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March 14th 1897

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'Part-time' child labour

In January 1897 Alexander Darling died by falling down an elevator shaft at Westfield Mill, Rattray. Alexander, a ‘part-timer’ had worked at the mill for two months and was but eleven years old.

His mother, giving evidence at the public enquiry, described how he had left for work that morning with his two sisters at 5.50am. He was, she said, very near sighted and was interested in machines of all kinds. He was also a great reader. Another boy described what happened that day. Alexander, he said, was there with other boys. He put his hand through the spars of the gate which protected the shaft and drew the bolt. The next thing that happened was Alexander disappearing down the shaft. Later he was found to be dead with a broken neck.

James Linton 32, mill forman, was also questioned. He was forman of the second flat. Alexander, he said, had no right to be in this flat. If any boys were found interfering with the elevator they either got a good shaking or were dismissed. He admitted that there was a man in charge of the elevator during working hours. But of course the accident took place during the breakfast break about 10am. James Linton was also questioned by a Mr Wilson for the Inspector of Factories regarding the safety of the elevator. No, he said, he was not aware that in other mills the gates of the elevator could not be opened from the outside.

The Sheriff in his summing up told the jury of seven that all they required to do was to agree on the cause of death. “Injuries received by him (Alexander Darling) during workers breakfast hour by his accidentally having fallen down the shaft of the elevator…”  They could, if they wished, express their opinion on the running, that is to say, the safety aspects of the mill. The jury preferred to keep their opinions to themselves.

By the Education Act of 1872 school attendance became compulsory from five to thirteen and the very worst aspects of child labour were mitigated. In 1883 the leaving age was raised to fourteen but children over the age of ten were allowed to work as ‘part-timers’ if they had reached standard three in reading, writing and arithmetic. If they reached standard five they could leave school altogether.

The system was not completely abolished until 1936.

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