Remains of dozens of young children ‘worked to death’ during Industrial Revolution unearthed

DURHAM, United Kingdom — The remains of dozens of child laborers from the Industrial Revolution, some as young as eight, have been discovered, revealing the harsh realities of the era. These children, known as “pauper apprentices,” played a significant role in the transition from hand-made to machine-produced goods. They have been referred to as the “forgotten children of the past” and their remains provide evidence of diseases associated with hazardous labor.

The unfortunate victims, children of impoverished families who were given away to work, often found themselves far from home. Some of the children unearthed in Yorkshire originated from London. The conditions they endured were comparable to those suffered during the Great Irish Famine, according to researchers in the United Kingdom. Their lives mirrored the hardships portrayed in the stories of fictional characters like David Copperfield and Oliver Twist. These children were the victims of exploitation and abuse, living in constant hunger and deprivation of sleep.

Study authors excavated their skeletal remains from an early 19th-century rural churchyard cemetery in the village of Fewston, North Yorkshire.

“This is the first bioarcheological evidence for pauper apprentices in the past and it unequivocally highlights the toll placed on their developing bodies. To see direct evidence, written in the bones, of the hardships these children had faced was very moving. It was important to the scientists and the local community that these findings could provide a testimony of their short lives,” the study authors stated in a media release.

bone discovered at 19th century digsite
Woven bone on the visceral surface of the vertebral end of a left rib of SK 334. (Credit: Plos One)

The earliest factories emerged in the late 18th century, primarily around the expanding cotton industry in the north. Working conditions were grim, with factory owners often imposing excessively long hours on their workforce. Much of the labor was provided by pauper apprentices, many of whom were children under the age of 10. Often, these were orphans sent into factory employment by Poor Law authorities, sometimes far from their home parishes.

The excavated bones belonged to over 150 individuals, including a disproportionately high number of young people aged between eight and 20. Analysis revealed they were distinct from local populations, showing signs of stunted growth and malnutrition.

Prof. Gowland’s team and local historians traced their tragic lives from the grim workhouses of London to the mills and factories of Northern England. These children were indentured to work long hours as “an expendable and cheap source of labor,” according to the researchers.

The Industrial Revolution brought immense prosperity to the British Empire, which dominated global trade in cotton, wool, and other commodities. However, this prosperity came at a great cost to the laborers, many of whom were children.

The study included an analysis of teeth to establish gender and origins. Many samples contained chemicals consistent with London. The examination also revealed numerous illnesses, including tuberculosis and respiratory conditions associated with mill work. Other disorders, like rickets and delayed growth, were linked to deprivation and malnutrition.

Example of a coffin plate excavated from the cemetery
Example of a coffin plate excavated from the cemetery. (Credit: Plos One)

“We undertook chemical analysis of the bones to study diet and found the apprentices had a lack of animal protein compared to the locals – their diet was similar to the victims of the Great Irish Famine,” says senior author Professor Michelle Alexander from the University of York, according to a statement from SWNS.

The remains have since been reburied in a ceremony involving local community members, volunteer researchers, scientists, and descendants of those excavated. Art inspired by the study and an exhibition are now on permanent display at the Washburn Heritage Centre in Yorkshire.

“Given the beauty of the reservoirs that visitors see today, it’s easy to forget that the Washburn valley had an industrial past. It was important to us to remember the children who worked in the mills. They were overlooked in life and treated as a commodity, but we hope we have honored them by telling their stories and creating a lasting commemoration,” adds spokeswoman Sally Robinson, who led the team of local volunteers.

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The study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, offers compelling evidence of the impact of poverty and factory labor on children’s growth, health, and mortality in the past.

The Industrial Revolution led to rapid urbanization and dramatic socio-economic changes, with severe consequences for health and well-being. The shift from a rural, domestic workforce to an urban, factory, and mining-oriented one brought economic benefits. However, it also resulted in well-documented increases in population density, inadequate housing and sanitation, air pollution, and poor working conditions.

Excavations from Fewston offer a unique opportunity to explore the physiological impact on children living at the time. The earliest factories emerged in the late 18th century, primarily around the expanding cotton industry in the north. By 1800, some 20,000 apprentices were employed in cotton mills. In the following decade, as many as a fifth of the workers in the cotton industry were children under the age of 13.

In 1802, the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act was passed, marking the first piece of factory legislation. Its promoter was Sir Robert Peel, an MP and father of a future prime minister, who himself was a wealthy factory owner. Peel was committed to establishing humane standards of treatment for the increasing number of pauper apprentices employed in factories like his own. His Act applied to all apprentices up to the age of 21. It prohibited night work for apprentices, limited their working hours to no more than 12 hours a day, and mandated some basic education.

The excavation was funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, which supports a wide range of heritage projects across the U.K. This study highlights the harsh realities of the Industrial Revolution, underscoring the importance of remembering and learning from our past.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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