Nunney scarecrows

Child labour in Victorian Somerset

Child labour was common in early 19th century Nunney for children as young as 5. It took almost a century to introduce proper education for all children in our village.

Child labour and education in Nunney: Part 1 – Starving

Bird Scaring, by Sir George Clausen
Bird Scaring, 1896 (oil on canvas) by Sir George Clausen, Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston, Lancashire
Throughout Somerset until the late 19th century it was common for boys and girls to be taken out of school far earlier than the authorities thought advisable – at age 5 in some cases, although 8 or 9 was more common.

They were mainly employed to for a month or six weeks at a time, just after the corn was sown, and just when it was ripening, to scare off birds. Sunday was no exception, so they would get no break at all for weeks on end.

The children would be expected to be in the field by 5am and to stay there until sunset. At sowing time their hours were shorter, as the days were shorter. They were out whatever the weather, sheltering themselves under a tree or hedge when it rained, and sometimes creating a little hut in the corner of a field.

Nunney fire
The earliest mention of a child working in the fields in Nunney, from the Leeds Intelligencer, 5 April 1757
They frightened birds, as a rule, by shouting, sometimes by beating sticks together. After a while, however, the birds would get used to this and became more difficult to frighten. The child then had to follow them around the field, hunting them from one place to another – obviously very tiring work.

‘Starving’ (scaring birds) and ‘tenting’ (looking after farm animals) was seen as mainly ‘passive labour’, boring and often done in terrible weather conditions but not in itself hard work. The extra earnings also meant that the family in theory could afford better meals than without child labour.

We have a lot of first-hand accounts from children who worked as human scarecrows. They were collected as part of Parliamentary investigation into child labour in the countryside, published in 1869.

scaring-birds“Ellen Ralph, High Ham, aged 12. Used to keep birds. Was not 9 when she began. Stayed out 8 till 6, hallooing at them. “It is bird starving, not bird keeping.” Like keeping birds; not hard work.”

”John Lock, Somerton, age 6. Goes bird-keeping, likes it better than coming to school. Halloos at them. Comes to school 5 months, keeps birds 7. Goes out bird-keeping from 7 till 6; not on Sundays; gets paid 6d. a week.”

“Henry Ford, Somerton, age nearly 9. Goes bird-keeping; begun at 7; gets 1s. 6d. a week; likes coming to school most; knocks sticks together, and halloos out. Goes wet and fine days, not on Sundays. Stays out from 6 to 8; takes dinner with him. Goes out whether wet or fine; does not get wet, for if it rains, he sits under a tree. Likes driving plough better than coming to school or keeping birds.”

“William Matthews, Somerton, aged 11, minds sheep all the year. Used to keep birds. Began at 6 years. Used to halloo at the birds. Kept birds all the week and Sunday too. Began keeping sheep at 7.”

Nunney scarecrows exhibition
Sir George Clausen (1852-1944), “Bird-scaring”, 1887
“Henry Brown, aged 14, Somerset, first worked at 7, bird-keeping; hallood at them. Went on Sundays too. In summer worked from 6 to 6.”

“James Small, High Ham, aged 11, goes out driving plough. First year of doing so. Likes coming to school best. Used to go with his brother keeping birds for amusement. Frightened them with the sticks and “Tom had a dog he put at them”.

“Henry Wescott, aged 7, Bishop’s Lydeard. Kept birds for 12 months, hallooed at them. Got 2s. for it, and went out all the week, Sundays included. Like it very well. Got into a linhay when it rained. Took dinner with me, bread and meat; had supper when I came home, bread and meat, cider to drink. Like keeping birds better than coming to school.”

Those farmers in favour of employing child labour as scarecrows said that it was not so much the one child that was effective, but the fact that their little brothers and sisters and other children would come and see them – the noise of several children being sufficient to see off the birds. But groups of children running around did often result in damage to crops and hedges.

farmer”Alford, occupier, Curry Rivell. Does not care about employing boys much, only wants them when wheat is appearing, not when just sown, and again when it is ripening, to keep off the sparrows. But a pistol and a little powder will frighten them much better, or sending a man to kill and hang up one. Boys only driven them from one place to another, they frighten them with clappers, that is, knocking bits of sticks together, but they generally only go and settle on the next field.”

