Department of English, University of Delhi
This paper will examine the treatment of children in the following novels of Dickens Oliver twist (1839) and David Copperfield (1850). In my analysis of Dickens’ novel, I am going to deal with how poor children became a source of cheap labour and how they were forced to work in hard and tough conditions.
Dickens was individually aware of the exploitation to which the children were subjected because of his own history at workhouse. His work house experience parallels Oliver’s work house experience. Children were exploited and forced to work under harsh circumstances. The Victorian society, mainly the middle class, believed in strong moral values and morals. However, they did not do anything on larger scale to help them or change their condition. Children were susceptible to mistreatment. Dickens successfully portrayed the cruelty of children in the nineteenth century Britain. He evoked readers’ sympathy to the terrible conditions of children.
Economic development was led by the Industrial Revolution which began in the middle of the eighteenth century, but it became the cause of many social problems. One of the major problems was an increase in child labour. Financial condition of working class people was miserable to an extent that the whole family, even women and children, had to work to add family’s income. Families thought that if they had more children, there would be more hands to work. Child labour became a part of industrialization and various laws were introduced to prohibit it. However, child labour existed even before the Industrial Revolution had started. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the working class children helped their parents in household chores and farming. They helped in different kinds of work as stated, “when in the late eighteenth century, industrialization began to shift the location of the textile industries from home to factory; it was natural to look for children as a key component of the workforce.” Instead of labouring in fields or at homes, children preferred working in factories and mines because they were better paid in factories or mines. Many children started working at the very young age because their families relied on their income. They had to work for long hours to earn money. As Cunningham wrote, “children often started to work under the age of ten, and the Industrial Revolution period began to regain the reputation it had until recent years as a black moment in the history of childhood.”
Wilson also argues about the child labour perception in the Victorian period. In The Victorians, He explains that most children in the industrial Britain worked along their parents as many hours as their parents did. Children were considered a cheap labour who could work in unpleasant and dangerous places such as mills, factories and coalmines.
Children and orphans were child labour because most of them worked generally for food and accommodation. They did not work for wages. They worked inside the region of a workhouse and had to follow the rules of workhouses strictly. They were also sold to new employers for money. We find the practice of selling children to employers and their poor miserable condition in Oliver Twist. Oliver disobeyed the rules of the workhouse in which he lived. When he asked for more food, a bill was pasted outside the gate offering a reward of five pounds to anybody who would take Oliver. In other words, five pounds and Oliver were offered to any man or woman who wanted an apprentice for any trade, business, or calling.
It is not the only case of Oliver but many other boys to whom master finds that he can acquire sufficient work without giving him much food. The master shall have a child labour for a term of years, to do what he likes with. Industrial Revolution contributed significantly to promote child labour. During this time period, there were inadequate educational opportunities for children; therefore, it was better for them to work. Child labour was an essential part of the method as the children were paid less than adults. They worked under poor conditions for long hours with poor lighting, without proper ventilation and lack of protective clothing. However, there was a little improvement in the condition of child labour with the enactment of factory act in 1864. The act predetermined that no child would be employed under the age of twelve as a factory worker.
The exploitation of children in factories can be seen in Oliver Twist when the man in the white waistcoat wants to sell Oliver to Gamfield as a chimney sweeper. Later on, Oliver is sold to Mr. Sowerberry, the undertaker, and is given the role of a funeral mute. The Industrial Revolution was a period in which many children were working at the workhouses due to poverty like the orphaned Oliver who was assigned to pick oakum at six every morning. Oliver experience raises many questions about the life of children during Victorian age.
 Cunningham, G. The New Woman and the Victorian Novel London: MacMillan Press, 1978. p.87.