Welcome to my blog, where I take pleasure in words and pictures, be they my own or those of others. I'm a creative individual, and the crafty side I explore on my 'other blog', Picking Up The Threads, which I hope you'll visit too. I'm sure you understand that I have sole copyright of my original work and any of my contributions, so please ask if you want to use them. A polite request is rarely refused. So, as they used to say on the BBC's 'Listen With Mother' radio programme, many years ago: "Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin."

Thursday, 20 September 2012

The Cry of the Children

Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers,
Ere the sorrow comes with years?
They are leaning their young heads against their mothers---
And that cannot stop their tears.
Let me introduce you to 'Little Fannie', seven years old and 48 inches high. She helps her sister in Elk Mills. Her sister (in the photo) said, "Yes, she he'ps me right smart. Not all day, but all she can. Yes, she started with me at six this mornin'." These two were from a family of nineteen children. This image is by Lewis Hine (1874-1940) an American sociologist and photographer. His pictures were instrumental in changing the child labour laws in the United States. The Library of Congress has a vast archive of his work under ‘The National Child Labor Committee Collection’ and these can be viewed on the web, via Wikimedia Commons. A browse of those young faces staring dolefully back at us from the page of history, is at the same time poignant and fascinating. Some are as young as three years of age, pictured hulling berries at Johnson’s Canning Camp. In England in the 1920s the equivalent may have been the child pickers in Kent's hop fields, where, "Despite official ban, thousands of kiddies are helping Mum and Dad in the hopfields" according to this short Pathe news clip, which made the whole business sound rather more jolly than it actually was. 

Our Sepia Saturday prompt this week is Brown McDowell, a 12 year old usher, at the Princess Theatre in Alabama in October1914. He looks rather seriously into the camera lens, as well he might. The posters behind him are advertising the film showing at the time, which had a fairly grim subject. ‘The Ex- Convict’ was released (if you’ll pardon the pun) in the States in September 1914. It shared the bill with a documentary, ‘Food For The Dogs of War’, to fill out the bill. They were known as ‘shorts’, about thirty minutes each, and of course, were black and white and silent. It doesn’t sound like a very jolly evening’s entertainment. To make matters worse, on the other side of him is a headless man and the ticket seller looks as if she’s been imprisoned too! I don’t suppose poor Brown had much to smile about. Apparently he worked from 10.00 a.m until 10.00 p.m. He could barely read and had only reached second grade in school. The investigator reported that he had little need for his earnings; I wonder what made him draw that conclusion. This picture was also taken by Hines, who decapitated the other figures, because he was concentrating, quite rightly on his child subjects.The BBC News Magazine website has a short clip entitled, ‘Lewis Hine: The child labour photos that shamed America’, which is well worth 3 minutes and 44 seconds of anyone's time.
Coal Tub - 18th Century
In my school British History lessons I was taught about the exploitation of children in mines, factories and agriculture until the early reforms of the Earl of Shaftesbury in the 1830s. Reform was a long time coming however, and we can read Charles Dickens’ 1854 account of being put to work in Warren’s Blacking Factory at the age of eleven, due to his family being in debtors’ prison. Dickens remained a staunch supporter of reform and highlighted the plight and injustice of child labour through his writing. Here you can read his damning indictment in ‘Household Words’. The opening sentence should be enough to grip you and make you want to read on.

It is good when it happens,” say the children, - “that we die before our time.” Poetry may be right or wrong in making little operatives who are ignorant of cowslips say anything like that. We mean here to speak prose. There are many ways of dying. Perhaps it is not good when a factory girl, who has not the whole spirit of play spun out of her for want of meadows, gambols upon bags of wool, a little too near the exposed machinery that is to work it up, and is immediately seized, and punished by the merciless machine that digs its shaft into her pinafore and hoists her up, tears out her left arm at the shoulder joint, breaks her right arm, and beats her on the head. No, that is not good; but it is not a case in point, the girl lives and may be one of those who think it would have been good for her if she had died before her time.  The poetry to which Dickens refers is the Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s The Cry Of The Children’ 1843.
By the twentieth century, progress was still slow, in both Britain and the United States, hence the young usher in our prompt picture. In my own family history, my grandfather left school at the age of fourteen, as did both his children; my mother to work in an an office and her brother as a tiler’s apprentice. Here is my Uncle Billy (2nd r) looking just as miserable as the youngsters in Hines' pictures, but with less cause, as he benefited from a solid education and a happy home life.
How fortunate my brother and I were to be given the opportunity to stay at school until the age of eighteen, and then to go on to further education and worthwhile apprenticeships. Here is my brother c 1962, working at the laboratory of the Nottingham branch of the National Coal Board (as it then was) where he was studying to be a Mining Engineer. He looks distinctly happier than Brown, Fannie or even Billy, and although he did indeed often go 'down the mines', it wasn't to pull a coal tub in the dark for hours on end. 
For, all day, we drag our burden tiring,
Through the coal-dark, underground---
Or, all day, we drive the wheels of iron
In the factories, round and round.
E.Barrett Browning, 'The Cry Of The Children'
The Convention on the Rights of the Child is an international human rights treaty signed by all but two of the world's countries.  In Article 32(1) it says:

"States Parties recognize the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development." UNICEF
Sadly, one in six children are still exploited today in sweat-shops, factories, farms, fields and rag-heaps across the world. Every year 22,000 children die in work-related accidents, 73 million working children are less than ten years old. Who will hear their cry?
For more stories and old pictures prompted by the picture of the little usher, visit this week's Sepia Saturday.


