Children worked in every industry across the Gorge, in the same dismal and dangerous conditions as adults, to help support their family’s income. They were generally employed in unskilled roles supporting adult family members but earned much smaller wages. Yet, without their wages, their families could not survive.

…the small children in the parish can earn something in addition to the parents’ gains, so that here is ample maintenance for the labourers.
From a description of the Ironbridge Gorge by Joseph Plymley (1759-1838), the Archdeacon of Shropshire, 1803.

Two boys and a man working at Coalport China Works, 1890.

Some of the worst working conditions were suffered by children employed in mines in the late 18th and early 19th century. From as young as four years old they worked 12-hour shifts carrying out basic but important tasks such as filling tubs with coal, opening doors, running errands or driving horses.

A report in 1842, investigating the employment of children in Shropshire mines and ironworks, noted that working children often suffered from heart and lung conditions and that they sometimes worked so far beyond their strength, that they vomited blood.

This report led to children under 10 years old being banned from working underground but did little to improve working conditions across other industries. From the mid-19th century various Acts of Parliament slowly increased the age that children could begin work, and by 1900 most people started work around the age of 12 or 13.

Until the mid-19th century, a common job assigned to children employed in mines was the ‘girdle and chain’. Children as young as eight years old would be strapped into a harness like the one shown here. A chain attached to a tub of mined materials would be hooked to the harness and the child would crawl on their hands and knees through the mine, pulling the tub behind them.



The child pulling the tub was known as a ‘hurrier’. The two children who were employed to push it from behind were known as ‘thrusters’.

Child pulling a tub using the girdle and chain, from Report of the Children’s Employment Commission, 1842.

I drew ironstone with the help of another…I was down 12 hours nearly…Boys often leave. They cannot stand the pain nor the fatigue…
Samuel Ball, who drew with the girdle and chain from the age of 8. From Report of the Children’s Employment Commission, 1842.
The girdle often makes blisters. I have had pieces like shillings and half-crowns, with the skin cocking up, all full of water and when I put on the girdle the blisters would break and the girdle would stick and next day they would fill again. These blisters give very great pain.
Isaac Tipton, aged 16. From Report of the Children’s Employment Commission, 1842.
About a year and a half ago I took to the girdle and chain; I do not like it; it hurts me; it rubs my skin off; I often feel pain… I often knocked my back against the top of the pit and it hurt it very sore. There was not room to stand to that height. The legs ached very badly. When I came home at night I often sat down to rest me by the way I was so tired. The work made me look much older than I was.
James Pearce, aged 12. From Report of the Children’s Employment Commission, 1842.
I was beat when I was drawing, and I did not deserve it. I had been ill and was exhausted and could not work longer but the reeve beat me. I complained to the butty. He said that he did not allow a boy to be beat unless he deserved it. He said it was not likely that he could get boys if he let them be beat when they did not deserve it. I was once beat by a man who bullied me to do what was beyond my strength. I said I would not do it, because I could not. The man threw me down and put out two of my ribs. I had to keep from work 11 months. My father was too quiet to go before a magistrate.
Robert North (1819-1870s) From Report of the Children’s Employment Commission, 1842.

A child carrying clay for two adult brickmakers, 1867.



Besides mining, brickmaking had one of the worst reputations for childhood employment. Children laboured for 12 hours a day for just a sixpence (about £2.50 today)  until the late 19th century.

William Sankey (1827-1900)

William was born near Broseley in 1827 and worked in mines from the age of 10. When a report into childhood employment was carried out in 1842, he was interviewed about his experiences.

“I worked on the bank at 7 years old. I worked at the brick-kiln. I assisted to bear away the bricks. I got 8d. a-day. I worked at the brick-kiln 3 years… I then went down into the pit to draw with the girdle. I began at 6 and left off at 6 at night...There were sometimes accidents…Many chains and ropes have been broken and people been killed…I am now in an iron-stone and push a dan to the horseway…I like the work very well. I get 20d. a-day...”

William explained his daily routine of waking at 4am, having coffee, bread and butter with some cheese or ham, before working at the pit for 12 hours. Breaks down the pit were taken when possible and his family didn’t have much food to eat in the week. He had no leisure time beyond attending church and Sunday School, although he admitted many other miners went drinking on pay day and that “a miner could not do without drinking beer. It is good for the constitution”.

Later in his life, William married and had eight children. Perhaps due to his beliefs in beer’s health properties, he went on to become an inn keeper.