Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Child labour and Pick-pockets

by Marie Higgins

When I start to write a new story, I flesh out my characters to see what makes them tick. In my latest story, my heroine had a terrible past. She was told at a young age while she was in school that her family had died in a house fire. The man who told her this devastating news then ruined her life by selling her to the villain - Richard Macgregor who taught orphans how to pick-pocket. These orphans ranged from seven or eight years of age to sixteen or seventeen. He controlled them and they were afraid of making him upset because he'd whip them.

This is what I decided to research for my story "The Sweetest Touch", a Regency Romance. I was appalled at what I discovered. We all know there were several different social classes. The higher class of people had the money to send their children to school to receive an education. However, the children from the working class didn't have this luxury. If a family could not afford to put their children in school, the children had to find jobs to help the support the family. It was not uncommon to expect children to work along side their mothers, often in textiles, mills, or factories. In 1788, two-thirds of those who worked in factories were children who worked 13 hour days - six days a week! (And we think we have it bad!) Most employers liked hiring women and children because they didn't have to pay them as much.

The Industrial Revolution became notorious for employing children in factories and mines and as chimney sweeps. In fact...did you know that Charles Dickens worked at the age of twelve in a blacking factory because his family was in debtors' prison?

Orphans weren't as lucky to work in factories, which is why most of them joined gangs and would steal to survive. Oliver Twist (written by Charles Dickens) is the story of an orphaned boy who was in one of these gangs. While writing my story, I wanted my heroine to remember the struggles she had in the ten years she was with Richard Macgregor and the other orphans. There were times while writing this story that I got emotional just thinking about the way of life for these poor waifs. Researching this definitely helped my story!!

I'd like to share with you a part of my story. In the beginning, the readers know my heroine (Louisa) is a pick-pocket. But within a couple pages, she's in an accident and loses her memory. The hero (Trevor) is the one who hit her with his curricle, and feels like he should keep her at his home working as a servant. Soon, she's gets the task of being the hero's children's nursemaid. At this point in the story she still does not remember her past. In this scene, heroine, hero and his children, are walking up the street to a pastry shop.

Trevor glanced at Louisa to ask if she would like a pastry, but she wasn’t looking toward the window. She focused on something behind him. Instead of her shy smile he’d watched for the past little while, a suspicious frown tugged on her lips.

Just as he turned to see what bothered her, another person bumped into him, making him stumble. “Forgive me for not seeing—” he began to say, but the vagabond didn’t stop.

Louisa gasped and jumped in the stranger’s path. As the young lad skirted around to avoid her, Louisa’s hand slipped in the boy’s pocket quick as a flash. The vagabond pushed her shoulder, aiming his glare right at her, opened his mouth to speak…but then stopped. Wide eyes stared at Louisa for a few seconds, before he sprinted into a run.

Shock washed over Trevor as he witnessed the scene. Her movement was so quick—so precise—he wondered if he’d actually seen what he had.

Louisa stood still, staring at the object in her hand. Her face void of color.

“What in heaven’s name—” Trevor snapped, but then noticed what she held out to him. My pocket watch? He dug inside his pocket—the same place he always kept his watch—but it wasn’t there. Words choked in his throat. The thief.

“Your Grace,” Louisa said in a shaky voice. “I could not allow him to steal from you.” She handed him the watch.

Still in shock, he shook his head. “How did you know he was stealing from me?”

“I…” She turned her head and stared at the direction the lad had run. “I saw him take your watch, and I knew I had to get it back.”

“But, Louisa,” Trevor stepped closer. “You took my watch right out of his pocket and he didn’t even notice.”

She gave a faint, emotionless chuckle. “I know.”

“How…” Trevor shook his head. Her wide eyes and colorless face told him this had been a mystery to her as well.

“Well,” he said, expelling his breath, “shall we venture into the shop and get some pastries for our drive home?”