  1. Such a powerful blog post! Through your quotes, the video clips, even personal experience, you've reminded us that children's rights don't reach everywhere. I'm really glad you included the Lewis Hine clip as I didn't recognize the name although I knew about the Empire State Building photos.

  2. Some are fortunate and some are not. Today as well as then.

  3. I guess you had similar situations all over Europe. My grandfather was 13 years old when he started his working life in 1901. My father in law started working just after grammar school less than 30 years later. Sometimes I think that people studying now until they are 25, should give a little consideration to how things were in the not too distant past.
    A very, very informative post! Thank you.

  4. What a great post. I didn't realize that the little boy was an usher at the theater. I thought he was just a patron. How sad that children are still made to work in lots of parts of the world. Even here in the U.S. where children are used illegally to pick fruit and vegetables in the fields. Very sad.

  5. Hello Marilyn:
    This is such a fascinating and informative post which really does illustrate the appalling use of child labour in the past whilst also drawing attention to what, we suspect, is an on going problem and a complete violation of Human Rights in many countries around the world today.

    It is of interest to us that Tímea, our cook/housekeeper, who is now only forty, left school at fourteen and went straight into work.

  6. We should never take our eye off the ball, Little Nell. I cringe when I see the 'back to school' racks of children's clothes on sale for a few pounds. But then I understand that there are those (in the early 80s it was us) who can only afford to pay a few pounds, no matter how guilty they may feel about the plight of those in sweatshops. Despite Herculean efforts in some quarters, poverty and injustice is all too often tossed into the 'too hard to do' box. There's very little political mileage in it.

  7. I wonder how often the little usher worked. Working as an usher might have been something he enjoyed, unlike the children who had to work in fields and factories.

    1. I would think that, as his case was submitted with all the others in the project, he wasn't doing it for pleasure. In any case isn't the point that at twelve years of age he shouldn't have been working at all, and certainly not twelve hour shifts ending way past bedtime for a boy of his age? We not talking about a newspaper delivery job here. I'd hate to think of a son of mine at that age working in the dark where a lot of creeps hang out late at night. I wonder how often he was propositioned. He doesn't sound bright enough or bold enough to complain if he was touched inappropriately either. Makes my blood boil just thinking about it.

  8. Marilyn, I hope that you submit this one for publication. Excellent, excellent post! I want to check out your links and find out more about Lewis Hine. Thank you for your hard work on this article.

    Kathy M.

  9. Thanks for this wonderful post and an important reminder that child labor is still an issue.

  10. great post. Gives us such a lot to think about and be thankful that our children never had to go through that.

  11. You write the background to the theme photograph that I wish I had written. It oozes feeling: sympathy and solidarity inhabit the space between every sentence.

  12. Magnificent post, Marilyn.Thanks especially for the links. With respect to Dickens you can read his work or listen to it by means of 'text to speech' in the Dickens Journals Online at www.djo.org.uk. Earlier this year I was involved as a volunteer 'editor' of the material along with hundreds of others.
    I'm with Kathy - go for publication!

  13. What a wonderful and moving post. I admire the way you interpreted the photo prompt. I loved the intiial poem, which provided such a powerful opening, the evooative photograph, the story of the family with 19 children and the history lesson on child labour. Thank You.

  14. Absolutely beautiful. Informative and full of questions to ponder. My own father was taken from school at about 12 to help my gf in the tobacco production on the family farm. He was given alcohol along with the other workers on the farm and shaped into a unrecoverable alcoholic by his own father, wrecking my own family when I was 8 years old. Many evils of children kept home to help with farm work.

  15. I can only echo the comments already left here. Thank you for such a compelling and informative post. My grandfather, his brothers and my grandmother's brothers all had to leave school after 8th grade to work in the coal mines in Iowa. At least it was an improvement over the generations that preceded them, but it was terrible work.

  16. A truly compelling post on the images, the photographer, and the themes. Lewis Hine's work could inspire a thousand Sepia Saturdays. His recording the personal information about his subjects was a powerful statement too. That world of American child labor seems like an alternate universe now, until you look at images from contemporary photojournalists of today's exploited children around the world.

  17. Kudos to you for an excellent and enlightening post. Before the Child Labor Law went into effect in the USA, children also sold newspapers. The "newsies" worked until late at night selling newspapers and waiting for the late edition of the paper to come off the press. Hines documented their working conditions and most of them worked until 10 or 11 at night. Seems like the youngest newsie he found was five years old. Looking at these photos is heartbreaking, their expressions tell the story. To think children today are still subjected to working and being robbed of their childhood is criminal. It's difficult for me to dwell on it for very long. Makes me angry and sad at the same time!

  18. Your Photos Are Achingly Beautiful.When I Look At Them I Know Not Is It The Past or The Future (thank you Cameron,Romney,et al)Are You familiar with The Testimony of Patience Kershaw? A Lass from my hometown of Halifax.Child Slavery is still with us............

  19. Hard to believe but we actually had a person running for president this year who believed the child labor laws should be changed to "allow" younger children to work. True, the man is a buffoon, but it's just hard to imagine how some people manage to ignore history.

    Very good post. And great image.

  20. I really enjoyed reading this one, my own father was put out to work at the age of 14 as late as 1924 and during his school years he & his brothers used to take it in turns to wear the one pair of shoes to school! Too bad if they were too small or too large!

  21. Thanx 4 sharing that vid!! It brings even more depth to your post. Mines and mills are no place for a child and they should be allowed to enjoy childhood as it is supposed to be [in my mind, at least].

  22. Wow! What a powerful post! I'm so glad child labor laws have been changed. How very sad that there are still children in the world who aren't allowed to just be children.