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Horrible Jobs Kids Have Been Forced To Do Throughout History

Would you let your child hold down the legs of a person who's having a limb cut off?

19/06/2016 8:16 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:54 PM AEST
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A young boy working in a war factory 1940-45.

If you find your children complaining about having to put out the bins, finish a 2 km paper run, stack the shelves in Woolies or mow the lawn, perhaps you could fill them in on the dreadful jobs children were once forced to do in the not-so-distant past.

During the late 18th and early 19th Century, industralisation took place in Britain which meant it was also the first country to put young children to work in often gruelling, death-defying conditions.

It wasn't until 1842 that a law was passed that stopped children under the age of ten from working underground in mines in Britain. But, before that law was passed, it was normal for entire families to work in mines, so they had enough money to put food on the table.

Here's a look at some of the worst jobs that children have been forced to do throughout history.

Coal Miner

In 1838, it was estimated around 5,000 children were working in the Cornwall metal mines alone. In 1851, children and youth (under 20) comprised 30 per cent of the total population of coal miners in Britain. There's no denying it would have been incredibly dirty, dangerous and soul-destroying work, even for the adults. Children as young as five or six were forced to crawl in the darkness down narrow tunnels they could barely kneel in, while they breathed in thick coal dust. Many died of lung cancer before the age of 25.

The smallest kids were used as 'trappers.' They'd have to crouch in the dark by a trap door which they'd have to open to let the carts come through the tunnel. Many children were killed when they fell asleep in the tunnel and were run over by the mine carts. Thousands of children were woken around four am, five-six days a week, and were carried, half asleep, to the mines where they'd work a long, exhausting day.

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Child labor in the coal mines in Britain, 1842

Whipping Boy

If you lost your job in the coal mine, you could always apply to work in the palace as a whipping boy. Although, usually, it was a job you were born into, thanks to a parent working in the palace grounds. From the 1400s, the English believed that only the King could whip his son. And, since the King was too busy conquering new countries and cosying up to his latest Queen or mistress, one couldn't allow the prince to escape punishment for any wrongdoing his royal highness might have attempted back in the day. Cutting off your sister's pigtails? Sending Knights on a wild goose chase? Late for Latin? Bring in the whipping boy!

The whipping boy was usually a boy who had grown up with the prince, perhaps the son of the palace blacksmith. The boy would have to be the prince's best friend, seeing as he would need motivation to stop being naughty (i.e. you wouldn't wish your best friend to be whipped on your behalf, would you?)

Even if you were whipped from time to time, being a whipping boy was not as bad as it sounds. After all, there were perks to being the prince's best friend; King Charles I made his best friend/whipping boy an Earl; William Murray. If you'd like to read more about whipping boys, take a look at The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain.

"Whip thee!" says Tom Canty.
"Why should he whip thee for faults of mine?"

Find my past

Loblolly Boy

If you were a strapping young boy and had a yearning for life on the high seas, you could always volunteer to be a loblolly boy. The name Loblolly came from a thick, grimy, tasteless porridge that was often served on-board; known as the Loblolly stew.

Not only did these boys have to scrub the decks and act as a waiter to the sailors, they were also expected to be the assistant to the ship's doctor. Duties included pouring tar into open wounds (for healing), cleaning bed pans, cleaning up vomit, collecting amputated limbs....you get the drift. But, worst of all, the loblolly boys would be required to hold down a patient as he was in the process of having his limbs amputated (pre-anaesthesia).

Loblolly boys were rarely paid. Most of them were homeless orphans, desperate for some kind of roof over their heads.

Matchstick Dipper

During the Industrial Revolution, children - mostly girls as young as ten - were employed by factories to dip matchsticks into poisonous white phosphorus. The phosphorus made it easier to ignite the matchstick.

The pay was almost non-existent, beatings were part of a day's work and, worst of all, the phosphorus stuck to the skin. The children would eat their measley lunch, with poison on their hands and this would lead to what was known as 'phossy jaw.'

Phossy jaw lead to an infection which usually led to a slow and painful death. Around 1858 until 1906, thousands of matchstick factory workers were struck down by the epidemic of 'exposed bone osteonecrosis' which attacked the jaw bone. The poison literally caused the jaw bone to rot. Eventually, after Queen Victoria's advisers investigated, phosphorus was banned in the UK (it had already been outlawed in several other countries).

Chimney Sweep

We've got Mary Poppins to thank for making the job of chimney sweep look fine and dandy - the opposite was true when you're a child. While chimney sweeps have been around since the 12th Century, it wasn't until the 17th and 18th Century that children dominated the industry, due to their small size. Adult chimney sweeps would often kidnap their pint-sized apprentices from orphanages or pay off their parents.

The kids were deprived of a healthy diet, so they would remain small. Some of the nastiest adults would actually start a fire to frighten the child into climbing the flue faster and getting the job done in record time. In 1760, a law was passed to protect the children who would often suffer from respiratory illnesses, cancer and infections caused by inhaling the soot.

But, sadly, most people ignored the law until the late 1800s when another law was passed to regulate the use of children in the chimney sweep industry. Alas, it was too late for many youngsters who were left mentally and physically scarred.

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Chimney sweeps in London circa 1880. Children were employed due to there small size.

Historian Grace Karskens told the Huffington Post Australia it's important to note that, in those days, people had a very different understanding of childhood. Children were not shielded the way they are today.

"We can't project what we think of 'normal' onto the past. It doesn't mean you can excuse cruelty to kids, that's never been okay, but where a 14-year-old today is treated as more of a child, in the late 19th Century, they were taking on adult responsibility," Karskens said.

"Among working class people, they didn't have an idea as children as having to be protected from anything. They loved their children but they saw them as just being part of everyday life. Young children would be sent to the pub to get alcohol for their parents, they'd be allowed to play with tools and have all sorts of accidents. If you were a working class family, everybody had to contribute or you wouldn't survive."

However, life for Australian children has never been as bad as it was in Britain. Despite the fact that there were child convicts, they were not locked up and they were very highly valued.

"Everyone in the colony was very proud of this new rising generation. The children were prized and looked after, so even if the father of the family was a sailor or solider, the government made sure the children were well looked after," Karskens said.

"In colonial Sydney, around the Rocks, children would be allowed to attend public hangings. And, afterwards, they would watch doctors dissect the bodies as part of a public anatomy lesson. Shielding children from nasty things was more of a Victorian idea. Working class people in the late 19th Century didn't have a culture that considered childhood a time of innocence."

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Children on farms were expected to chip in and help the family

The Australian kids who did it the toughest were those living on farms; particularly dairy farms. Kids as young as five would be up before dawn, milking cows and then off to school (if they were lucky). A big issue came about when education became compulsory in 1870.

"Many farmers did not want to send their kids to school because they felt they were needed at the farm and that was more important for the family. For the farmers that let their children attend school, it meant that the kids would be half asleep for most of the day, if not falling asleep at their desk, because they've been up early with the cows!"

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1867: A young farm hand collapses from exhaustion.

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