News organizations and documentary producers have made us all too aware of the horrors of trafficking children. The fate of women and girls of any age coerced and trapped as sex workers horrifies. Boys are not immune. This evil isn’t new, and may in fact be as ancient as the oldest profession. This article will concentrate on the nineteenth century, one in which it has been estimated that over half the prostitutes in Paris were minors, and London brothels notoriously traded in virgin girls.
In our day we generally assume that trafficked women, girls, and, yes, boys have been kidnapped, or are runaways who wandered into the clutches of their keepers unaware. Occasionally, we hear something even worse: the story of parents who’ve sold a child as a sex slave. Child selling was much more common two hundred years ago.
It is helpful to look at laws surrounding custody as a background. In Europe, and in England in particular, children were regarded as the property of their father to do with as he chose. English Common Law regarded wives as having no property rights partially on the theory (with biblical echoes) that a married couple became one person. That person, of course, was the husband. Because they had no property rights, women had no “ownership” of their children. Custom assumed that a man would cherish his wife and children and manage their lives wisely and benignly, but of course that wasn’t always the case.
The property rights of the father were absolute up to the passage of The Custody of Children Act of 1839, which provided non-adulterous mothers with rights to custody of children under seven and access to older ones. It is considered the first feminist law. Testimony during the debate includes heart-rending examples of fathers using children for financial leverage or to cow their wives into submission in various ways. The case of Caroline Norton, who was brutally beaten throughout her marriage, found innocent of adultery after she left her husband, but denied access to her children (one of which died in the place his father had hidden him), rallied public support. A step forward, yes, but one that largely impacted the upper classes. In the grinding poverty of the industrial revolution era, poor families had no recourse but to view their children as an asset.
The most lurid form of child selling refers to sale to brothel keepers, pimps, and individuals. It has been estimated that in the mid-1800s prices to buy girls ranged from 20 pounds for a working class girl 14-18 to over 400 for an upper class girl under twelve, clearly a rarer commodity. While much less well documented, traffic in boys also went on. Josephine Butler, a Victorian Social reformer addressed parliament and is supposed to have accused the very men she addressed as “being willing to pay twenty-five guineas for the pleasure of raping a twelve year old.”
In the early 1800s press-gangs, state sponsored thugs charged with forcing young men into naval service were active. They weren’t above paying a bribe. They were legally entitled to impress boys as young as 15, it is easy to imagine some bending of that to meet quotas, particularly because ships of that era used very young boys as powder monkeys and servants. The navy encouraged this as a way of training up future seaman. Eleven or twelve were the commonly expected ages for boys to go to sea (Lord Nelson was ten) and boys were supposed to be at least 4’3″ tall. Research indicates many of them were orphans and/or had been in trouble with the law. Some of them undoubtedly went involuntarily and some were younger than expected. It is difficult—but not impossible—to imagine the impressment of a boy as young as seven. Could a father sell his son to a merchant ship? It seems likely if the man was hateful enough and the ship disreputable enough.
While prostitutes and powder monkeys make lurid and dramatic images, by far the most common form of child selling in the nineteenth century was for labor. Desperately poor parents often needed children to work as soon as they could be hired, relying on pitiful wages. They might also sell them as “pauper apprentices” to masters who could work them fourteen hours a day/seven days a week and beat them at will. The phrase “work them to death” is not unrealistic. If a family or orphaned children were placed in a workhouse, the house could and often did force the children to work or could sell them outright as pauper apprentices. The most notorious of these were children trapped as miners and those sold as climbing boys for chimney sweeps. The latter had to be quite young because climbers were forced to climb chimneys as narrow as eighteen inches. Stories of children killed or maimed in the mines, dying of lung disease, or mutilated in factory injuries are legion.
I began with the question, could a father sell his son in 1832. The answer, appallingly, is a resounding yes.
Caroline Warfield has degrees in history and library science. She has been at various times been an army brat, a librarian, a poet, a raiser of children, a nun, a bird watcher, an Internet and Web services manager, a conference speaker, an indexer, a tech writer, a genealogist, and, of course, a romantic. Having retired to the urban wilds of eastern Pennsylvania, she is now a writer of historical romance, enamored of owls, books, history, and beautiful gardens, who sits in an office surrounded by windows and lets her characters lead her to adventures in England and the far flung corners of the British Empire. She nudges them to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart. You can find her at www.carolinewarfield.com.
A vile abusive father attempts to sell his son in Caroline Warfield’s The Renegade Wife, out now.
Cossins, Anne. Masculinities, Sexualities, and Child Sexual Abuse. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Feb 16, 2000, pp. 6-7. (Accessed via Google Books September 30, 2016)
“Custody of Infants,” Commons and Lords Hansard, the Official Report of debates in Parliament, HL Deb 18 July 1839 vol 49 cc485-94. (Accessed September 30, 2016)
“Custody Rights and Domestic Violence,” UK Parliament: Living Heritage. (Accessed September 30, 2016)
Pietsch, Roland. “Ships Boys and Youth Culture in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” The Northern Mariner: Online Edition, Canadian Nautical Research Society. (Accessed October 1, 2016)
Venning, Annabel. “Britain’s Child Slaves,” The Daily Mail, 17 September 2010. (Accessed September 30, 2016)