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Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/The merits of half-and-half training




A Report lately issued about the case of Children engaged in certain Employments has excited a strong public interest. Perhaps it has led a good many of us to collect our observations and remembrances of children employed in the different ways in which they pass their young lives, in town and country, and under different kinds and degrees of care. I am tempted to relate something of what I have seen and known in connexion with what is disclosed by the Report of the Children’s Employment Commission. I pass over entirely the case of the children of whom no kind or degree of care is taken,—the wild young creatures who, leading in our streets and roads the life of monkeys in the woods, do nothing, learn nothing, and have not a tithe of the pleasures their natures are formed to enjoy.

As soon as the children of the working classes can walk, we may find them in the infant-school. What they look like there depends very much on how the school is managed. It depends, too, on the season of the year, the weather, and other general influences, as well as on the treatment they get at home. In one school the children are so cross that the mistresses do not know what to do with them; and in such a place there is usually a disgusting exhibition of bad skins. All manner of eruptions may be seen there, except the infectious, which of course are not admitted. On a wet day, or a very foggy day, the voice of crying never ceases; and on hot days the little creatures, unable to keep awake, whimper in their sleep.

This is the way that children go on where the air is not pure, and there is not enough of it. In order to see infants wide awake, and bright and playful, there must be plenty of room, plenty of light, and an incessant current of fresh air (not a draught) flowing through the place. This is so well understood now, that modern infant-schools are usually well arranged for ventilation and space. But still one may see, in the airiest room, a large proportion of fretful and unwholesome-looking little ones.

This is when their tender young brains and nerves are overwrought. There are many, in every such school, who ought not to be asked to attend to any sort of lesson for more than one minute at a time; and it may be doubted whether any pupil there—the oldest and the longest-trained—should be kept to the same subject for so much as half an hour. Moreover, there must be a complete indulgence of the natural restlessness of childhood, in order to make the mind capable of instruction to any effectual purpose. A young child who is uncomfortable cannot give its attention to its lesson for even one minute; whereas, if its blood is flowing briskly from exercise, and its spirits are gay from amusement, it enjoys the new idea, and receives it brightly and thoroughly. Even where there is the best management, it is necessary to make allowance for the little creatures on foggy days when they are slow and listless, and on hot days when they drop asleep on their benches.

I seem to linger over this phase of a poor child’s life because the next is so painful—as I have seen it.

At seven, the country boy or girl goes to the village-school. There I have known them spend the best hours of their lives for half-a-dozen years to almost no purpose whatever. I have known boys come out after six or seven, and in one case nine years of schooling,—of six hours a day,—able to do nothing whatever but spell out “a chapter” in an unintelligent way, and scrawl a few lines, with infinite pains, and with abundance of bad spelling. And all the while the boy would have been so useful to his father in the field and garden! and after all, he has that sort of work to learn. It is the same with the girls, except where they are taught to sew in a useful way. Where they spend the three afternoon hours in sewing, they are found to have got before the boys in their learning. From their morning lessons they have learned more than the boys in the morning and afternoon too. From this, some observers at once concluded that girls have quicker wits than boys: but, happily, there were also sensible people looking on who perceived that the lads were sadly uncomfortable in the afternoons;—some yawning; some in perpetual disgrace for falling asleep; some on bad terms with their neighbours, pinching, cuffing, kicking, or being pinched, cuffed, or kicked; some apt to break out into fits of naughtiness,—obstinate fits, and roaring passions. Where the observers of this fact have had the sense and the authority to try the experiment of setting the boys to some other work than book-learning in the afternoons, the result has been that they turn out like the girls,—bright over their books, and brought as forward by three hours’ study as by six.

Before this discovery,—the great discovery which Mr. Chadwick has brought conspicuously before the world,—that the human brain, in its youthful state, is capable of only a limited and ascertainable amount of steady attention, on every day of its life,—the condition of country children on leaving school was most mortifying. The big lad had not even the bodily strength and hardihood for hedging and ditching, leading the plough, and tending horses and cattle on a farm: and he saw little fellows some five years younger as clever as little men about their field-work, because they could not be spared to go to school. All the week there was this mortification every day,—of disappointing father, and looking small in the eyes of younger lads; and on Sundays there was too often something worse. The parents had been dutiful and self-denying about these many years of schooling, cheering themselves with the thought of the time when their boy or girl would read to them on Sundays, besides giving them the news on Saturdays, and keeping the accounts in the evenings. Few things could be more painful than the disappointment and mortification all round when it too clearly appeared what the reading, writing, and ciphering amounted to, after all. Where the girl could sew, the waste of time was less shocking, though her mother might still have been glad to exchange the reading and writing, such as it was, for the skill of many a younger child in managing the cows, and the hens, and the baby, and the family dinner.

