Chil­dren of In­dus­try


Canada's History - - CONTENTS - By Ash­ley Hen­rick­son

From the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, des­per­ate poverty drove many chil­dren into gru­elling work to help their fam­i­lies sur­vive.


long hours in dark fac­to­ries are some­thing we as­so­ciate with the sto­ries of Charles Dick­ens or the heart-wrench­ing pho­to­graphs of Amer­i­can so­cial re­former and pho­tog­ra­pher Lewis Hines. How­ever, gen­er­a­tions of young work­ing-class Cana­di­ans faced sim­i­lar tri­als in mines and mills, toil­ing in of­ten-hor­rific con­di­tions to make vi­tal con­tri­bu­tions to their fam­i­lies’ eco­nomic sur­vival.

Be­fore the pas­sage of child-labour laws in the 1880s, many Cana­dian chil­dren for­feited an ed­u­ca­tion to work for ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week, to help to sup­port their fam­i­lies. Even after the pas­sage of leg­is­la­tion meant to pro­tect them, re­lent­less poverty forced some Cana­dian young­sters to re­main at work well into the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. The years they spent per­form­ing te­dious and of­ten-dan­ger­ous work are a dark and fre­quently for­got­ten chap­ter of Cana­dian his­tory.

As the coal in­dus­try ex­panded in the nine­teenth cen­tury, com­pany own­ers hired young chil­dren be­cause they could be paid sig­nif­i­cantly less than their adult coun­ter­parts and be­cause their size en­abled them to squeeze into low shafts where larger men could not fit. Work in the coal mine of­ten be­gan at six or seven o’clock in the morn­ing, when boys and men trav­elled hun­dreds of feet be­low ground and then spread out hor­i­zon­tally through tun­nels that of­ten stretched for miles. Mines deep un­der­ground were pitch-black, lit only by the open-flame lamps min­ers wore on their caps.

Chil­dren per­formed nu­mer­ous roles in the coal mine, but cut­ting coal, a phys­i­cally tax­ing and more lu­cra­tive job, was saved for men. Chil­dren’s work of­ten in­volved the trans­porta­tion of coal and the ven­ti­la­tion of the mine. The youngest boys who worked un­der­ground — of­ten as young as eight years old — gen­er­ally served as trap­pers, sit­ting alone on a bench in com­plete dark­ness wait­ing for men and horses to ar­rive. The boys opened the door when they heard men and horses ap­proach­ing and then closed it be­hind them.

After work­ing as trap­pers, boys could be pro­moted to driv­ers, lead­ing horses or mules haul­ing carts of coal through the mine. Archie McIn­tyre, who worked as a trap­per boy in Cape Bre­ton dur­ing the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury, re­called the ter­ror he felt when he was pro­moted to a driver, be­cause “driv­ers were al­ways get­ting killed by run­away boxes of coal, and those open lamps went out very eas­ily.”

Re­mem­ber­ing their ex­pe­ri­ences later in life, for­mer boy driv­ers stressed their ad­mi­ra­tion for the horses and mules they had worked with, re­call­ing that horses of­ten stopped when the driver’s lamp went out and waited for the boys to grab their tail or climb into the cart be­fore lead­ing them out of the mine. Dan J. MacDon­ald, who worked in a coal mine in Nova Sco­tia dur­ing the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury, re­called such an or­deal in an in­ter­view on CBC Ra­dio:

“One time, I was down the mine later than all the other fel­las, and I sud­denly re­al­ized I was there alone — just me and the horse. It was the week­end, and there’d be no shift com­ing un­til Mon­day morn­ing. So any­way, just as I started to put the horse back in his sta­ble, my light went out. There was no way to light it again, and I started to panic a bit. I hap­pened to reach out, and I grabbed hold of the horse’s tail. Soon as I did, she started to move, and I said, ‘If you can go, I can fol­low!’ She just kept movin’ ahead in the dark for maybe a mile, till we came to the bot­tom where the shaft was and the ‘cage’ to take me to the sur­face.”

