newsboy in Guelph in 1882. So was Israel Asia Minor Brown. Neither of these boys had protection under the Factory Act, or such later legislation as the Shops Act.

Unhealthy Conditions

Even for those children working in approved jobs at the accepted age, life was not healthy. In 1888, the Inspector for the Guelph region stated that “in some establishments I have found children and young girls seated on high benches or stools with no support for the back, and smaller children unable to rest their feet upon the floor; very tiresome positions in which to continue for ten hours daily and likely to cause crooked spines, round shoulders and contracted chests.” 

In these and other places, children’s lives were at risk every day. One wrong move, slip up or freak accident and their life was changed forever. Consider the case of Charles Davidson working at Burr Bros. Furniture Factory in 1890. He was employed by a contractor, Mr. Liphards. The following is an excerpt from the Guelph Mercury:

   The boy . . . had come down the elevator with a load of stuff and had started back. Whether he was watching something in the shop below, and thoughtlessly clasped the running wire cable of the machinery with one hand, or whether he took hold of it unthinkingly to steady himself, or perhaps both, is not clear. Anyway, before he knew it, the wire cable had carried his hand on the pulley wheel, round which the cable ran. Instantly the boy grabbed the cable with the other hand in a vain attempt to stop it and prevent his hand from being carried round, but the inexorable power drew this hand in also, and the fingers of both hands of the poor lad were crushed to a jelly between the cable and the wheel, and nipped right off.

Nor was this the end of Charles Davidson’s sufferings. He was crushed between the elevator and the wall before the workmen below were able to stop the elevator. Charles Davidson lost four fingers from his right hand and three fingers from his left that day. He was “almost 14.” The Inspector for the Western District, commenting about this “heretofore unsuspected danger” and its result, stated,

It is most unfortunate for the poor boy, who is only 14 years of age to lose the best half of seven of his fingers, and so early in life. It will no doubt alter his future career – but for better or for worse who can tell?

His comments indicate the gap between two worlds – that of the Inspector and of the working class. Although the Inspector was genuinely concerned for the welfare of the workers in his district, he was unaware of the reality of their lives and the actual conditions of factory work. These were the conditions for and the expectations of child labour as the 19th century ended. In the early years of the 20th century, not much was to change

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