The Fact of Children Exploitation in Britain’s Industrial Revolution


Child Labor during Britain’s Industrial Revolution
The poem entitled The Cry of The Children was written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1842. The poem represents children exploitation. Elizabeth was also concerned with social injustice, slavery and women’s right. She was born in England in 1806 and died in 1861 which was the Victorian Era. In this era, Industrial Revolution occurred and major changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transport, and technology had significant effects on the social, economic and cultural conditions from England to the world. Not only did Industrialization create many factories, but it also created Capitalism. 

childlaborAccording to Karl Marx, a German philosopher, writer of the Das Capital book and father of Marxism, Capitalism is a system based on the exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeois. The bourgeois is the social class that owns the capital of production in a capitalist society. On the other hand, the proletariat is the class that has no ownership and capital that commercializing service is their livelihood. The bourgeois, aspiring for more profit, increases the productivity of the proletariat by making them work harder, longer and most unfortunately with little wages paid afterwards. The Marxist theory on Exploitation affirms that profit is in inverse position to wages. 


This poem contains the thought of the author and the children’s heart voices. The first four lines explain how they suffer for this condition.

Stanza 1, line 1-4:
“Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers,
      Ere the sorrow comes with years ?
They are leaning their young heads against their mothers, —
      And that cannot stop their tears.”
The children are crying because they have to suffer for years. It reflects the Industrial Revolution that takes time from 18th century until 19th century. They even suffer for child labor before that, but Industrial Revolution make it worse thousands time. They are leaning their young heads show that they are very young child because at that time, children as young as four-year-old are employed. Even after they lean their heads against their mothers, it cannot stop their tears. It shows how their mothers can’t do anything to end their children sorrow, because they are the proletariat in capitalism era. They are the lower class who has no authority and power. Trapped in the poverty, they have to sell their labor power to earn money, so do their children.

Line 5-12:
The young lambs are bleating in the meadows ;
   The young birds are chirping in the nest ;
The young fawns are playing with the shadows ;
   The young flowers are blowing toward the west—
But the young, young children, O my brothers,
      They are weeping bitterly !
They are weeping in the playtime of the others,
      In the country of the free.
This is the symbol of the condition supposed to happen. The imagery is used to show that the children are supposed to be like this, when the young lambs are bleating in the meadows. The young lambs are supposed to bleat, it’s their natural action. They are bleating in the meadows, their place they are supposed to be. The young birds are chirping, yes that is what the young birds should do. They do it in the nest, yes that is the place where they should be. So does the young fawns and the young flowers. These are the comparison to describe the condition of these labor children. They are supposed to play at their young ages, playing and studying with their friends, at school, at home, at where they should be. On the other hand, the fact is they have to work in the factories and mine, the place which is dangerous for them. Their playing time is taken, their freedom is taken. “In the country of the free” is the irony for this condition, because the children lost their freedom in their own country.

Line 13-16:
Do you question the young children in the sorrow,
      Why their tears are falling so ?
The old man may weep for his to-morrow
      Which is lost in Long Ago —
These lines reveal how uncommon this situation is. This condition is supposed to be questioned, to be stopped, but yet it keeps on going. The author shows how the old man may regret his past, but these children are not supposed to weep over their sorrow. They don’t deserve this.

Line 17-20:
The old tree is leafless in the forest —
   The old year is ending in the frost —
The old wound, if stricken, is the sorest —
   The old hope is hardest to be lost :
But the young, young children, O my brothers,
      Do you ask them why they stand
Weeping sore before the bosoms of their mothers,
      In our happy Fatherland ?
These are also the comparison for the children. It is the things that happen just the way they are, when the old tree is leafless, and the old year ends in the frost. If the old wound has stricken it will be sore, and that the old hope is hard to be lost, these are the imagery of the things that symbolize common things, the fates, the destiny. The author asks to compare to this children condition, which is not supposed to be neither their fate nor destiny, so it needs to be questioned, because it is not a common thing that should be let happens. Moreover, it is in their happy Fatherland. The word “happy” is an irony, also, because that word is so far from them. This is the condition when Marx asked the proletariat to unite and demand their rights, because in their own fatherland they can’t get their own freedom.

