The Origins of National Children’s Week

By: Graham McDonald

19 – Sunday 27 October 2019

Throughout the history of mankind, the natural progression of life has been a birth ultimately followed by death at some point in time, except for a few notable exceptions that are recorded in the Holy Scriptures.

When we observe the wonder of birth, we are immediately struck by the complete and utter helplessness of that newly born child. The life and the future of the child is in the hands of adults.

Children are the most vulnerable of all human beings and are totally dependent on the adults around them for their physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.

Following the death of 26 children in the Huskar Colliery coal mine accident in 1838, the public became concerned about child labour in coal mines. There were 15 boys from 7 to 16 years of age and 11 girls from 8 to 17 years of age. Fifteen were 10 years old or younger and they had just spent nine hours underground.

There is an inscription on the old monument in the churchyard of the Parish Church, Silkstone which records a disaster in the district. It reads: “Take heed, watch and pray, for ye know not when the time is.”

Queen Victoria took an interest in the disaster and the loss of so many young lives in a pit was a factor in the setting up of the Royal Commission to enquire into women and children working in coal mines.

History tells many stories that children have not always been valued as totally dependent human beings.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, the British state accepted that children as young as five years old were an acceptable part of the industrial workforce. Not only management accepted the position but many parents as well. Change had to come and an investigation into the employment of children was begun. Between 1840 and 1842, government inspectors visited the Welsh coalfields and spoke to many child miners. These interviews were presented to Parliament as part of The Commission of Enquiry into the State of Children in Employment. This report not only tells of the horrific conditions that children worked under but also paints a vivid picture of their everyday lives.

Lord Shaftesbury had been lobbying since 1828 for something to be done about the terrible conditions and injustices people were that people were forced to live under as the Industrial Revolution took place. One of his main concern was to introduce acts of legislation that prohibited employment of women and children in coal mines, provided care for the insane, established a ten-hour day for factory workers, and outlawed employing young boys as chimney sweeps.

Two years earlier he felt God had called him “to devote whatever advantages he might have bestowed … in the cause of the weak, the helpless, both man and beast, and those who had none to help them.” He was aware of the Bible Scripture that said, as believers we need ‘to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.’

His understanding of the teachings of Jesus caused him to take a strong stand for the children who could not speak for themselves.

This is a part of the report to the United Kingdom Parliament; Coal Mines in the 1840s

Coalmines in this period were cramped, poorly ventilated and highly dangerous.

There was little attention paid to health and safety and children were injured or killed by explosions, roof falls or being run over by carts.

Children performed a number of important tasks underground – door keepers, who operated the ventilation doors to let coal carts through, drammers, who pulled coal carts to and from the coal face, colliers’ helpers who assisted the actual coal cutting, usually alongside their fathers or older brothers, and drivers who led the horses which pulled wagons along the main roadways.

Even the simple matter of getting to their place of work was sometimes highly dangerous. Many mines were ‘drifts’ driven into the mountainside and children could walk in, others were shafts, which were served by winches or steam engines. The mines in the Llanelli area were up to 500’ deep and had to be descended into by baskets or ladders.

Philip Philips, aged 10, from Brace Colliery in Llanelli, was accustomed to the dangers of ladders: ‘I help my brother to cart. I can go down the ladders by myself. I am not afraid to go down the pit.

Boy in a coal mine

The inspector who interviewed Philip climbed down these ladders with difficulty. Unlike Philip, he was afraid of the noise and the heavy pumping rods that were very close to the ladders.

Mary Davis was a ‘pretty little girl’ of six years old. The Government Inspector found her fast asleep against a large stone underground in the Plymouth Mines, Merthyr. After being wakened she said: ‘I went to sleep because my lamp had gone out for want of oil. I was frightened for someone had stolen my bread and cheese. I think it was the rats.

Susan Reece, also six years of age and a door keeper in the same colliery said: ‘I have been below six or eight months and I don’t like it much. I come here at six in the morning and leave at six at night. When my lamp goes out, or I am hungry, I run home. I haven’t been hurt yet.’

In Harm’s Way

A coal mine was a dangerous place for adults, so it is no surprise that many children were badly injured underground.

Nearly a year ago there was an accident and most of us were burned. I was carried home by a man. It hurt very much because the skin was burnt off my face. I couldn’t work for six months.”

Phillip Phillips, aged 9, Plymouth Mines, Merthyr.

I got my head crushed a short time since by a piece of roof falling…

William Skidmore, aged 8, Buttery Hatch Colliery, Mynydd Islwyn

…got my legs crushed some time since, which threw me off work some weeks.”