The case began to mend when the methods of instruction in school began to improve; and the great turning-point, perhaps, was when boys were put to industrial work for those afternoon hours when the brain is least fit for attention to book-learning. The reform was much helped by the operation of the Factory Acts, which require that children shall have three hours’ school instruction daily. When it became evident that the factory children learned as much in half-time as others in full school-hours, the struggle on behalf of the overworked brain was sure of success. It was then seen that the children of a manufacturing town learned as much in the book way without neglecting profitable industry as if they never earned a penny; the same fact must hold good in the country: and some sensible people put it to the proof. Mr. Paget, the member for Nottingham, was one. He found the parents of eight boys willing to let them work on Mr. Paget’s farm half-time for half-wages, and attend school for the other half. The plan has answered perfectly, though farm-labour requires, in Mr. Paget’s opinion, that the field-work and the schooling should be on alternate days, instead of dividing each day. If it is true, as he believes, that the wet and soil of the morning’s work must preclude the afternoon’s schooling, this is an essential drawback, as changing the whole character of the experiment. Notwithstanding this disadvantage, however, great benefits have accrued. The boys take a livelier interest in their learning than of old; the parents are not in such a hurry to take them from school; and there is a good style of reading, writing, and figures attained in a reasonable time. The lads are in request as labourers afterwards, as they combine the advantages of a habit of labour with those of a cultivated intelligence. The power and skill in work being equal, the farmer or bailiff will always prefer a labourer who can measure and reckon, and keep accounts, and make memoranda, and read instructions. An employer likes a youth who makes a note of the weight of the largest turnip or mangold of the crop, or of the produce of the milking, or dates of the calving of the cows; and who can estimate the available bulk of wood in a standing tree. We are told that, if the infant-school training has been good up to seven years old, from two to three years more of half-time schooling will fit boy or girl for simple reading, writing, and arithmetic of a good quality. This leaves a considerable margin for further attainments within the period of school life. In the case of the lower set of attainments, the lads may reckon on higher wages by at least a fifth than can be had by boys who have spent their days at school only. Five of the latter class turn out less work than four of the half-time lads. The half-time lads are not only familiar with field-work, but have better health and a stronger frame. Nowhere among the rising generation is the mortality lower than in half-time schools, where active bodily exercise and training occupy the place of afternoon school; and when the lads are not to be rural labourers, they are in great request for the Navy, and other occupations where strength and aptitude of limb and faculty are required, and disciplined activity is inestimable.

Where the balance between mind and body, brain and muscle, is established by education, the chances of life, health, and prosperity are improved beyond all computation. Mr. Chadwick tells us that in half-time industrial schools the mortality is reduced to one-third of what it is at the same time of life in the general population of England and Wales. With this weightiest of facts I conclude our contemplation of the lot of the fortunate children who have come in for the first share of the benefits of half-time schooling. They have the advantage of the sons and daughters of nobles, and gentry, and tradesmen; for the old-established school-hours are still the rule in upper and middle-class education; and the physical education of children,—of girls especially,—has still to be introduced into practice, while it is having a fair trial among not only young peasants and operatives, but paupers, foundlings, and City Arabs. We have read in the newspapers of the recent visit of the Comte do Paris to the Limehouse pauper-school, where six hundred orphans and destitute children are trained on the half-time system. In that school, the cost of the training is actually less than 1l. per head a year; and for this small amount the lads are rendered so fit for various employments as to be in constant request, while the mortality (among an unfavourable class of children to begin with) is only one-fifth of that of the surrounding population. The contrast between these lads and lasses and those of some other parishes and schools, where one large proportion is doomed to early death, and another to moral ruin, may well strike others than the French Prince and his party, who went away so deeply impressed by what they had seen.

Now we must turn to the children whose cases are exhibited in the above-mentioned Report.