Farmers said they couldn’t do without children to scare off the birds, and small children were cheaper. Others preferred to employ an old man with a gun. This could be either without shot, merely to frighten the birds, or with shot to kill a rook and leave parts of it around the field – often enough to drive other rooks away for some time.

Alternatives, such as twine across the field, were seen as ineffective since the birds soon became used to them.


Child labour in mills
Children working in English mills
For centuries, child labour was common in Britain. Nunney was no exception. There were many reasons why children were employed on the farm from an early age.

These include a desperate need for income for struggling families, a shortage of available labourers or farmers employing their children because they were unable to pay hired labourers.

On average, half the labourers on a farm were paid ‘wet or dry’ – i.e. even if the weather was too wet to work the land. The other half were shift workers, only paid if they chose to brave the weather – which not many were inclined to do.

cottageThere were many men in rural areas who were not disabled, but past their prime. Poor health and wet weather often meant that they lost a considerable amount of paid time in the year. This often meant that a family had little option but to get their children to contribute from the earliest age at which they could earn anything.

Perhaps we should clarify the distinction between children helping out and child labour:

  • Child work is when a child helps out with safe tasks that are appropriate to their age at home or on a farm for a couple of hours a day and is given time to go to school, play and rest.
  • Child labour is when a child’s work is hazardous and interferes with their education, health and/or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development. This kind of work is a form of child slavery.


photo 1Before decimalisation, Britain used pounds, shillings and pence. There were 20 shillings per pound and 12 pence per shilling, and thus there were 240 pence in a pound.

In 1859, for example, the price of flour was high and wages had not risen in proportion. Out of a husband’s average wages of 12 shillings the outgoing for flour alone to support a family with 6 children was 10 shillings 6 pence a week. Without the children’s earnings, the family could not support itself.

In counties where wages were higher, child labour was far less common. In these areas, there was general consensus among farmers, land owners, the clergy and other that children under the age of 10 should not be working in the fields.

In areas with heavy clay a boy of 11 or 12 driving a plough would “not have strength to get through the day”. The extra expenditure of employing an older boy would be more than met by the extra productivity.

photo 3

In other areas, however, children’s labour under the age of 10 was far more common. In Lincolnshire farms were large but the area thinly populated; young children were much in demand in scaring birds, tenting (looking after cows, sheep, pigs or horses), weeding, picking twitch or stones, bean-dropping, singling turnips and other relatively light work.

It was common for boys to begin work in the field at 8, although many started aged 6 or 7. In the Fens many small freeholders could not afford labourers and relied on women and children helping to set and harvest potatoes. Because the children would work on the land at certain seasons, they missed school more often than the offspring of hired labourers. In many cases, children worked nine months a year and left school entirely at the age of 9.

In Somerset child labour was very much in demand from an early age, through a combination of poverty and demand for labour. Parents would often ensure that gang-masters had to hire the little ones as a condition of getting the labour of older children in the same family. Dorset had a general custom of hiring whole families, including children aged 6 or even younger.


child labour factory
Children working at looms in a factory © Kirklees Image Archive
Families in Nunney in the 19th century would have had a choice of sending their children to work in the factories in Frome – and staying there overnight for 6 days a week – or working in the fields.

Thousands of women and children were employed making pillow-lace (hand-made lace) in Oxfordshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Devonshire. Children as young as five years old worked in lace ‘schools’, which were really workshops. Bedfordshire children worked an eight hour day, for which they earned just a penny or three halfpence.

0011-300x1897.jpgGlove-making (‘gloveying’ or ‘do glovey’) was big industry in Somerset and surrounding counties too after the Government taxed foreign gloves; most of the industry was focused on Worcester, however, where firms like Dents originated. The children became ill and had eye problems after doing such intricate work for long hours.

“Emmeline Cox, Somerton, age 8, began to make gloves at 5. When began could make one pair a day, now can make two. Gets a halfpenny a pair, small gloves. Got no mother, and “father, brothers and sisters no good to me”. Lives with grandmother. Likes making gloves. When older would like to go to service. Get tired gloving. Work from 7 in the morning till 8 at night. Not with a machine.”