John Reece, aged 14, Hengoed Colliery

Child Colliers and Horse Drivers

children pushing carts underground

Some children spent up to twelve hours on their own. All alone in the dark

However, Susan Reece’s brother, John, worked alongside his father on the coalface:

‘I help my father and I have been working here for twelve months. I carry his tools for him and fill the drams with the coal he has cut or blasted down. I went to school for a few days and learned my a.b.c.

John Reece, aged 8, Plymouth Mines, Merthyr.

Philip Davies had a horse for company. He was pale and undernourished in appearance. His clothing was worn and ragged. He could not read:

I have been driving horses since I was seven but for one year before that I looked after an air door. I would like to go to school but I am too tired as I work for twelve hours.

Philip Davies, aged 10, Dinas Colliery, Rhondda

These were but a few of the stories related to the inspectors as they did their job.

Shaftesbury had argued in Parliament for new laws to protect children. These three laws were eventually passed.

1841 Mines Act

No child under the age of 10 to work underground in a coal mine.

One year after the loss of the 26 children in the Huskar Colliery disaster.

1847 Ten Hour Act

No child to work more than 10 hours in a day.

1874 Factory Act

No child under 10 to be employed in a factory.

In 1842, Parliament stopped women and children under the age of 10 years old from working underground. In 1860 the age limit for boy-miners was raised to 12 and in 1900 to 13.

Such findings of a Royal Commission would be considered unthinkable in today’s Western society.

In the Mediterranean world in which Jesus lived, children held a different kind of status than they do in our world today. Children, along with women, old men, and slave, were viewed as physically weak burdens on society who had little value to the wider life of the community. In Greece and Rome, it was an accepted practice to abandon unwanted children along the roadsides to die.

As Christianity became more active during the Roman era when Rome ruled most of the world, the teachings of Jesus became more public. Jesus’ teachings concerning children were faithfully followed by the early church, which believed that to receive a child in the name of Christ was to receive Christ Himself.

Jesus teaching about children was that they were ‘not to be looked down upon.’ Children were and are to be valued. This was ‘counter cultural’ as in Roman times, if the child was not of the right sex or disabled it was appropriate to either kill them or just let them die.

Why was the early Christian attitude toward children so unusual? Simply because it recognised the child as a person. Both children and adults were equal in the kingdom of God. The Christians taught that God cared for children, as well as slaves, women and barbarians, just as much as He did for men. Some Christians began collecting infants abandoned by their parents and raised them as their own.

As one explores the Bible there is no doubt that children are highly valued by God and the Lord Jesus. In response we should ask the question, do we value children the same way?

Sadly, even today, there are countries and societies that have a system that if the child is not born the preferred sex, they can be killed or just left to die.

There have been some very significant moves over the years by some government and international organisations to draw attention to the plight of children. Great strides have been made to eliminate the suffering and the environments that create these dreadful conditions.

In 1954 the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed Universal Children’s Day as a day to promote friendship and understanding among children of the world. From this beginning, it developed into a day that focussed the attention on the issues and needs of children and their families. UNICEF has been charged with the development of this concept worldwide.

Australia’s response to this injunction was the creation of Child Care Week which each state celebrated at different times. In the 1980’s the Commonwealth Government encouraged the states to agree on a national week dedicated to children. In 1985 this became a reality and a National Children’s Week was birthed.

However, there are still many countries that have not arrived at this place where children and women should be valued. Most of us are aware of these terrible situations as they appear, often too regularly on our daily news.

The USA State Department suggests that at any given time there are 12.3 million people world-wide who live a s slaves. Almost all of them have been kidnapped into forced labour by organized crime cartels or sold into slavery by relatives who live in desperate poverty. Although some victims end up working as indentured servants, the vast majority are sold into prostitution.

Children’s Week is a timely reminder of the importance of childhood and the role adults have in nurturing our children and providing them with every opportunity to reach their full potential. In this ever-changing world, it is becoming more evident that our children need parental guidance and protection from some of the ‘nasties’ that the world would want to expose our children too. The internet can be a great learning experience however there are those who would want to influence our children in the wrong direction.

A little quote from the Bible might be helpful ‘Beware, that you don’t look down upon a single one of these little children…” writers paraphrase ‘be careful to value and nurture your children as a priority’.

Reference : The NIV Bible The Living Bible

Article supplied with thanks to DIDUNO. The DIDUNO Network is a group of people dedicated to and passionate about educating and informing the next generation of Australians of our Christian heritage.