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In “The Sadler Report of the House of Commons, 1832,” an investigation chaired by Michael Sadler focused on the exploitation of child workers during the industrial revolution. This inquiry came at a time when England was just beginning the industrial revolution, and at this time there were few rules governing the way factory owners could treat their employees. Sandler was mainly concerned with the low wages, long hours, lack of meal times, and lack of medical assistance. These dismal working conditions applied especially to children, who were considered at the time to be the ideal workers because of the exploitability. It should be noted that there was no mention of the very young age of the workers who were employed, and this could be due to the fact that children needed to work, just to sustain their families, and this made it universally acceptable.

The document contains a testimonial from a former child worker who spoke to Sadler. This inquiry was a part of other inquiries on the same topic, and was the product of a parliamentary concern over exploited children. Sandler documented these testimonies as part of his duty, and likely because of his concern, for the conditions in which these children worked. Sadler took volumes of the testimonies from the former children workers, and they are documented in the report.

This document tells readers a considerable amount about the changing times in which England found itself in the early years of the industrial revolution. It is easy to see that three parties were largely involved in this early capitalist struggle: the factory owners, child factory workers and the government. Each had their own concerns, and these testimonials help bring those to light.

While it is clear that the factory owners wanted the most amount of labor for the lowest price, the concerns of the government and of the children workers were not so obvious. These testimonials show that while the children were working in horrendous conditions, the work was needed to maintain survival. To find out more about the working conditions, and the response from the children, Sadler interviewed Matthew Crabtree, who is a former child factory worker at a textile factory, and who is 22 years old during the 1932 interview. He was 8 years old while working at the factory. He worked there until age 12. This documentation provides a clear primary-source look at the fact that child workers was not unheard of during these early stages of the industrial revolution. The information comes from the former child worker himself, and is a much more valuable and credible source than secondary documentation on the subject.

The testimonial notes that the child worked from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., and he had one hour at noon for a break. He had not been given time to eat breakfast. Furthermore, Crabtree needed to work from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. when the factory was busy. He also had to walk two miles to and from the factory. When he was not at work on time, he was “severely” beaten – “Very severely, I thought” (813). Crabtree said he was sometimes late due to the fact that he needed more sleep. His parents would have to carry him out of bed when he was still sleeping. The long hours made him very sick and he could not eat. When he did eat, he would vomit.

This type of vivid detail could only be generated from the primary source himself. Certainly, a secondary source could reiterate the information, such as is being done in this very paper that is being read, but it does not capture the severity of the situation that the child was in, as well as is done by reading the testimonial itself. Reading of the working conditions of this child provides a clearer take on the subject matter than any secondary source could provide. Furthermore, this primary source is particularly useful because of its concise form. Sadler asks questions that get to the point very quickly, and provide a clear description of the challenges that Crabtree faced.

It is important for the reader to investigate this literature while keeping in mind that this represents the early stages of the industrial revolution. The period marked the beginning of capitalism, and it was a time when lawmakers were struggling to keep up with the rapid development of technology and labor structure. The period represented a turning point in society, and to that point labor laws had not been clearly defined. This testimonial is part of the transitory period from when the government decided to step in to attempt to control the vast exploitation of workers, and particularly children. The fact that the government is focusing its efforts here on children, says that the investigation into developing laws governing labor was in its very early stages, due to the fact that the government would likely focus on protecting children before protecting adults. However, the government appears slow to act, as Crabtree was working for four years in the factory, and he was being interviewed by Sadler a full 10 years after the young man had finished his employment there.

The details of the case go on, to the point where no other source could provide such a vivid account of the torment that these children experienced: “I have been struck very severaly with it myself, so much so as to knock me down, and I have seen other children have their heads broken with it” (814). This worker was also able to account how much money they made (3 shillings per week), and they were given half a penny for the longer days worked. At this point, the primary source becomes less valuable than a secondary source might be. The 3 shillings and half a penny are not put into context with the primary source, and this is an issue that can be common with primary sources. A well-written secondary source would note what the 3 shillings represent in today’s dollars. Furthermore, a secondary source could provide an idea of what 3 shillings could buy. Of course, half a penning, and three shillings is likely not much money, but in order to know how that compares to the amount of money in today’s dollars, a better description, or an editor’s interpretation within the primary source, would be valuable.

Even so, the primary source in this instance, and in most, provide the most valuable historical information. Aside from being at the testimonial itself, which is clearly impossible, the transcription of each word that was spoken provides the most valuable source, and creates a vividness to the situation that cannot be improved upon by a secondary source. This primary-source account tells the reader about not only the dreadful experiences of the child worker, but also the interests of the parliament at the time, as well as the cruelty of the factory owners. Furthermore, it helps provide a look at the level of poverty in which many people found themselves during this period.

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By Hanna Robinson

Hanna has won numerous writing awards. She specializes in academic writing, copywriting, business plans and resumes. After graduating from the Comosun College's journalism program, she went on to work at community newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada, before embarking on her freelancing journey.

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