Stanza 2, Line 25-30:
They look up with their pale and sunken faces,
      And their looks are sad to see,
For the man’s grief abhorrent, draws and presses
      Down the cheeks of infancy —
“Your old earth,” they say, “is very dreary;”
   “Our young feet,” they say, “are very weak !”
Here they stated that this earth is dreary, yet their young feet are very weak. Their feet are young, it hasn’t been strong enough just like adult’s feet, yet it has to be worse because of being exploited.

Stanza 3, Line 31-36:
Few paces have we taken, yet are weary—
   Our grave-rest is very far to seek !
Ask the old why they weep, and not the children,
      For the outside earth is cold —
And we young ones stand without, in our bewildering,
      And the graves are for the old !”
They said they are tired to find their grave-rest, because it’s so far. It shows how they think death will be the end of this sorrow, how death will solve anything. But yet it seems so far, it is how they represent this misery conditions, it seems like so far to reach the end of the sorrow, just like they have no idea when it will end, when their sorrow will end.

Stanza 4, Line37-44:
“True,” say the children, “it may happen
      That we die before our time !
Little Alice died last year her grave is shapen
      Like a snowball, in the rime.
We looked into the pit prepared to take her —
   Was no room for any work in the close clay :
From the sleep wherein she lieth none will wake her,
   Crying, ‘Get up, little Alice ! it is day.
This is the contradiction for the previous lines. First they said the grave-rest is so far away, because they associate death with relief. Now, the death symbolizes the true death in fact, and the children said it may happen that they die before their time. It reflects the dangerous conditions they have to face everyday. There are many children suffer for lung cancer, heart disease, phossy jaw (a disease that began with toothache and swelling of the gums and jaw. The lower jaw was more commonly affected but sometime the upper jaw also was attacked. It was most commonly seen in workers in the match industry in the 19th and early 20th century.), and other physical defects. They tell the story about Little Alice who died last year.

Line 45-52:
If you listen by that grave, in sun and shower,
   With your ear down, little Alice never cries ;
Could we see her face, be sure we should not know her,
   For the smile has time for growing in her eyes ,—
And merry go her moments, lulled and stilled in
      The shroud, by the kirk-chime !
It is good when it happens,” say the children,
      “That we die before our time !”
This description shows how Little Alice is happy after her death. She never cries and the smile is growing in her eyes. “Could we see her face, be sure we should not know her,” shows that she never smiles and looks happy like that before, while she was working. At the end of second stanza, the children added, that it’s good if they die before their time. The hard life has made them wants to end their misery as soon as possible, although if it is death, it sounds good for them.

Stanza 5, Line 53-659:
Alas, the wretched children ! they are seeking
     Death in life, as best to have !
They are binding up their hearts away from breaking,
      With a cerement from the grave.
Go out, children, from the mine and from the city —
       Sing out, children, as the little thrushes do —
Pluck you handfuls of the meadow-cowslips pretty
     Laugh aloud, to feel your fingers let them through !

These children think that death is the best to have. By this thought, they protect themselves from sadness and fear. The author asks them to go out, from the place where they don’t belong. The children should experience happy moments, where they can play and laugh aloud.

