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Child Labour: Hidden Stories of Cumbria

Child Labour: Hidden Stories of Cumbria opens at Museum of Lakeland Life & Industry in Kendal, Cumbria (18 May until 28 September).

A new exhibition explores how children as young as five joined adults in the world of work.

Child Labour: Hidden Stories of Cumbria is an eye-opening insight into the working lives of youngsters in a variety of industries.

The exhibition begins in the 1700s when youngsters worked in the home or on family farms. It looks at the Industrial Revolution when more than a quarter of the workforce were thought to be children.

Youngsters represented an almost unlimited source of cheap unskilled labour. At one point Cumbria had more than 100 bobbin mills and children were put to task in dangerous conditions for long hours.

Child Labour copyright Cumbria Image Bank

The exhibition considers other industries such as mining – when very young children were sent down the pit. Children were considered ideal in certain mining jobs – being physically smaller than adults and able to work in confined spaces.

But these were environments of extreme danger. During the 1910 Wellington Pit disaster 136 miners were killed – including children as young as 15.

Nikki Foster, assistant curator Heritage, said: “Across Cumbria, children as young as five were employed in factories, mines, workhouses and private homes.

“Without laws to protect them, they were likely to be fired if they became ill and could be subject to violence if a job was not done satisfactorily.

“However, as the 19th century progressed, new laws and a drop in the demand for labour meant that more children were able to stop work and attend school.”

The exhibition also looks at Cumbrian schooling. Artefacts on display include a ‘tawse’ – a kind of whip used in Victorian classrooms to punish children.

It also considers child labour globally in 2019 – and the roles young people play in creating everyday items such as mobile phones and coffee.

Child Labour: Hidden Stories of Cumbria will make people question what goes into the production of items each of us use today. It offers a great opportunity for grandparents to talk to their grandchildren about what life was like when they were youngsters.

Pupils from Dean Gibson School have responded to the stories in the exhibition with their art and comments on panels in the exhibition – to give their perspective on the themes and issues.

Executive Headteacher Mrs Sarah Tansey said: “This was a great opportunity for our children to study in depth the lives of Kendal children in Victorian times.

“They gained a real understanding of how their lives differ from those of Victorian children and developed their skills of inference when exploring local artefacts from the period.

“All that, and the chance to be creative in writing as curators, this was a fantastic learning experience shared with our families.”

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