The boys took great pride in the horses they drove,

MacDon­ald ex­plained, adding that “any­one who came along and said any­thing bad about a man’s horse, he’d prob­a­bly find his teeth down his throat.” More specif­i­cally, he re­called an in­ci­dent in which a man spit to­bacco on a driver’s horse. “The driver just hit him as fast as he did the spit­tin’, and he wound up mi­nus a few teeth.”

In a 1979 in­ter­view, John Pef­fers re­called his ex­pe­ri­ences work­ing as a “rope rider” dur­ing the 1930s, when he was about fif­teen years old, in Nanaimo, Bri­tish Columbia. Rope riders had the dan­ger­ous job of bal­anc­ing on the hitches be­tween coal cars and sig­nalling when the cars were full and needed to be taken to the sur­face.

When the in­ter­viewer asked Pef­fers what stuck in his mind about the coal mines, Pef­fers replied, “Well, one thing that both­ered me a lot of times … I … I could have lost an arm down there.” He de­scribed a time when he was rid­ing in an empty coal car that got stuck on a post. He suc­cess­fully pushed the car around the post, but in the process his arm got stuck. Some men came and lifted the car up and freed his arm, but by that time his thumb had been bro­ken. “Lots of times at night I’d wake up and think about that.”

Young boys also worked above ground fetch­ing tools and clean­ing head­lamps, while both boys and girls were em­ployed to sort use­less de­bris from the de­sired rocks and min­er­als. Jobs on the sur­face could also be dan­ger­ous. A for­mer Nova Sco­tia mine worker named Al­bert Tickle re­calls “haul­ing ni­tro­glyc­erin around in wooden bar­rels in lit­tle wooden wagon[s]” when he was about fif­teen years old.

Boys and men faced many dan­gers in the mine as they learned to nav­i­gate the com­plex com­bi­na­tion of live­stock, lifts, tools, poi­sonous gases, ex­plo­sives, and open-flame lamps. De­spite their young age, boys per­ished along­side adult min­ers in hor­rific in­ci­dents such as the 1891 Springhill mine dis­as­ter in Nova Sco­tia, in which 21 boys were among the 125 peo­ple killed when a spark ig­nited the om­nipresent coal dust. In an ac­count of the blast writ­ten later the same year, min­ers re­ported a “sud­den gust of wind, which swept like a tor­nado through the dark pas­sages, hurl­ing tim­bers and clouds of dust and fly­ing mis­siles be­fore it. This was fol­lowed in a few sec­onds by balls of fire, large and small, and then came a solid body of fierce flame that filled the pas­sages and lit­er­ally roasted ev­ery­thing in its path.”

A young boy, re­ferred to as Lit­tle Dan­nie Robert­son in a lo­cal his­tory book, was lucky to sur­vive the ini­tial blast, which se­verely burned his arms and killed the horse he was lead­ing.

While run­ning out of the mine, Robert­son heard “the piteous cries of lit­tle Far­ris,” a young trap­per who had also sur­vived the blast but was “al­most fright­ened to death.” Robert­son felt around in the dark­ness un­til he found the young worker. As the book re­calls, Robert­son’s arms were too burned to pick Far­ris up, so he hoisted Far­ris onto his back and car­ried him to safety.

After hours of re­mov­ing sur­vivors and bod­ies from the num­ber one Springhill mine, search crews re­al­ized the de­struc­tive ex­plo­sion had reached into the num­ber two tun­nel as well. When res­cuers en­tered the tun­nel, they found many min­ers had suc­cumbed to poi­sonous gases as they tried to run from the mine. The dead in­cluded three young broth­ers whose bod­ies were dis­cov­ered by their fa­ther.

The coal and other re­sources boys helped to mine drove an in­dus­trial sec­tor that em­ployed thou­sands of chil­dren in fac­to­ries well into the 1900s. Th­ese fac­to­ries orig­i­nated dur­ing Canada’s first in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion, which took place from the 1780s through the 1860s, and were mainly sit­u­ated in Mon­treal and Toronto.

