Factory Half-Timers | The British Newspaper Archive Blog


‘A Heavy Premium on Childhood’ – Exploring Attitudes Towards Factory Half-Timers

In October 1823, the Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser asserted:

The charge and duty of Government are not merely to increase the numbers of men, but to promote and increase their happiness. Industry is the most powerful engine of this happiness, because it is the spring of all their riches. Government, then, should encourage labour, and by due reward, endeavour to avail of, and augment its useful products…

The article, entitled ‘Political Economy,’ goes on to recommend how ‘the power of labour is much increased by division,’ and how such division of labour had already been successfully instigated in England ‘by means of their great machinery, by female toil, child labour, and extended hours of application.’

Of course this philosophy, akin to that of Adam Smith, was being preached at the height of the industrial revolution, where there were no regulations on child labour. Throughout the nineteenth century, working class families had no other choice other than to send their children out to work.

A boy works a spinning mule | Illustrated London News | 10 July 1909

And so by the end of the century, whilst ‘the time [had] long gone by when mere children were allowed to toil day and night in the mines of this country,’ Stockton Herald, South Durham and Cleveland Advertiser (15 June 1895), and boys, for example, were no longer employed as chimney sweeps, children as young as eleven were still being employed in the factories of the United Kingdom.

Splitting their time between school and the factory, these children were known as half-timers. And by the 1890s, the half-timer question was a hot topic, with many condemning such a practice with the hopes of having the government raise the compulsory schooling age. Others, meanwhile, fully supported the employment of half-timers. In this special blog, written as part of our history of childhood month, we will explore both sides of the question, as well as hearing from the half-timers themselves, using newspapers taken from The Archive.

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The Half-Timers

In September 1898, in a column entitled ‘Social Sermonettes for Working Men‘ for the Wakefield Express, John Taylor professes his ‘amazement’ in discovering how:

…boys and girls between eleven and twelve years of age [are] working as half-timers in such trades as lucifer match making, the manufacture of artificial manure, gunpowder, swords, small arms, explosives, brewing, malting, distilling, and bottling of beer, besides a vast army employed in our textile factories and workshops.

Wakefield Express | 24 September 1898

These children, generally from the age of eleven, would attend school in the morning and then start a shift at the factory in the afternoon, or vice versa. Taylor records how in 1896 there were ‘30,938 boys and 32,675 girls’ working as half-timers under the Factories and Workshop Acts, with most of these children working in textiles factories, including:

…the cotton, wool, worsted, shoddy, flax, hemp, jute, horsehair, silk, hosiery, lace, elastic, and other textile fabrics. More than half of these are employed in Lancashire, and two-thirds are to be found in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Blackburn has 2,673 half-timers, Bradford has 2,384, and Halifax has 2,141.

Children outside of the Act worked as half-timers in other ‘undesirable work’ such as ‘lucifer match-making, tailoring, chemicals, explosives, drink, gunpowder, small arms, glass, clay, artificial manure, machines, and miscellaneous trades of all kinds.’ In all, Taylor estimated that there were 120,000 children working as half-timers in Britain in 1896.

And by 1901, the Dundee Evening Post reports how:

…50,000 [children] are being worked more than 20 hours a week in addition to the 27 ½ hours at school, and that a considerable proportion of this number are being worked to 30 or 40, and some even to 50 hours a week.

Dundee Evening Post | 6 December 1901

It is no little wonder then, that voices of resistance were being raised to the situation of the half-timer, their cause taken up by newspapers and political parties across Britain.

‘Pinched and Worn Faces’

First amongst the objections to the half-timer system were the concerns that were held over the physical impact of these young children being set so early to work. A Stockton Herald, South Durham and Cleveland Advertiser article entitled ‘Child Labour,’ June 1895, cites the ‘pinched and worn faces, the dull eyes, the stunted, work-worn forms of the little toilers’ as speaking for themselves, telling of ‘excessive weariness, of a vitiated atmosphere breathed from day to day, of want of proper rest and of insufficient sleep, if not of food.’

Meanwhile John Taylor for the Wakefield Express asks:

When these little slaves grew up what sort of men and women would they make? Thousands of them died of consumption and other wasting diseases, and when they were laid under the sod they ‘were better off.’ Those who lived, and married, and had children, simply passed on their feebleness and weakness to their children. So we have a heavy death-rate, and more than our share of infantile disease, in those parts of the country where child labour is popular.

Dundee Evening Post | 3 May 1901

Of course, it is not possible to blame a high mortality rate on child labour alone, and the work of the half-timers. Indeed, Taylor cites the opinion of Dundee factory inspector Mr. Wilson:

‘As I said in my last year’s report, the typical Dundee half-timer is somewhat undersized and decidedly thin, not so much perhaps as a result of his work, but as the result of poor nourishment in children. These little creatures are diminutive when they commenced work at eleven years of age, and the circumstances under which the majority of them labour are such that bodily growth is certainly not encouraged or fostered thereby.’

