Victorian Voices

The 1862 Children's Employment Commission in Sheffield

In the Victorian period Sheffield became an important industrial city. Its population rose from 9,365 in 1736 to 110,900 in 1841 and 409,000 by 1901. During this time the iron and steel industry grew, and more people moved to the city to work huge factories, which employed thousands of men, women and children.


For the 1862 Children's Employment Commission, the government sent people to find out how children were treated in Sheffield's industries. They went into the factories and spoke to different types of workers, from those who worked with iron, steel and cutlery, to those who used horsehair to make stuffing for seats and mattresses.


An inspector called J. Edward White interviewed workers, both adults and children, to gather evidence about their working conditions. This was made into a report and sent to Parliament.


Twelve-hour shifts and no school! 

The government had already made it illegal for women, girls and boys under 12 to work underground in coal mines. But there were hardly any rules to protect children working in factories. Small workshops and home workers (which included most people in the Sheffield cutlery industry) were not covered by any law at all until 1878.

In Sheffield, at the beginning of the 1860s, boys aged 7 or 8 regularly worked 12-hour night shifts in steel works. Because they worked such long hours these children could not go to school regularly. They also had very few holidays, usually just a day or two off during religious holidays, like Easter and Christmas.


Accidents were quite common in the workshops with machinery. There were no covers or safety guards, and if you slipped, then you could easily be badly hurt, or even lose a limb. Children working long hours got very tired and accidents were common.


Commission - a group of people asked to research something

Cutlery - knives and forks

Illegal - against the law, not allowed

Industrial - place with lots of factories making different things

Regularly - often

Safety guards - used on machines to stop people being injured

Shift - the hours someone has to work

Steel works - place where steel is made

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