Prior to in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, chil­dren had worked on farms and in their homes; how­ever, the in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion opened a new world of work for chil­dren as their fam­i­lies moved to grow­ing urban cen­tres. Un­like agri­cul­tural work, which pre­pared chil­dren to be farm­ers and ranch­ers, the roles chil­dren per­formed in fac­to­ries rarely pro­vided them with mar­ketable skills that they could use in the fu­ture. In­stead, chil­dren per­formed un­skilled labour un­til they were too old to be paid low wages and were re­placed with a new gen­er­a­tion of young­sters.

Like mine own­ers, fac­tory and mill own­ers chose to em­ploy chil­dren in large part be­cause they could be paid a lower wage: Chil­dren work­ing in a Que­bec fac­tory in 1889 were paid one dol­lar per week, while adults earned be­tween eighty cents and $1.25 per day.

Chil­dren were also con­sid­ered ideal for cer­tain jobs be­cause, as one fac­tory owner ex­plained, “older hands would not be so nim­ble.” Sim­i­larly, many em­ploy­ers be­lieved that women work­ing in cot­ton mills could not be­come “first-class” em­ploy­ees un­less they had be­gun to work with the ma­chines be­fore the age of twelve.

Chil­dren were com­monly em­ployed in the spin­ning rooms of cot­ton mills. Th­ese large rooms were filled with ma­chines that made a deaf­en­ing noise and were of­ten damp and dusty be­cause the cot­ton re­leased fine par­ti­cles into the air and soaked the floor with an oily by-prod­uct.

Young chil­dren be­gan their em­ploy­ment in the mills by do­ing odd tasks such as stocking fires, fetch­ing tools, and sweep­ing up. They also crawled un­der mov­ing ma­chines to pick up fallen cot­ton and on top of the ma­chines to oil mov­ing parts.

Young boys could work as dof­fers, climb­ing onto the spin­ning ma­chines to re­place full spools with empty ones. Young girls worked as piecers, a job that in­volved reach­ing into spin­ning ma­chines to catch bro­ken threads and retie them. Th­ese girls could walk thirty kilo­me­tres a day as they moved back and forth along­side their ma­chines. After many long days on their feet, they fre­quently de­vel­oped rickets, flat feet, or bad backs, mak­ing walk­ing and stand­ing dif­fi­cult and painful.

Many chil­dren also worked mak­ing tex­tiles in their homes along­side their moth­ers, work that was so poorly paid that th­ese women and chil­dren of­ten had to work more than sixty hours a week. In many cases th­ese jobs could be just as bru­tal as fac­tory work, be­cause no labour laws or reg­u­la­tions ap­plied to the work chil­dren did at home. Chil­dren also per­formed paid labour out­side of fac­to­ries, in­clud­ing wash­ing and iron­ing clothes or work­ing in a va­ri­ety of street trades such as pol­ish­ing shoes or sell­ing fruit and other small items.

Fac­tory own­ers’ gen­eral dis­re­gard for chil­dren’s health is ev­i­dent in a 1905 Mon­treal court case, in which an em­ployer claimed that his young ap­pren­tice was so lazy he had not met the stan­dards of the ap­pren­tice­ship. The judge no­ticed the boy’s ill ap­pear­ance and or­dered a med­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion, which con­cluded that the boy was ane­mic and showed signs of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and scro­fula, a dis­ease with glan­du­lar swelling.

The judge sub­se­quently par­doned the boy, say­ing the lad had not met the stan­dards of his ap­pren­tice­ship be­cause of his de­clin­ing health. The judge fur­ther con­demned the fac­tory

owner, rul­ing that, “while dis­ci­pline was a ne­ces­sity in fac­to­ries, health should not be over­looked.” His com­ment high­lighted grow­ing pub­lic con­cern about the con­di­tions in which chil­dren worked.

As the judge’s state­ment sug­gests, phys­i­cal pun­ish­ment was widely used and ac­cepted in fac­to­ries, an un­sur­pris­ing re­al­ity for a pe­riod when cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment was common in fam­ily house­holds. In work­places such as cot­ton mills, where en­tire fam­i­lies were hired to­gether, par­ents or older sib­lings were of­ten in charge of dis­ci­plin­ing younger chil­dren. When chil­dren were hired on their own, how­ever, the fac­tory own­ers and over­seers were con­sid­ered parental fig­ures who could dis­ci­pline them.

