Workhouse Children

Many parents were unwilling to allow their children to work in these new textile factories. To overcome this labour shortage factory owners had to find other ways of obtaining workers. One solution to the problem was to buy children from orphanages and workhouses. The children became known as pauper apprentices. This involved the children signing contracts that virtually made them the property of the factory owner.

John Brown, the author of Robert Blincoe's Memoir, explained how eighty children were taken from St. Pancras Workhouse: "In the summer of 1799 a rumour circulated that there was going to be an agreement between the church wardens and the overseers of St. Pancras Workhouse and the owner of a great cotton mill, near Nottingham. The children were told that when they arrived at the cotton mill, they would be transformed into ladies and gentlemen: that they would be fed on roast beef and plum pudding, be allowed to ride their masters' horses, and have silver watches, and plenty of cash in their pockets. In August 1799, eighty boys and girls, who were seven years old, or were considered to be that age, became parish apprentices till they had acquired the age of twenty-one."

Robert Blincoe was disappointed when he arrived at Lowdam Mill, ten miles from Nottingham. "There was no cloth laid on the tables, to which the newcomers had been accustomed in the workhouse - no plates, nor knives, nor forks. At a signal given, the apprentices rushed to this door, and each, as he made way, received his portion, and withdrew to his place at the table. Blincoe was startled, seeing the boys pull out the fore-part of their shirts, and holding it up with both hands, received the hot boiled potatoes allotted for their supper. The girls, less indecently, held up their dirty, greasy aprons, that were saturated with grease and dirt, and having received their allowance, scampered off as hard as they could, to their respective places, where, with a keen appetite, each apprentice devoured her allowance, and seemed anxiously to look about for more. Next, the hungry crew ran to the tables of the newcomers, and voraciously devoured every crust of bread and every drop of porridge they had left."

Pauper apprentices were cheaper to house than adult workers. It cost Samuel Greg who owned the large Quarry Bank Mill at Styal, a £100 to build a cottage for a family, whereas his apprentice house, that cost £300, provided living accommodation for over 90 children. At first the children came from local parishes such as Wilmslow and Macclesfield, but later he went as far as Liverpool and London to find these young workers. To encourage factory owners to take workhouse children, people like Greg were paid between £2 and £4 for each child they employed. Greg also demanded that the children were sent to him with "two shifts, two pairs of stockings and two aprons".

The same approach was taken by the owners of silk mills. George Courtauld, who owned a silk mill in Braintree, Essex, took children from workhouses in London. Although offered children of all ages he usually took them from "within the age of 10 and 13". Courtauld insisted that each child arrived "with a complete change of common clothing". A contract was signed with the workhouse that stated that Courtauld would be paid £5 for each child taken. Another £5 was paid after the child's first year. The children also signed a contract with Courtauld that bound them to the mill until the age of 21. This helped to reduce Courtauld's labour costs. Whereas adult males at Courtauld's mills earned 7s. 2d., children under 11 received only 1s. 5d. a week.

These children were sometimes taken from their parents by force: John Betts wrote a letter to the radical journalist, Richard Carlile, to explain what was happening: "In 1805 when Samuel Davy was seven years of age he was sent from the workhouse in Southwark in London to Mr. Watson's Mill at Penny Dam near Preston. Later his brother was also sent to work in a mill. The parents did not know where Samuel and his brother were. The loss of her children, so preyed on the mind of Samuel's mother that it brought on insanity, and she died in a state of madness."

Owners of large textile mills purchased large numbers of children from workhouses in all the large towns and cities. By the late 1790s about a third of the workers in the cotton industry were pauper apprentices. Child workers were especially predominant in large factories in rural areas. For example, in 1797, of the 310 wortkers employed by Birch Robinson & Co in the village of Backbarrow, 210 were parish apprentices. However, in the major textile towns, such as Manchester and Oldham, parish apprenticeships was fairly uncommon.

Drawing of workhouse children
Drawing of workhouse children
© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Letter from John Betts to Richard Carlile (24th February, 1828)

In 1805 when Samuel Davy was seven years of age he was sent from the workhouse in Southwark in London to Mr. Watson's Mill at Penny Dam near Preston. Later his brother was also sent to work in a mill. The parents did not know where Samuel and his brother were. The loss of her children, so preyed on the mind of Samuel's mother that it brought on insanity, and she died in a state of madness.

