The expendables: Bioarchaeological evidence for pauper apprentices in 19 th century England and the health consequences of child labour

Rebecca L. Gowland, Anwen C. Caffell, Leslie Quade, Alysa Levene, Andrew R. Millard, Malin Holst, Poppy Yapp, S. Delaney, Chloe Brown, Geoff Nowell, Colin McPherson, Heidi A. Shaw, Nicolas A. Stewart, Sally Robinson, Janet Montgomery, Michelle M. Alexander, Siân E. Halcrow (Editor)

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Child labour is the most common form of child abuse in the world today, with almost half of child workers employed in hazardous industries. The large-scale employment of children during the rapid industrialisation of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in England is well documented. During this period, the removal of pauper children from workhouses in cities to work as apprentices in rural mills in the North of England was commonplace. Whilst the experiences of some of these children have been recorded historically, this study provides the first direct evidence of their lives through bioarchaeological analysis. The excavation of a rural churchyard cemetery in the village of Fewston, North Yorkshire, yielded the skeletal remains of 154 individuals, including an unusually large proportion of children aged between 8 to 20 years. A multi-method approach was undertaken, including osteological and palaeopathological examination, stable isotope and amelogenin peptide analysis. The bioarchaeological results were integrated with historical data regarding a local textile mill in operation during the 18th-19th centuries. The results for the children were compared to those obtained from contemporaneous individuals of known identity (from coffin plates) of comparable date. Most of the children exhibited distinctive ‘non-local’ isotope signatures and a diet low in animal protein when compared to the named local individuals. These children also showed severe growth delays and pathological lesions indicative of early life adversity, as well as respiratory disease, which is a known occupational hazard of mill work. This study has provided unique insights into the harrowing lives of these children; born into poverty and forced to work long hours in dangerous conditions. This analysis provides a stark testimony of the impacts of industrial labour on the health, growth and mortality risk of children, with implications for the present as well as our understanding of the past.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0284970
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number5 May
Publication statusPublished - 17 May 2023


  • Child Labor
  • England
  • History, 19th Century
  • Humans
  • Industry
  • Isotopes
  • Poverty


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