Factories and Fevers: 19th century child health

Dr. Emma Storr was our guest speaker on the 1st May 2021. She is a GP and Associate Professor at the University of Leeds. Her talk explored the experience of children living and working in factories and mills in Leeds in the 19th century. Leeds, like many of today’s large towns or cities, grew rapidly during this period and underwent many of the problems associated with the rapid industrialization. These involved two main dangers to child health. One was the hazardous working conditions that led to injury and premature death among children. The second problem was the poor, overcrowded conditions without clean water or adequate disposal of waste and a high rate of infectious diseases. The result was a high infant and child mortality, exasperated by the effects of malnutrition and long hours of work. 

Dr. Emma Storr illustrated her talk with slides of drawings and paintings of a chimney infested Leeds during the 19th century and of mills and machinery used in the textile industry for which Leeds was prominent. One such mill was Temple Works in Holbeck which has a façade from the  Edfu Temple in Egypt. Thomas Marshall had his flax mill built in the 1840s and was regarded as a benevolent employer in comparison with many others of the time.  

However, children who were often under the age of ten, could and did suffer from injuries, poor home conditions, malnutrition and even death, at work.  

A number of leading citizens of Leeds highlighted the awful working conditions and the effects of children by poetry, reports and commentaries. These included Dr. Charles Thackrah, Robert Baker and MPs such as Richard Oastler and Michael Sadler who expressed their rage at the ‘slave’ conditions experienced by the working class and especially children. Eventually Factory Acts were passed which limited the number of hours a child could work eg 12 and raised the age at which they could start work from 9 years. Poor Law Commission reports encouraged by Lord Shaftesbury also helped. These included implementation of safer conditions when working with machinery, development and improvement in sewage disposal, fresh water and collection of waste.  

Conditions did improve but only slowly. Infant mortality began to decline near the end of the Victorian period and finally education became more readily available for the working classes. 

Dr Emma Storr’s account highlighted the horrors of 19th century working conditions but also proved a fascinating story for the 48 members who signed in for the talk by zoom.