But as well as facing the physical implications of being sent to work in factories at such a young age, the half-timers necessarily faced the dangers of such work places. Taylor describes with no little sensation the ”butcher’s bill’ for these young slaves,’ which was enough, he says, to give you the ‘horrors:’

Three little boys and one little girl were killed outright while working at these trades. Hundreds more were burned, or scalded, or crushed, or cut, or had their bones broken, or their limbs torn off, while working as half-timers under the sanction of the law. One poor girl was blinded for life by an explosion.

‘Fall of a Factory Chimney at Bradford: Rescue of the Boy David Brewer’ | Illustrated London News | 6 January 1883

A Childhood ‘Poisoned, Imbruted and Destroyed’

And then there were what John Taylor for the Wakefield Express labelled the ‘moral concerns’ of the half-timer system. The notion of childhood had been taking a stronger hold throughout the Victorian era, and it was beginning to be seen no longer as the preserve of upper and middle class children. Should not working class children have a chance of a happy childhood too?

The Stockton Herald was included to agree:

We like to suppose that ‘childhood is all mirth,’ and generally account children to be ‘As free and blythe, as if on earth/Were no such thing as woe.’ But between the forced pace in our elementary schools on the one hand, and our legislation for half-timers employed in mill, workshop, or factory on the other, we have placed a heavy premium on what should be perhaps the most memorably pleasant period in the lives of the generation that is to follow us.

Working at a shell factory | Illustrated London News | 22 September 1888

The Social Democratic Federation (SDF) echoed such sentiments, declaring in Justice, November 1897, how ‘There is no worse phase of our industrial life than that presented by the premature enslavement of little children in factories.’ The SDF cites the ‘utterly ruinous effects of this brutal system,’ and how it has ‘poisoned, embruted [sic], and destroyed our childhood, and struck at the very roots of our national life.’

Meanwhile, John Taylor relates a tragic story of his own. His ‘schoolfellow’ was set to work as a child, and that took ‘all the sunshine and joy out of his life, and robbed him of hope, and knowledge, and freedom,’ finding him ‘an early grave, and he was not sorry to go.’

And then came the ‘intellectual effects of child labour.’ Taylor remarks how ‘If you take away a child’s schooldays…you make him poor indeed,’ noting how ‘An ignorant man can never be a big wage earner.’ Education surely sat at the heart of this debate; the introduction of compulsory schooling for those of half-timer age would ensure that they would not attend the factory, their days instead devoted to the schoolroom.

‘Care, Attention and Worry’

There was also an economic aspect in the argument against the half-timer system. Child labour, being cheap, necessarily forced down prices, and with it, wages for their adult counterparts. Furthermore, John Taylor, for the Wakefield Express, believed that the half-timers were occupying jobs that could have gone elsewhere:

You must remember that two half-timers count as one operative for each day, so that if all these children had been at school instead of at work we could have found employment for 60,000 young men and women instead. Some of these children earn no more than half a crown a week or five shillings for the pair of them, and as long as flesh and blood are so cheap you need never expect a living wage.

‘Hard Times in Lancashire’ – various types of factory workers are shown here. At the front are three children – a half-timer, a scavenger and a throstle-spinner | Penny Illustrated Paper | 2 January 1869

Indeed, there was a school of thought that the work the half-timers did was not as a good as that enacted by the older children sent to work at the factories, although the age gap was a mere two years or so. Mr. Wilson, the Dundee factory inspector, states:

The great majority of Dundee and Arbroath half-timers are employed for ‘shifting’ purposes, that is, removing the full bobbins from spinning frames and replacing them with empty ones. It has been found that the work can be as well, if not better, done by young persons of thirteen who have passed the Fifth Standard, and by those who are exempt from further school attendance, being fourteen years of age.

Furthermore, Wilson adds that half-timers ‘occasion a great deal of care, attention, and worry, both to the manufacturers and school authorities.’ And M.P. for Bolton, Mr. George Harwood, echoed Wilson’s sentiments:

For years he had refused to take half-timers, and he found that those who went at thirteen years of age picked up the manual skill, the handicraft, more quickly than those going at eleven years of age. He had tested that matter over and over again, and he was certain about it.

A silk factory | The Sketch | 30 December 1896

‘Conditions Must Change’

With so much resistance towards the half-timer system vocalised in the press of the day, what was to be done? First, and most importantly, awareness had to be raised.

The Stockton Herald relates how ‘All the aspects of child-labour are not known to the general mass of the people,’ offering this rallying cry:

Conditions must change, and we can only hope that the time is not far distant when this ‘half-timer’ question will be abolished by the abolition of the system itself, that the children may be found where they should be, in the schools, and the adults will fill the places of the children in the factory.

Indeed, the Stockton Herald looks abroad for the impetus needed to force a change in the system, which the newspaper believes has brought ‘degradation to children, and…dishonour to our country:’

Germany will not permit a child to be employed before the thirteenth birthday. Austria and Switzerland will not permit half-time employment until fourteen years have been numbered. Berne and Geneva place the limit a year higher, and Neuchâtel and Zurich cry ‘hands off’ till sixteen.