By 1820 the Frome factories employed child labour on a large scale; children were cheaper to employ, in effect stealing jobs from their parents – but earned nowhere near enough to support their relatives. Poor relief was paid to many families in Nunney to top up their household earnings.

Sherborne Mercury, 14 September 1840
The first Parliamentary acts to regulate the work of children in factories and cotton mills to 12 hours per day had been passed as early as 1802 and 1819. These acts turned out to be ineffective. A royal commission established by the Whig government recommended in 1833 that children aged 11-18 should work a maximum of 12 hours a day; children aged 9-11 were allowed to work 8-hour days; and children under 9 were no longer permitted to work at all. The Act of 1833 applied only to the textile indus­try, and not to the mines, shipyards, match factories, construction or chimney-sweeping.

Many children working in the factories were crippled by the unnatural postures they had to adopt, sickened by toxic industrial materials, injured or killed in horrible accidents. By the time they were 18.5 years old, these young English people averaged 62 inches (5’2″ or 158 cm) in height.

Working conditions

Ploughing, by Sir George Clausen
According to the census of 1851, agriculture was still the largest occupation for all ages. There were over 73,000 boys aged ten to fourteen at work in the countryside in 1851. Over ten thousand girls worked as ‘live-in’ farm servants.

An 1860 Parliamentary enquiry into the working conditions of women and children in rural areas singled out North Northumberland as a ‘best practice’ example to other counties. Women and children there worked 9.5 hours a day in summer, from 6am to 6pm with 2.5 hours for meals (2 hours for dinner and short breaks at 9am and 4pm). In winter the hours were regulated by the light. This meant that the – often single – women and children were able to have a long rest in the hottest time of a summer’s day.

Child LabourIn Dorset, by contrast, began working with horses aged 6 and following the plough or cart aged 8 or 9, often working from 5am to 7pm. The work was hard, mind-numbing and repetitive. Lung diseases were common. Such conditions generally led to stunted growth and crippling pains later in life, just as was the case with children working in factories.

One Dorchester medic, Dr. Aldridge, described his objections to early employment with horses: “A boy of this sort (7 or 8 years’ old) gets up with his father at 4 or 5, has to help to prepare and feed the horses, walks from 6 till 2, except a little halt for meals, then comes home to dinner, and returns to feed the horses. I see the effect of this early work in making the boys bow-legged.”

Most farmers told the enquiry that they would rather employ older boys – 14 to 16 -, who were better able to work 5am to 8pm than the younger boys.

Child labour as light exercise

It is perhaps easy to condemn child labour when we look at it through modern eyes. Consider the evidence given to the Children’s Employment Commission (1842) by Henry Morton, Agent for the Countess of Durham’s Collieries:

Destitute children typical admissions to Dr Barnardo's Home in 1“I believe that employing children in coal mines is perfectly consistent with good health. They earn good wages. Working on the night shift does no harm, the air and ventilation are the same at one period as at another. I have never heard of boys injuring themselves down pits from the nature of work, only by accidents.”

“I do not think any change in the hours of work is necessary for children. I would not object to a law preventing children from working before ten years old but would rather leave it to the manager to accept or refuse them. Any such law would be unfair on parents with large families… I do not think that working in the pit means that boys are incapable of having lessons after a day’s work. Most coal mines could not carry on without the labours of young boys.”

The Victorians didn’t find that farm work posed any physical danger to young children, unlike factory work. On the contrary, light exercise in the open air was in many ways considered preferable to the pollution children were exposed to in factories.

It was also hard to argue that a man should be the sole breadwinner when wages were so very low and he had a wife and children perceived as sitting idly at home. Parents had worked on the farm from an early age themselves, as had generations before them. Reading and writing were not required for most farm work.

1860s05Farmers were under pressure from above and below not to raise wages. Increased demand for land meant rising rents paid by farmers. Children were cheap.

At the same time the introduction of machinery kept wages low. Migration could have formed part of the solution, but it was usually the best and strongest workers who left to seek their fortune elsewhere. Their place on the farm was taken by the older boys, whose work in turn was taken over by younger children.

Farm wages varied across Somerset, from 12 shillings near Bristol and Bath to as low as 6 shillings elsewhere. Almost always this was not the full story; cider and sometimes a cottage, wheat or potato land were also included as part-pay.

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