There is a district of England, measuring eight miles by an average of two, in which there are eleven thousand children and young people under the age of eighteen employed in the Earthenware manufacture. Among these are two thousand little fellows who were sent to work at from six to ten years old, and who may, therefore, be supposed to be the children of very poor parents. Many are the sons of widows, to whom every penny of earnings is of consequence; and more are the sons of drunken or otherwise worthless fathers. So their life begins very hardly. They go to work at six a.m., and first light the fires, and sweep the rooms and the stoves,—the stoves being themselves little rooms of about thirteen feet square, and eight or nine feet high, heated to the temperature of an oven. The dust of the clay is particularly hurtful to the lungs, when breathed in by the sweepers; and here is the first peril to the child. When the dirt is allowed to lie, the dust has to be disposed of at last; and the dirt meantime is not wholesome; so that those who sweep daily have the best of it.

The little lads then await the men whom they are to help in the work of making plates, cups and saucers, &c. It is well for the boy who has a punctual and steady man over him; for it too often happens that the workman’s bad habits make slaves of the little fellows who wait upon him. On a Monday he may keep them idling about all day, because he does not make his appearance; and they are not surprised if this goes on through all Tuesday. Then they know that they shall be kept late every evening, to make up for lost time; and may probably not stop work for the whole of Friday night. When we see what the work is, we shall wonder how growing children can hold on from six on a Friday morning (after a short night’s rest) to dinner-time on Saturday.

A dozen of the smallest boys are turning the jigger or wheel all those hours. It makes one’s limbs and one’s heart ache to think of it. A child of seven or eight turning a wheel the whole day through, every day but Sunday, and often a part of the night too! Of course, the few people who know about this ask why the turning is not done by steam: and they get the tiresome, disgraceful old answer;—the men will not hear of it;—they would quit at once if steam were introduced to “take the bread out of their children’s mouths,” as they say. The smaller manufacturers say their business will not afford the expense of machinery; and the larger ones say that their workrooms are not convenient for the erection of shafts: so the unhappy children go on doing the work of a cogwheel.

Even they will find themselves worse off when they come to help the potter more directly in his work. Each has to run backwards and forwards between the workbench and the stove (which is close at hand), carrying the moulds with the moist soft clay just wrought into a plate or a saucer, and bringing back the moulds which are done with. The little room called the stove has shelves all round it, on which the ware is baked; and the heat of the chamber is anywhere from 120 to 150 degrees. Now and then it is actually red-hot. When the employers do not provide a plentiful stock of moulds, the poor lads have to enter this place many times a day; and, what is worse, they have to encounter a much more insufferable heat than would be necessary if the moulds were not wanted in the shortest possible time. When they are there, they try to stay till they have turned the ware baking on the shelves, lest it should warp by drying unequally: and if they cannot bear to stay, they have to enter again for the purpose. Thus their day is spent between this heat and the closeness of the workroom, and the outer cold when they go to meals; and all the hours they are at work they are breathing the powder of the clay, kicked up from the floor by their own feet as they pass to and fro. Many of them cease to grow under this discipline: many become asthmatic or consumptive, and die early; and few grow up to a healthy manhood.

The case is not quite so had as it was; or at least not so extensive. In several of the 180 manufactories included in the small area described above, there are improved ventilation, better management of the claydust, a sufficient stock of moulds to save the necessity of the boys entering the stove so often, and, finally, a fair attempt to improve the stoves themselves. We read of a new stove in which the ware can be put in from outside by a rack, which runs in and out on a rail.

These mould-runners, as the little workmen are called, are the most to be pitied of all the eleven thousand young potters: but there are other processes nearly as unwholesome and fatiguing, under which the girls grow crooked and consumptive, and the whole number have a scanty chance of ever being healthy men and women. One hardship which is very common, is their being kept hungry, and prevented getting their meals properly, by the irregularity of the men under whom they work. The principal manufacturers of the district consider with pain what a life this is for children to lead in a Christian country, and what waste it is for these young creatures to be sometimes kept idle for half days and whole days, and then overworked, when, by a better disposal of the same time, they might be resting their bodies and using their minds in a school, without earning much less than at present.

