Thousands of our fellow creatures … are this very moment existing in a state of slavery." So wrote evangelical Richard Oastler in his damning indictment of 1830s Britain. He charged the nation with sacrificing its children at the altar of avarice. Thousands of children between the ages of 7 and 14 were daily being compelled to work in the Yorkshire worsted mills from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. with only one 30-minute break.

As this situation became known, Christians, especially a group of Yorkshire evangelicals, began campaigning vigorously for reform.

Industrial-strength exploitation

Young children had traditionally been employed in large numbers in agriculture and domestic work. But in the 1800s, they began working in stiflingly hot and unbearably noisy factories with their soulless discipline and order. There were no safety regulations, and financial penalties and beatings were imposed for the slightest slip or misdemeanor. Accidents and deaths were all too common.

Children were not, however, exploited only in England's "dark, satanic mills." They worked in gangs in the fields, often traveling miles in order to get to work. They were used in coal, tin, and copper mines, crawling on all fours like animals, pulling heavy loads. They also made bricks. The use of young boys as chimney sweeps is well known. Many returned from work with their arms and knees bloody, and deaths from suffocation in the chimney were not unknown.

Lace making provided employment for girls. Many started to learn at the age of 5 or 6. They worked in confined spaces, in suffocating heat in summer and miserable cold in winter. Payment in goods was a widely accepted practice, forcing the girls to use the employer's shop, paying high prices for inferior goods.

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