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First direct evidence of harrowing lives of ‘pauper apprentices’ uncovered

Scientists have uncovered the first direct evidence of the harrowing lives of children known as “pauper apprentices” who were forced into labour during industrialisation in England.

A team of experts analysed the skeletal remains of more than 150 individuals from a rural churchyard cemetery in the village of Fewston, North Yorkshire.

Most of the remains belonged to young people aged between eight and 20.

Results showed evidence of stunted growth and malnutrition in the children, as well as signs of diseases associated with hazardous labour.

The researchers said their findings, published in the journal Plos One, shed light on these forgotten children who were transported from workhouses in London and forced to work long hours in the mills of the north of England.

Scientists and community volunteers analysing the skeletal remains from Fewston
Scientists and community volunteers analysing the skeletal remains from Fewston (Durham University)

Lead author Rebecca Gowland, a professor in the Department of Archaeology, Durham University, said: “This is the first bioarchaeological evidence for pauper apprentices in the past and it unequivocally highlights the toll placed on their developing bodies.

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“To see direct evidence, written in the bones, of the hardships these children had faced was very moving.

“It was important to the scientists and the local community that these findings could provide a testimony of their short lives.”

While the use of children as a cheap source of labour during industrialisation in 18th and 19th century England is well-documented, there is little direct evidence of their struggles.

For the study, the experts performed chemical analysis of the teeth remains.

They were able to identify the sex of the children as well as determine that they were not local to the area and were probably from London.

Examination of the bones and teeth also highlighted the conditions that affected the children, including tuberculosis, respiratory disease, rickets and delayed growth.

Professor Michelle Alexander, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, who was a senior author of the study, said: “We undertook chemical analysis of the bones to study diet and found that the apprentices had a lack of animal protein in the diet compared to the locals, more on a level with the victims of the Great Irish Famine.”

The remains have since been reburied in a ceremony that involved contributions from the local community.

Sally Robinson, from the Washburn Heritage Centre, Yorkshire, who led the team of local volunteers, said: “It’s easy to forget that the Washburn valley had an industrial past given the beauty of the reservoirs that visitors see today.

“It was important to us to find out about the children who worked in the mills.

“They were overlooked in life and treated as a commodity – but we hope we have done them some justice by telling their stories and creating a lasting commemoration.”

The excavation was funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.