Project volunteer Anne Hornsby has been investigating the area of Hockley and has been looking in detail at a number of records specific to the area to see what they may reveal about the lives of children and young people living and working there. Here she outlines what she has discovered about the impact of the first world war on youth employment
Hockley’s Jewellery Quarter continued to thrive throughout World War I as the need for military buttons, badges and medals increased. However, the war also brought about an increase in child labour. Boys and girls woke to find that their fathers had left for distant battlefields while they slept, and as more and more men enlisted to join the army, there was a huge significant gap in the area’s workforce.
Companies and factories in the metalworking industry had to go against the child labour laws, and hired juveniles; younger than the school leaving age of 12, to work for them.
Statements in the School Log Book for St Paul’s School, Spencer Street, Hockley (1914 -1916), indicate that more than 150 girls were working before, between and after school, and were too tired to be taught. Many boys worked long hours, too; as errand boys riding heavy trade bicycles and delivering goods and parcels, with some working up to twenty-five hours per week, for which they earned between nine shillings and sixteen shillings for delivering 200 parcels per night. In most cases, a child’s earnings could be a helpful addition to a family’s income for food, clothes and boots.
Children were often employed under the “Half Time” system; spending the morning in the factory and the afternoon at school (reportedly, many were asleep at their desks), and requiring every Monday to present to their employer with a requisite educational certificate from their school respecting their attendance.
Depriving youngsters of their childhood, interfering with their ability to attend regular school, and employing them in tasks which mentally and physically could be dangerous and harmful – was the employment of these juveniles in Hockley considered exploitative? Articles in St Paul’s Parish Monthly Newsletters (1914 – 1918) debate the wholly
undesirable and harrowing accounts of children working outside of school hours. Nevertheless, for consideration, they report that the term ‘child labour’ could be rather misleading, with the expression ‘of useful occupation of leisure time by children still of school age’ a better reflection of the practice. The Vicar of St Paul’s suggests that with no playing fields in easy reach of the area, an active child has nowhere to let off steam. Better that he/she is busy at the end of a school day rather than experiencing the deplorable effect of hanging around idling on street corners. On the material side, their earnings equate to no empty stomachs, warmer clothing and stouter boots. ‘…by doing the lightest of light work, they may yet save the more important worker for more important work and earn easy coins…’
In 1917, Education Minister, H Fisher, claimed that across the UK as many as 600,000 children had been put ‘prematurely’ to work.