Al­though phys­i­cal dis­ci­pline was ac­cepted, the prac­tice had its lim­its, and egre­gious be­hav­iour was highly con­demned. The 1889 Re­port of the Royal Com­mis­sion on the Re­la­tions of La­bor and Cap­i­tal as­serted that the child-beat­ing and im­pris­on­ment that oc­curred in fac­to­ries were “bar­barous prac­tices” that should be out­lawed.

The re­port recorded the tes­ti­mony of nu­mer­ous work­ers such as Stanis­las Goyette, who re­called that, when he was work­ing in a Que­bec fac­tory as a teenager, he was of­ten struck by a fore­man “with what­ever he had in his hand.” In an­other case, a man­ager was rep­ri­manded in court for hold­ing down an eigh­teen-year-old girl and beat­ing her with an ob­ject in front of the other work­ers. One Mr. Fortier, an in­fa­mous child labour ex­ploiter in Mon­treal, was known to have a win­dow­less room where chil­dren were left in iso­la­tion if they did not be­have.

The sec­ond re­port of the 1889 Royal Com­mis­sion also claimed that a fore­man in Fortier’s fac­tory “shame­fully treated” an eigh­teen-year-old girl by “chastis­ing” her in a “fla­grantly in­de­cent man­ner.” The re­port clearly hints at sex­ual ha­rass­ment, which was likely a re­al­ity in fac­to­ries where men amassed power that was rarely checked and young peo­ple had no rights and lit­tle pro­tec­tion.

Fines de­ducted from al­ready mea­gre wages were an­other common form of fac­tory dis­ci­pline; chil­dren could be fined for ar­riv­ing late, talk­ing, mis­be­hav­ing, or pro­duc­ing low qual­ity work. Fines were a par­tic­u­larly feared form of dis­ci­pline at a time when many fam­i­lies lived on the cusp of ex­treme poverty.

In­deed, the harsh re­al­ity of urban poverty is what led thou­sands of Cana­dian chil­dren into fac­to­ries across the coun­try. Be­fore in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, most Cana­dian fam­i­lies lived on farms and made the food and cloth­ing they needed. Start­ing

in the mid-1800s, fac­tory work drew many fam­i­lies to urban cen­tres, where they re­lied on money to pur­chase ne­ces­si­ties. By 1867, ap­prox­i­mately seventeen per cent of Cana­di­ans lived in urban ar­eas, a num­ber that rose to al­most half of the pop­u­la­tion by 1921. Low wages and un­sta­ble em­ploy­ment left many urban fam­i­lies in poverty and forced them to sup­ple­ment the fam­ily’s in­come with chil­dren’s paid labour. In the late nine­teenth cen­tury, protests against child labour led to the cre­ation of new fac­tory laws re­strict­ing the ages and hours at which chil­dren could work. On­tario passed its first Fac­tory Act in 1884, and Que­bec fol­lowed in 1885. Both prov­inces made it il­le­gal to hire boys younger than twelve and girls younger than four­teen. Al­though they were an im­por­tant step for­ward, th­ese pieces of leg­is­la­tion only ap­plied to fac­to­ries with more than twenty em­ploy­ees; they did not cover

smaller fac­to­ries or the piece­work many chil­dren did at home. Other prov­inces grad­u­ally en­acted their own reg­u­la­tions, cre­at­ing a patch­work of dif­fer­ent labour laws across the coun­try.

Many chil­dren con­tin­ued to work in de­fi­ance of th­ese laws be­cause their fam­i­lies could not sub­sist with­out their in­comes, and many em­ploy­ers were still will­ing to hire chil­dren re­gard­less of the new reg­u­la­tions. Yet the num­ber of young chil­dren in the work­force slowly de­clined. The 1891 census re­ported that nearly four­teen per cent of chil­dren aged ten to four­teen were gain­fully em­ployed, while the 1921 census found that about three per cent of such chil­dren con­tin­ued to work.

