Children of Industry
FROM THE MID-1800s TO THE EARLY 1900s, DESPERATE POVERTY DROVE MANY CANADIAN CHILDREN TO TAKE ON GRUELLING WORK TO HELP THEIR FAMILIES SURVIVE.
From the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, desperate poverty drove many children into gruelling work to help their families survive.
IMAGESOF MALNOURISHED CHILDREN WORKING
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.
COURTESY OF THE NOVA SCOTIA MUSEUM OF INDUSTRY, STELLARTON, NS, N-22914