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Whilst the children of Upper Class families would be sent to private schools, or educated by tutors, the children of the lower classes had to work in order to contribute to their family income.
Children were put to work as soon as they were physically able and, until The Factory Act of 1844 was passed there was no control over the hours they worked.
Of course, only those children who were working for legitimate businesses were helped by this legislation—it still left thousands of children, often those who needed help the most, without any support.
Lucky children would find themselves apprenticed to a trade.
Those less fortunate would work on farms, in factories or as chimney sweeps. The very size of the child meant that they were suitable for those jobs that adults couldn’t physically do: crawling under the machines in factories to fetch or repair, sitting in coal-mines to open ventilation doors and crawling up the insides of chimneys in order to clear away the soot and debris that gathered there.
The image of the chimney sweep is one that has been heavily romanticised from this period. In actual fact the job was dirty, claustrophobic and extremely hazardous. Boys would often suffocate, having got stuck in the chimney and, even if they didn’t meet such a disastrous end, they would always emerge with cut elbows and shins from the work.
Schooling itself didn’t become compulsory for children until the Schooling Act of 1880 was passed. This meant that all children between the ages of 5 and 10 should attend school. Many families, though, were unable to cope without the extra income that their children brought in and didn’t allow their children to go.
I think I would rather spend a day in school than up a chimney!