Nodding, she folded her shaking arms. “Yes. That is a splendid idea.” She hurried to the twins and held their hand.

Trevor opened the door for the three before entering the shop. His mind whirled with unanswered questions but more with the fear that he knew what the answers were all along. By Louisa’s quick actions as she retrieved his watch, Trevor now realized what her past had been. The realization left a bitter taste to his mouth that no pastry would be able to remove.

 "The Sweetest Touch" book #2 in my Regency Romance series.

Marie Higgins is a multi-published author of romance; from refined bad-boy heroes who makes your heart melt to the feisty heroines who somehow manage to love them regardless of their faults. Visit her website / blog to discover more about her – http://mariehiggins84302.blogspot.com


  1. To our shame, child labor continues. My journalist friend Anton Foek broke the story of children making Barbie dolls in China. In Indonesia children have been the preferred labor because they can be paid less and are more easily coerced. Regarding adults organizing gangs of children, the film "Slum Dog Millionaire" deals with this problem in India in such ghastly fashion one is left hoping it is fiction.

    But there is another side to the story. I had a neighbor who fled abusive parents when he was eleven years old. He found shelter in an upscale car repair garage and learned how to repair Mercedes, Rolls Royces and Bentleys. He was so good at it that he was able to buy a farm here when he was only twenty years old, and accepted repair work -- at a very high fee -- whenever he pleased. He has tired of the farm, sold it and now keeps his yacht in Fiji. Needless to say, he's a strong advocate for repeal of the child labor laws since the guys who sheltered him and taught him how to repair cars were breaking the law.

    My husband's uncle, John McCloy, fled a dangerous father, went to sea by lying about his age when he was only twelve. He became a great naval hero, with a ship named after him and a recent postage stamp commemorating him.

    Perhaps there are no answers that are right in every case.

  2. The problem of poor children in London...well, as late as 1750 at least half of the population was not expected to reach the age of four. The labour laws that governed England had not been reformed since their first writing, which was 1588 or thereabouts.

    Due to the increasing pressure by reformers such as the evangelical, William Wilberforce, however, in 1812, the Child Labour laws were reformed. These now stated that there must be no more than two children sleeping in a bed, children under the age of four could not be employed, they must have Sundays off and the employer must provide Sabbath school teaching for the morning.

    Bearing in mind that laws only ever reveal what the legislators can get passed, it gives a pretty grisly oversight into the lives of poor children before the laws were passed. However, this was a huge step forward and the chimney sweeps in particular railed against it, though it was not intended particularly for them but rather for the factory owners in the North.

    Nevertheless, the problem of child gangs and child thieves remained a constant.

    Famous fences over the course of the 19th century include Thomas Duggin of St Giles who taught boys to pick pockets and was caught in 1817; Jemima Matthews from the Flower and Dean Street Rookery sent eight children out daily to steal in about 1820; and Charles King, aged 32, was transported for 14 years in 1855--he'd been a former Metropolitan Police detective who'd recruited boy pickpockets and was known as a 'thief-trainer'.

    But, up against the sordid tales, one has to place the other side of the story. These pickpocketing children often lived well--and that was inducement enough. John Reeves, aged 13, earned some £100 a week in his best weeks. He'd begun stealing at the age of 10, stealing his daily bread in the Newport Market, but by age 13, was able to keep a pony and ride in the Parks. And it was he who gave the evidence against John Reeves.

  3. Sorry, my typo. It was John Reeves, age 13, who gave evidence against Charles King, the 'thief-trainer'. Apologies.

  4. Excellent blog, Marie! I really like delving into history--even the dark parts. Thanks for sharing your wisdom. :)

  5. Great Blog Marie, As I have had a sneak peak at the Sweetest Touch, I loved that you chose to blog about pickpockets given the heroine's past. Very touching and sad, and an excellent book!

  6. Thanks Marie, and thanks to those who have added additional information. It is a sadly interesting topic, and I would love to learn more in depth.


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