“There are many in this town who are ignorant of their very names; very few who can spell them. It is rare that you meet with a young person who knows his own age; rarer to find the boy who has seen a book, or the girl who has seen a flower. Ask them the name of their sovereign and they will laugh; who rules them on earth or who can save them in heaven are alike mysteries to them.”
In such a town as Disraeli describes there were no schools of any kind, and the masters treated their apprentices “as the Mamelouks treated the Egyptians.” The author declares that “there is more serfdom now in England than at any time since the Conquest. . . . The people were better clothed, better fed, and better lodged just before the Wars of the Roses than they are at this moment. The average term of life among the working classes is seventeen.”
One of the first results of machinery taking the place of human labour was that an enormous number of women and young children of both sexes were employed in the factories in place of grown men, who were no longer needed. Especially in the spinning mills thousands of men were thrown out of work, and lower wages were paid to those who took their place. This led directly to the breaking up of the home and home-life. The wives were often obliged to spend twelve to thirteen hours a day in the mills; the very young children, left to themselves, grew up like wild weeds and were often put out to nurse at a shilling or eighteenpence a day.
One reads of tired children driven to their work with blows; of children who, “too tired to go home, hide away in the wool in the drying-room to sleep there, and could only be driven out of the factory with straps; how many hundreds came home so tired every night that they could eat no supper for sleepiness and want of appetite, that their parents found them kneeling by the bedside where they had fallen asleep during their prayers.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, one of the greatest poets of Victoria’s reign, pleads for mercy and human kindness in her “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.
The young lambs are bleating in the meadows,
The young birds are chirping in the nest,
The young fawns are playing with the shadows,
The young flowers are blowing toward the west—
But the young, young children, O my brothers,
They are weeping bitterly!
They are weeping in the playtime of the others,
In the country of the free.
“For oh,” say
the children, “we are weary,
And we cannot run or leap;
If we cared for any meadows, it were merely
To drop down in them and sleep.
Our knees tremble sorely in the stooping,
We fall upon our