Twenty-six of the principal Pottery firms have therefore addressed the Secretary of State for the Home Department, requesting that due inquiry may be made, with a view to bringing their manufacture under the operation of the Factory Act. They cannot, without its aid, control the men on whom the fate of the children depends: they cannot get them to school, nor secure their having proper food and rest. The moral evils arising from the present state of things have chiefly occupied the attention of these employers; but the Commissioners who have been sent down to them are emphatic in insisting that nothing can be done for the minds and morals of these thousands of children till they are relieved from their bodily sufferings. The proposal which Parliament will be asked to sanction, then, is that this Pottery District shall be placed for a time under the inspection and care of a physician who understands the peculiarities of the case, in order to be brought into a fitting condition to pass under the existing Factory Act. It is thought that a year or two of this special inspection will suffice. It will take much longer, no doubt, to replace the present set of stunted, asthmatic, rheumatic, worn-out children, ignorant as savages and little better than heathens, by a class of intelligent and disciplined young people, well grown in body and mind by means of the joint exercises of school and labour: but the great work is about to begin. Meantime, here is a remarkable contrast between the young life of the parish-school and that of the Staffordshire Potteries.

Low as is the depth in which those unhappy children are sunk, there is yet a lower deep. The young Lucifer-match makers are, we are told, “the lowest of the low.” No respectable parent who could help it, would, it is declared, allow his child to be a mould-runner in the pottery business: but these lucifer-match makers are under such a doom that they are usually children without any guardians at all,—roamers out of the streets, outcasts from Ragged Schools whence they have wandered. Employments fatal to health and life are always filled by the disreputable; and the more dangerous the more disreputable. The horrors of this case are so desperate that it is a comfort to know that the number of young workers is under seventeen hundred. I will not grieve my readers by a repetition of the shocking story, which they have probably read once or oftener, of the jaw-disease under which the workers in phosphorus are tortured and maimed, when not killed. Our particular concern here is with the evil of such an employment of the children as cuts them off from all chance of redemption from their wild ignorance and lawlessness.

The boys and girls are too often crowded together in small rooms, where some are mixing the ingredients which give out the deadly fumes that all are thus compelled to breathe. No child should be made, or allowed, to stand for half-an-hour leaning over a reeking poisonous mixture: yet not only is this always going on in the small establishments, but the children are kept in that fatal atmosphere, or not driven out of it, till they stop work at night. If they bring their dinners, they sit down in the midst of the fumes to eat; and they make no attempt to rid themselves of what clings about them, by any method of cleansing. They are equally insensible to the fate of their minds. They know nothing of any ideas beyond those of their mechanical employment: they have no time for education, and no wishes about it; and, for the most part, nobody to desire it for them. Such is the life of the smaller establishments.

But the business is rising into a higher order of management. A better class of employers has gone into it; and one consequence is that the children are distributed through many apartments, amidst abundance of fresh air; that they change their employment frequently, and are made to purify themselves after work, and to go out to their meals. Not only do the masters desire to abolish the evil of “overtime,” but some of them actually petition for an extension of the Factory Act to their business. They have witnessed its operation in other employments, and they see that the children who spend three hours a day at school become better worth having than others. In the long run there is nothing lost in the way of wages, but the contrary: this reconciles the parents and other workpeople; and the employers find their advantage in the raised character of the class, and in the way in which the Act keeps selfish and tyrannical workmen in order. Therefore do the leading lucifer-match makers desire to be under the Act. They will put up with some inconvenience as to hours, &c., in order to send the children to school. If it is once declared that the children must go to school, “the thing can be done somehow,” says one of them. Another says, “They have every right to go to school. I should only have to get a few more children: that would be all. And those who went to school would work better, and be more orderly, and more honest.” Thus there seems to be reason to hope that these sixteen hundred children, “the poorest of the poor, and lowest of the low,” will soon be trying the experiment of getting an education without giving up work and wages.

