Chapter 12. Children and Childhood

12.5 Children at Work

In almost all parts of colonial British North America, children began to work at a very young age, whether officially for an employer or to help support the family. In fact, children passed from a period of dependence and into active engagement as early as six years of age. Puberty, when it came, was a dividing line between childhood and adulthood, though not necessarily the first one crossed.

Young Labourers

Examples abound, in the 18th and 19th centuries, of children engaging early in economic activities. Some straightforward jobs were assigned to the very young. Indigenous children were introduced to artisanal crafts and traditions from the moment they were able to participate in the simplest productive process, which is to say as young as four years. The same was true of most farm children in settler society: in New France very young children on farms were tasked with scaring birds away from crops.

However, a child’s social and family circumstances or their environment often required that more complex work be taken on. Splitting fish was often the task of six year olds in outport Newfoundland during the 18th and 19th centuries. Processing fish was a wage-earning job undertaken by girls of 10 years, as was domestic labour.[1] Orphaned children under the age of six years were bound or indentured to non-relatives where they became household labour or servants. The loss of a parent in these cases necessitated an early start to a labouring life.

Seven-year olds in the anglophone British North America colonies were subject to English common law, which treated them as adults as far as work was concerned until later in the 19th century. This often meant difficult and potentially dangerous labour for working children. For example, eight-year-old boys (and sometimes younger) were considered old enough to work underground in British North America’s coal mines. By 1866 there were, conservatively, 450 boys working in the mining pits of Cape Breton and Vancouver Island.[2]

In a colonial world that depended heavily on seagoing transportation and in which almost every town of any size was effectively a port town, it is inevitable that we would find boys were put to sea on fishing boats, in merchant ships, and in naval vessels. They did so at 10 or 12 years of age. Although most of the working children from this period are unknown to us, some we know by name. George Vancouver went to sea when he was 13 and José María Narváez at 14 years of age. Both were born into comfortably well-off families and so began their careers in their early teens; children of less privilege joined up younger. David Thompson, the son of a poor Welsh couple in London, was apprenticed (more correctly, indentured) to the Hudson’s Bay Company at 14 years of age. Thompson’s experience was not entirely extraordinary: the HBC was London-based, orphans were plentiful in 18th and 19th century London, and the company’s patriarchal ethos was consistent with the role of guardian.

Farm families were large because child labour was useful and necessary. Artisanal families, too, made use of all members of the household, although typically at lower levels of reproduction. The rise of industrial workplaces and urbanization changed some of these familial relationships, some of which were very old indeed. Factories and growing towns placed working families into situations where more and more members had to go out to find work. The home was no longer also the workplace. This applied to children as well as adults.

What do we know of child labour in these years and how do we know it? Individual and anecdotal accounts of childhood work and life tend to provide more evidence than official records, especially as regards the youngest workers. In later years — in the mid-Victorian era — this would be because employers were reluctant to reveal how many extremely young or officially “underage” children they had working for them. Before then, however, it was more likely the case that very young children were not reported (or under-reported) because their contribution was necessarily small. A child whose tasks consisted of stacking wood, for example, might not be considered to be in an apprenticeship, even if that was what it was, in the early stages of unfolding. A further — and more direct — deception involved girls in what was technically boys’ work; this comes through very clearly in reports from navies and merchant fleets where girls disguised themselves as boys in order to hold onto jobs at sea.

Many of these areas of employment carried huge risks. Handling domestic animals on the farm and horses in towns presented a constant hazard; many boys died underground in mines in the 19th century; children drowned or were murdered in battles at sea; slave raids or hostage-taking during warfare between Indigenous peoples posed a millennia-old threat to children. In the mid-19th century the emergence of factory labour put children in completely new and unfamiliar environments where they were subject to mechanical hazards and oppressive supervision.

One study shows that a third of boys in a Montreal working-class ward in 1861 were employed. On the whole, boys were likely to earn more — from mine, mill, or factory work — than girls and so were sent out to work more often than their sisters:

The enlistment of thousands of children as workers in Montreal businesses reveals an aspect of industrial society that has nearly vanished today, but was fundamental to 19th century manufacturing. For many working families, basic survival was a daily challenge. Supplementary income was needed as families grew and more mouths had to be fed. Children’s wages provided an important second income. And for sons of working-class families, joining their fathers in the factories was the only option. Limited schooling would have to suffice for children whose horizons were limited to urban factories. Accordingly, the Industrial Revolution expanded the industrial enslavement of children. Montreal, no less than any other industrial city of the day, did not escape this reality.[3]

It was a short step from agricultural labour that included all members of a family to industrial labour in which children would participate. But in this setting they were no longer being supervised by a parent or relative, nor were they part of an apprenticeship relationship in which their master fed and clothed them. The imposition of disciplinary regimes, however subtle, were part of life in every factory, even if fines and beatings were not. Children were being moulded into industrial workers by their employers: they were expected to be punctual, focused, efficient, and deferential.[4] In this setting, employers were shaping not merely their workforce for the day but their workers for the future. At the end of the pre-Confederation period, factories were, in truth, manufacturing workers from children.

