In the 19th century the campaign to regulate child labour extended across several decades. Written in 1836 by Caroline Sheridan Norton, A Voice from the Factories seeks to persuade its readers that the ‘Factory Question’ presents ‘an evil which it behoves Christian lawgivers to remove’. Exposing the cruelties of child labour, the poem features a range of children’s occupations including the performer, the chimney-sweep, and ‘factory slaves’.
Above all, the poem argues that it is fundamentally unnatural for children to fill the same working role as adults. Childhood should be full of ‘Prayer–slumber–fondness–smiles–and hours of rosy mirth’. The exploitative nature of child labour is emphasised, too: children ‘labour all day long for others’ gain’.
Everybody, including the reader, is held accountable for the children’s suffering. At her most outspoken, Norton confronts the established figures of authority:
Yet in the British Senate men rise up,
(The freeborn and the fathers of our land!)
And while these drink the dregs of Sorrow's cup,
Deny the sufferings of the pining band.
A Voice from the Factories was written three years after the 1833 Labour of Children etc. in Factories Act that sought to reduce working hours and improve conditions. In reality, however, the act was poorly enforced – and it excluded other industries including mining and chimney-sweeping. Children could still be legally expected to work 12 hour shifts. Campaigners demanded that this was reduced to 10 hours for women and children.
Norton aligns the poem with the reform campaign by dedicating it to Lord Ashley, a leading activist within Parliament.
The Voice from the Factories anticipates ‘The Cry of the Children’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a poem written on the same subject, six years later. The two poems were often compared by contemporaries.