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Among other lamentable facts, the Commissioners who inquired into the working of the gang system in the Eastern Counties of England found out that, in consequence of the field-work to which mothers resorted, the children of the agricultural poor died very fast.

Hoe in hand, a mother joined a gang, and worked from morning till night—leaving a young infant, meanwhile, in charge of another child only a few years older than itself, and perhaps giving the infant a sleeping draught to keep it quiet. The same practice, it is said, was once common in the cotton districts, when, more frequently than they are now, mothers were mill-workers. Hence, in those districts, and the “gang” counties, the rate of infant mortality was alarmingly high; the neglected children dying in infancy, or growing up with weakened frames that foreshadowed premature decay. It appears that in the colliery districts, also, the death-rate among children is equally alarming; and in those places the mortality cannot be explained by the occupation of the mothers in any handiwork which would divert their attention from their families. A pitman is well paid; he keeps a good table; his wife is seldom engaged away from home; and yet, as stated by “A Clergyman” in a letter to a contemporary, “all through the pit district in the county of Durham the mortality of children is something fearful.” “A Clergyman” seeks an explanation in the fact that colliery doctors are often unfit for their work; and he cites the case of one who as a pitman said, though “a clever chap enough is a sad drunken dog.” That is not the cause. Colliery doctors, so far from being all drunken dogs, are often most steady and exemplary practitioners. But they have to deal with rough materials. Of all English workmen, pitmen are perhaps the most ignorant, most reckless, and most contemptuous of sanitary arrangements. Though they earn good wages, and live more luxuriously than many middle-class families, their homes are often models of what the laws of health forbid houses to be. Hardy children can brave the effects of the uncleanliness, the close beds, and the draughts, which are the agreeable accompaniments of a pitman’s cottage; but delicate children cannot. That is the reason why so many children are carried off in the pit villages. And the remedy is, not higher wages, better food, warmer clothing, or less drunken doctors, but more knowledge. It is the school, not the drug-shop, that is at fault.|


  • Social cases. 1869