There were, too, independent or near-independent jobs to be had. Running errands, selling newspapers, helping in a small grocery — these were low-skill jobs that were available in a number of towns. Other children engaged in “penny capitalist” enterprises like selling fruit or household fuel.[5] Girls who went into domestic service — and their number was enormous in Victorian Canada — sometimes did so on a part-time basis in several households at once, as laundress’s assistants, for example.[6]

Childhood without Parents

What is less often considered is the almost universal alienation of children from their parents. Orphanhood — whether marked by the loss of one or both parents before the child reached puberty — was extremely common. Peter Moogk suggests that nearly half of all adolescents in New France had only one parent.[7] In the early Victorian era, when women on average had about six children before they themselves reached 35 years of age, life expectancy for adults was barely half what it is today, so it was almost certain that the youngest children would not have left home before the death of at least one parent. In some cases orphaned children under the age of six years were bound or indentured to non-relatives where they became household labour/servants.

This pattern helps to explain the rise of the orphanage as a major urban and social institution in the 19th century. There was a long tradition in French Canada of such facilities run by the Catholic Church, but during the period from 1820 to 1860 there was a wave of purpose-built facilities for orphans. Many of these were the work of Ladies’ Aid Societies, which established Protestant Orphans’ Homes. As one study clarifies, “the name ‘orphan home’ is misleading insofar as most housed more non-orphans than orphans. Children were commonly temporarily consigned to an institution by a single parent unable to manage, or by a family undergoing a short-term crisis.”[8] For a child consigned to an orphanage, whether temporarily or permanently, this marked a significant break with family life and probably the beginning of a highly structured existence. It may have been the first and only opportunity to obtain some formal schooling.

That is, however, to put a gloss on the larger social history of the orphan experience. Dr. Barnardo’s Homes were first established in 1866 in London by the Irish physician, Thomas John Barnardo, with the founder advocating what he called “philanthropic abduction” of the children of the poor. In some instances British children whose parents had entrusted them to the care of an orphanage were shipped off to the colonies (including British North America) where they became essentially indentured servants to foster families.[9] Children in Canadian cities were likewise “plucked” from the streets by early social reformers who were more distressed at social decay than they were by the welfare of the children themselves.

Key Points

  • Child labour took a multitude of forms and it was not unusual to find very young children engaged in demanding labour.
  • Farm children worked from an early age; apprentices took on responsibilities from about the age of eight years. Children working in industrial circumstances, however, marked a significant break from past practices.
  • Children were statistically at risk of being orphaned.

  1. Robert McIntosh, “Constructing the Child: New Approaches to the History of Childhood in Canada,” Acadiensis, XXVIII, No.2 (Spring 1999).
  2. Robert McIntosh, Boys in the Pits: Child Labour in Coal Mines (Montreal & Kingston: McGill–Queen’s University Press, 2000), 7.
  3. Jean de Bonville, Jean-Baptiste Gagnepetit, Les travailleurs montréalais à la fin du XIXe siècle (Montreal: Les éditions de l’Aurore, 1975), 55.
  4. Bettina Bradbury, "Gender at Work at Home: Family Decisions, the Labour Market, and Girls' Contributions to the Family Economy," in Canadian and Australian Labour History, eds. Gregory S. Kealey and Greg Patmore (Sydney: Australian Society for the Study of Labour History and the Committee on Canadian Labour History, 1990), 119-40.
  5. John Benson, Entrepreneurism in Canada: A History of 'Penny Capitalists' (Queenston, ON: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990).
  6. Susan E. Houston and Alison Prentice, Schooling and Scholars in Nineteenth-Century Ontario (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), 220-1.
  7. Peter Moogk, “Les Petits Sauvages: The Children of Eighteenth-Century New France,” in Childhood and Family in Canadian History, ed. Joy Parr (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1982), 25.
  8. McIntosh, Boys in the Pits, 20.
  9. Craig Heron, “Saving the Children,” Acadiensis 13, no.1 (Autumn 1983): 172.


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Canadian History: Pre-Confederation - 2nd Edition Copyright © 2020 by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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