Most chil­dren who worked in man­u­fac­tur­ing after the fac­tory acts were passed did so be­cause their fathers were dead, ill, or oth­er­wise un­able to earn enough money to sup­port the fam­ily. At the be­gin­ning of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, more men ac­quired steady work that en­abled them to sus­tain their fam­i­lies, and there­fore chil­dren be­gan to leave the work­place. Around the same time, em­ploy­ers be­gan pre­fer­ring re­cent im­mi­grants to chil­dren as a source of cheap labour, push­ing chil­dren out of the work­place.

As the twen­ti­eth cen­tury drew on, few Cana­dian chil­dren held full-time jobs. As chil­dren left the work­force they con­tin­ued to en­ter the school sys­tem, al­though it was not a one­time change, nor a com­plete one. Chil­dren left school and re­turned ir­reg­u­larly, de­pend­ing on when their fam­i­lies needed their eco­nomic sup­port or when op­por­tu­ni­ties like high wages drew them away from their stud­ies.

The long hours and te­dious labour per­formed by young Cana­di­ans dur­ing the late nine­teenth and early twen­ti­eth cen­turies were cru­cial for their fam­i­lies’ eco­nomic sur­vival — and to Canada’s in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion. As his­to­ri­ans bring their sto­ries to light, there are im­por­tant ques­tions to con­sider: How should we re­mem­ber th­ese child labour­ers? Is it an over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion to sug­gest that they were vic­tims of cir­cum­stance?

His­to­ri­ans like Robert McIn­tosh have re­minded us that, al­though th­ese young labour­ers of­ten faced hor­rific con­di­tions, they were not with­out agency, pride, or drive. Many chil­dren un­der­stood that their mea­gre wages were im­por­tant for their fam­i­lies’ sur­vival, and they were of­ten ex­cited to earn a wage and to show their worth.

Some boys, like Jonny Robert­son, who worked in a coal mine in Bri­tish Columbia in the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury, were also in­flu­en­tial in start­ing unions in their mines. Robert­son re­calls be­ing one of the first four­teen work­ers to join a se­cret union in his mine; it even­tu­ally grew and fought for safer work­ing con­di­tions.

News­pa­per ar­ti­cles sug­gest that young peo­ple in other pro­fes­sions — such as postal boys and pin boys (who re­set fallen pins at bowl­ing al­leys) — also struck for bet­ter wages and work­ing con­di­tions. Such news items do not, how­ever, pro­vide ev­i­dence that girls shared this col­lec­tive power.

As th­ese driven and po­lit­i­cally ac­tive chil­dren demon­strate, re­mem­ber­ing child labour­ers only as help­less vic­tims over­sim­pli­fies their com­pli­cated legacy. How­ever, it is also im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that th­ese chil­dren of­ten worked in dan­ger­ous con­di­tions, for long hours with lit­tle pay and with few other op­tions. Per­haps we can strike a mid­dle ground by ac­knowl­edg­ing the im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tions th­ese young peo­ple made to their fam­i­lies and to Canada’s in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion while also rec­og­niz­ing the hor­ri­ble con­di­tions in which they worked.

Top: A boy har­vests pump­kins in Que­bec, circa 1925.

38 Left: A young worker op­er­ates a cot­ton spin­ner in a tex­tile mill in Ver­mont, circa 1910.

A pit pony waits pa­tiently as boy min­ers fill a hop­per with coal at a mine at Glace Bay, Nova Sco­tia, in 1905.

Pho­tos of child work­ers, such as this im­age of a boy miner from West Vir­ginia, gal­va­nized law­mak­ers to re­strict child labour in both Canada and the United States.

Op­po­site page: Chil­dren sort cop­per ore at Bolton, Que­bec, in 1867. Top: A mother sleeps out­side with her chil­dren on a hot sum­mer night in Toronto.

Left: Shoeshine boy, circa 1900–1910.

Right: Chil­dren in their Toronto home, circa early 1900s.


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