Line 60-64:
But they answer, ” Are your cowslips of the meadows
    Like our weeds anear the mine ?
Leave us quiet in the dark of the coal-shadows,
      From your pleasures fair and fine!
Here the children talk about the bourgeois who make them experience staying in dark of the coal-shadows, while the bourgeois live in pleasures and all the good things. The bourgeois exploit the proletariat to work hard, more than they can do, and pay them low, less than they deserve. To gain more profit, the bourgeois also hires children, to reduce the expense for wages and salary.
The sixth stanza tells about the children who lose their hope. It can be seen from line 67 & 68, “If we cared for any meadows, it were merely to drop down in them and sleep.” and line 71 & 72, “And, underneath our heavy eyelids drooping, the reddest flower would look as pale as snow.” These children have to wake up since 4 a.m. in the morning and work until 8 p.m. in the evening. They are sleepy and tired, yet still have to work. They carry their burden to the workplace where they have to do the same dangerous thing everyday, as it is seen in line 73-76, “For, all day, we drag our burden tiring, through the coal-dark, underground —Or, all day, we drive the wheels of iron, in the factories, round and round.” They keep doing the same endless thing day by day, wake up only to work and at night they sleep just to wake up again the following day and do the same miserable thing.
The seventh stanza describes about the condition while these children are working. What they do and how they feel. When all the tools and animals and nature are changing, but they feel nothing changes in their life, it’s just like that with no end. The eighth stanza is when the author advises these children not to give up and surrender to God, to call God to ask for help. Yet the children have lost their hope and faith. In the tenth stanza they say when they are weeping and sobbing aloud, no human hear them, and only pass by. In the eleventh stanza they say they have prayed, but God doesn’t hear them. Line 121-124, “’Our Father!’ If He heard us, He would surely, for they call him good and mild, answer, smiling down the steep world very purely, ‘Come and rest with me, my child’. ‘But no!’ say the children, weeping faster. He is speechless like a stone.” They say tears have made them blind.

Stanza 13, Line 153-160:
“How long,” they say, “how long, O cruel nation,
   Will you stand, to move the world, on a child’s heart, —
Stifle down with a mailed heel its palpitation,
   And tread onward to your throne amid the mart ?
Our blood splashes upward, O our tyrants,
      And your purple shews your path ;
But the child’s sob curseth deeper in the silence
      Than the strong man in his wrath !”
Here it’s portrayed as if the children ask for how long they have to suffer. They call England the cruel nation because of the capitalism, and state that this era won’t remain forever. They mention how their blood splash, while cursing this nation.
According to Marx’s analysis if the capitalist economy, it’s believed that capital produces profit, land produces rent, and labor produces wages, each getting fair share. It was natural for landowners and factories owners to make more profit. However in fact, it’s found that in order to gain as much profit as they can, the factories owners exploit the workers to work longer and harder without equal payment. It can be seen in the condition in England where the savage exposure of exploitation happens in the growing factories and industrial enterprises, includes children. If each getting fair share, why these factories owners employ the children? Because they know they can pay them cheaper. Marx said that workers actually have to have freedom to choose the work they want, the job they wish to do. Meanwhile, the workers still have no capital or land or factory to run, so they only can work as labor as the only choice. This shows how the capitalism put the proletariat in the lowest stage of freedom.
Even if they want to choose, they have no choice, so do the children. In this poem, the children are the representation of the unfair condition. In larger scale, actually this poem represented all proletariat, children and adults. They suffer for the same sorrow, due to the poor work condition and the effect of industrialization. 
In the poem, the author portrays the condition of Capitalism that exploited lower class people, in particular children. It occurred in the Industrial Revolution in Britain during which the Bourgeois (landowners or factories owners) employed the Proletariat (labors). They had to work as labors for they only had their service to be commercialized. The Bourgeois’ goal was to earn as much profit as that they made use of children and women as labors due to the cheaper payment. That condition created a great suffer for the Proletariat, chiefly the children (as represented in the poem). 
Out of the poem, it is analysed that the children had to work 16 hours a day, commencing from 4 a.m. in the morning. They had no time to play and to study for they daily had to do the same dangerous things. Death was never far away from them. Yet they were kind of hope for it due to the desperateness of endless suffer. 
It all leads to the thought that in the Capitalism Era, the lower class is always powerless while the upper class is always powerful.

By: Ms Martina, S.S. 
Modifications, corrections (Introduction & Conclusion) and images: Sandy Iwo

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