(2) Sarah Carpenter, interviewed in The Ashton Chronicle (23rd June, 1849)

My father was a glass blower. When I was eight years old my father died and our family had to go to the Bristol Workhouse. My brother was sent from Bristol workhouse in the same way as many other children were - cart-loads at a time. My mother did not know where he was for two years. He was taken off in the dead of night without her knowledge, and the parish officers would never tell her where he was.

It was the mother of Joseph Russell who first found out where the children were, and told my mother. We set off together, my mother and I, we walked the whole way from Bristol to Cressbrook Mill in Derbyshire. We were many days on the road.

Mrs. Newton fondled over my mother when we arrived. My mother had brought her a present of little glass ornaments. She got these ornaments from some of the workmen, thinking they would be a very nice present to carry to the mistress at Cressbrook, for her kindness to my brother. My brother told me that Mrs. Newton's fondling was all a blind; but I was so young and foolish, and so glad to see him again; that I did not heed what he said, and could not be persuaded to leave him. They would not let me stay unless I would take the shilling binding money. I took the shilling and I was very proud of it.

They took me into the counting house and showed me a piece of paper with a red sealed horse on which they told me to touch, and then to make a cross, which I did. This meant I had to stay at Cressbrook Mill till I was twenty one.

(3) John Birley interviewed in The Ashton Chronicle (19th May, 1849)

I was born in Hare Street, Bethnal Green, London, in the year 1805. My father died when I was two years old, leaving two children, myself and Sarah my sister. My mother kept us both till I was about five years old, and then she took badly and was taken to the London Hospital. My sister and I were taken to the Bethnal Green Workhouse. My mother died and we stayed in the workhouse. We had good food, good beds and given liberty two or three times a week. We were taught to read and in every respect were treated kindly.

The same year my mother died, I being between six and seven years of age, there came a man looking for a number of parish apprentices. We were all ordered to come into the board room, about forty of us. There were, I dare say, about twenty gentlemen seated at a table, with pens and paper before them. Our names were called out one by one. We were all standing before them in a row. My name was called and I stepped out in the middle of the room. They said, "Well John, you are a fine lad, would you like to go into the country?" I said "Yes sir".

We had often talked over amongst ourselves how we should like to be taken into the country, Mr. Nicholls the old master, used to tell us what fine sport we should have amongst the hills, what time we should have for play and pleasure. He said we should have plenty of roast beef and get plenty of money, and come back gentlemen to see our friends.

The committee picked out about twenty of us, all boys. In a day or two after this, two coaches came up to the workhouse door. We were got ready. They gave us a shilling piece to take our attention, and we set off. I can remember a crowd of women standing by the coaches, at the workhouse door, crying "shame on them, to send poor little children away from home in that fashion." Some of them were weeping. I heard one say, "I would run away if I was them." They drove us to the Paddington Canal, where there was a boat provided to take us.

(4) John Brown, A Memoir of Robert Blincoe (1828)

In the summer of 1799 a rumour circulated that there was going to be an agreement between the church wardens and the overseers of St. Pancras Workhouse and the owner of a great cotton mill, near Nottingham. The children were told that when they arrived at the cotton mill, they would be transformed into ladies and gentlemen: that they would be fed on roast beef and plum pudding, be allowed to ride their masters' horses, and have silver watches, and plenty of cash in their pockets. In August 1799, eighty boys and girls, who were seven years old, or were considered to be that age, became parish apprentices till they had acquired the age of twenty-one.

(5) George Courtauld, letter to Mr. Mann (11th December, 1813)

I have 8 children coming from Islington on Tuesday next and 8 or 10 more on Thursday. I had my choice from upwards of 50 girls of different ages and accepted all but one that were within the age of 10 and thirteen. They are from a very well-conducted workhouse and I really expect and earnestly hope that by continued care and attention my establishment of apprentices will prove a nursery of respectable young women fitted for any of the humble walks of life.