The young Paper-stainers are sufferers beyond all the rest from long hours of work. There are eleven hundred of them; and they are, for the most part, at the mercy of the men they work with, who really seem to have no mercy on them. During the summer they are not usually overworked; but from October to April (inclusive), they are at it from six in the morning till nine or ten at night, for days or weeks together. The idea of their going to school never occurs to anybody about them; for they cannot even get their meals regularly. They snatch their food at intervals, when they can. Out of a score of them, half-a-dozen or more are missing: they are so worn out that they cannot come to work. Others are dropping, overcome with sleep; and the men have to shout to them to get an answer, or attention to what they are about. Some cry because their limbs ache so, or their feet are so sore from long standing. For my part, I do not promise that I should never cry myself under such fatigue: but we must remember that six or seven hundred of these poor creatures are under thirteen, and some few even under eight. One boy of seven worked sixteen hours; and his father kneeled down by the machine to feed the child as he worked, “for he could not leave it or stop.” This father carried his boy home on his back, “through the snow;” as he well might if the poor little fellow had been for sixteen hours in a room heated to above 100°. Such children got no education at all, as the parents explain, because they cannot wake up on Sundays to go to school. “They lie abed all day, to rest.”

Some fathers, as well as masters, are displeased at the mention of a change which might result in “all under the age of thirteen being got rid of;” but others hail the prospect of the comprehension of the paper-staining business under the Factory Act. If the youngsters could be taught in school up to thirteen, one father thinks, they would do very well afterwards, and manage to improve at home. Another exclaims, “Half-time and education would be a grand thing!” Another answers for a great deal: “We should all like to be under the Factory Act.” What would the little boy of nine say who, having entered at seven, worked through an entire winter from six in the morning to nine or ten at night, in excessive heat, and beside a machine which would not stop, and which he could not leave? We can imagine the difference to him of spending three hours daily in a cool and airy room, among companions, all of them resting their minds while their bodies were exercised and amused by a total change of thoughts. These lads and their parents might well be content that their earnings should be somewhat smaller now, in order to become larger hereafter: but this is the very lowest and least important view of the case. For better reasons than this, “Half-time and education would be a grand thing” and we may confidently hope they will get it.


I need not tell the dreary story over and over again of the way in which children of the gay and frolicsome age are kept at work all their days, like machines. We will pass lightly over the rest of the six trades described in the Commissioners’ Report,—only glancing at the Hookers and Finishers as eminent among the sufferers in virtue of their numbers. They are the largest class except the Potters, amounting to 2300. It is as well to try to imagine these children at their employment, in contrast with the young clodpoles droning over their spelling in the old parish school, or whittling the benches for want of something to do, or making a row because they cannot sit quite still any longer. The poor Hookers are hauling at great lengths of heavy rough calico or other cotton cloths, hanging the material on a frame, on hooks at a measured distance, in preparation for the lengths being packed for the bale. The youngest cut the tickets, and stitch the lengths. The others measure off on the hooks about thirty yards, and then carry this heavy piece of goods to the table close at hand, to be regularly “made up” for packing. For doing this at the rate of thirty pieces an hour, a boy gets half-a-crown a week! For all above that rate he is paid so much a hundred; and an active and handy lad may earn ten shillings a week. One would think there can be little need for “long hours” at such a work as this: but it appears that when goods have to be shipped in large quantities, and also where habits of idling are indulged, lights may be seen in the buildings till midnight. When great houses underlet their packing, the lessees are sometimes hard and grudging about the supply of workers. This is guarded against sometimes by a stipulation that more hands shall be taken on on occasions of pressure, such as the departure of a cargo; and some houses refuse to depute the packing, and themselves take on the extra hands required. All this indicates the case to be one for the Factory Act; and we may confidently hope that the 2300 of these Finishers and Hookers will soon be free to go to school, and protected in doing so.

The Fustian cutters are three-fourths or nearly girls, and 1563 in all. The vicious custom of “play-days” at the beginning of the week exposes these children to be shockingly overworked at the end,—sometimes being unrelieved for thirty hours at a time. Fourteen hours, including meals, is a fearful daily task for young girls and boys; and in this business the work occasions deformity and lameness, whether the hours are in excess or not.

It is probably the greatest event in the lives of the seventeen thousand young workers in these trades, that the discovery has been made in their time of the fitness of combining education of the mind with the labour of the hands, and of the completeness of each when the two are combined.

As much learning can be gained in three hours as in six: and as much pay may be, or soon will be, earned on the whole by those who go to school as when they never left their work. “Half-time and education is a grand thing!” as the workman said; and any of us who can in any way aid in getting Parliament to extend the benefits of the Factory Act to these hardworked children, will surely try their utmost, after seeing what their case is, and what it might be. An effort in any degree proportionate to the value of the object is sure of success.

From the Mountain.