Reynolds’s Newspaper | 3 May 1914

Meanwhile, the Social Democratic Federation made the following statement:

It is proposed to spread this manifesto broadcast through the land, if the necessary means for this can be secured, and we therefore appeal to those who are willing to help in the campaign against child labour to at once send their contributions to the secretary of the Social-Democratic Federation.

But there were some who supported the half-timer system. Whilst the SDF and other groups sought to raise awareness across the upper and the middle classes of the half-timer situation, the firmest resistance to its abolition was to be found within the working classes themselves.

‘Strong Opposition’

In March 1898 the Labour Leader published a speech by Sir John Gorst entitled ‘Child Labour and Class Prejudices,’ aimed at the ‘Workers of Lancashire and Yorkshire.’ In it, he discusses the ‘evils of Child Labour’ and the ‘necessity of raising the age of compulsory school attendance,’ childhood being a time that ‘ought to be devoted entirely to the improvement of…minds and bodies.’

But he outlines how, that if a bill were to be brought in for raising the age of compulsory school attendance, there would be ‘strong opposition from the workers of Lancashire and Yorkshire.’ Indeed, he goes on to state how:

 …the labourers themselves did not value education, and did not think that their children were made better or more fit for their working life by the schooling which was already given them.

Labour Leader | 19 March 1898

Gorst advocates how there was a ‘great deal of missionary work to do’ in order to convince the working classes of the benefits of further education, so that in a ‘certain number of years the children of their country would be kept at school until they were thirteen or fourteen or even fifteen years old.’

However, the reality for many working class families was that they really had no other choice than to send their children out to work. The object was survival, and even the small amount of money that a half-timer brought in was desperately needed.

It is then no surprise, that when cotton factory workers were questioned by the Northern Counties Amalgamated Association of Weavers regarding abolishing child labour under the age of fifteen, the result was a resounding no. The Cannock Chase Courier20 November 1897, reports how:

In some places they have practically voted unanimously against the proposals. At Blackburn over 10,000 persons answered ‘No,’ whilst in a Manchester suburban district only two said ‘Yes.’ That the proposal of the trades congress is not favoured by Lancashire weavers may be judged when it is stated that from the returns already received over 60,000 persons have voted against it, while less than 3,000 have voted for it.

The results were overwhelming, as the workers showed their near unanimous support for child labour.

Weaving at a cotton factory | Illustrated London News | 10 July 1909

Indeed, some industries feared they would lose revenue if child labour ceased. Of course, they would most likely have to pay higher wages, and this is evidenced by the appeal of 1,800 glass trade workers from Lancashire in 1899.

The Cotton Factory Times, July 1899, tells of how due to an Act of 1895, thirteen-year-old boys were no longer allowed to work the night shift. The article features the below complaint:

After two and a half years’ working of the Act they found this caused an injury to their trade.

Whether or not there was truth in the claim, it is again evidence of how child labour was backed by some sections of society. But how did the half-timers themselves feel about their own situation?

‘Cry of the Children’

And we are very fortunate to have some testimonies from some early twentieth century half-timers, which were published in the Cotton Factory Times under the headline ‘The Half Timer – Cry of the Children on 25 December 1908. A headmaster from Halifax had instructed his pupils to write an essay ‘for or against life in the school and the mill.’

One boy ‘declared for the mill,’ citing the wage he was able to earn and the greater freedoms he was able to enjoy:

I like the mill better than the school because we get a wage for working at the mill, and we don’t get a wage working at the school. But it is easier at school than at the mill, because we cannot sit down at a mill and we can at school. Then we have a half-hour for breakfast, and we play at runings and we can not play at runings in school. But we can not shout, sing, and wisel in school, and can at mill, and it is warmer at mill than at school because all the weels are flying round.

Cotton Factory Times | 25 December 1908

The girls in the class mainly came down on the side of school life. One girl described how she preferred school because of the opportunities she was given to learn to read, write, sew and knit. She also valued the quietness that school life afforded, in contrast to the factory:

I do not like the mill because there is such a noise about you, and when you go in it smells very sickly. Sometimes it makes there eyes ake, and it makes you tired, and sometimes it makes you sickly. Sometimes it make you feel dizzy. I like school because there is no nasty smell about the rooms, and because the windows are always capt open to let out the bad air so that we can breath in the pure air. At the mill you cannot open many of the windows and at school you can.

Indeed, the only girls who came down in favour of the factory wrote how they were able to take home ‘some money’ to their parents at the weekend. In all, out of 35 children, 21 preferred school life.

Dundee Evening Telegraph | 30 May 1911

And by 1914, some factories, at least according to the Cotton Factory Times, had ‘done their best to get rid of the half-timers.’ It was not until the 1918 Education Act, known as the Fisher Act, which saw schooling made compulsory between the ages of five and fourteen, with provision for part-time compulsory education for those aged between fourteen and eighteen.

It may seem surprising to us, in the twenty-first century, that the system of half-timers lasted so very long. It represented the vestiges of the industrial revolution, and the economic gap in society which saw so many families struggle to survive. And resistance to it was partly born out of the burgeoning notion of childhood, that childhood was not a time to work in factories, but a time to learn, and gain an education which had previously been denied to the children of the working classes.


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