In England the Parliament Act of 1833 excluded children under the age of 10 from working in factories. Lord Shaftesbury’s Ten Hours Act (1847) eased some of the excessive hardships endured by children in the workplace. With the passing of the Elementary Education Act in 1870 children were prised out of paid employment and placed in some form of compulsory schooling. This legislation was not applicable to New South Wales.

The following letter appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1875 –

To the editor of the Herald –

Sir – Seeing that the Hon. Minister for Mines has submitted to parliament his Coal Mines Regulation Bill, I find that in clause 8 he provides that no female or boy shall be employed in the mines under the age of 13 years. Now, Sir, I am under the age of 13 years, and there are a great many more engaged in the same trade as myself who are not more than 9 or 10: and I am convinced that our labour is far heavier than that of any boy employed in the coal mines of this colony. I am employed in a brickyard from 6 o’clock in the morning till 6 at night as a pugger-up of clay, or, if you like, a carrier of the same. From the table at which the bricks are made to the mill from which I get the clay the distance is twenty-two yards. On an average I carry five bricks at a time, and my employer makes 1500 bricks a day, when fine, so that I go three hundred times during the day the above distance, with fifty pounds in my arms and the same distance with nothing, and out of a pit fifteen feet deep, the whole distance travelled being seven miles and a half, and the whole weight carried being about six and a half tons, and then I have to handle about one third of this a second time, in making walks. Now, Sir, why not make the law to protect the sons and daughters of brickmakers (for you must know that there are females employed at this work as well as males) as well as the sons and daughters of coal miners.

If our law-makers want something to convince them of the necessity of such a law, let them take a run through the brickyards at Waterloo and Marrickville, and let them ask every boy and man too, to write his name, and I say it without fear of contradiction, that for every one able to do so, so as to be read, they would find six that could not; and their eyes will behold boys whose constitutions are completely ruined through being over-worked at a time when they should have been attending school.

I am, Sir, yours &c
A PUGGER-UP St Peters, December 3, 1875

Pugger-Up’s letter created a series of letters to the Editor disputing the number of bricks made in a day and the depth of the various pits.

On 14th December Mr W.H. Suttor moved in parliament that

‘a select committee be appointed, with power to send for persons and papers to inquire into and report on the employment of persons of a tender age in trades, professions and callings, unsuited to their years, and calculated to be injurious alike to their physical as well as moral development’.

The committee was to consist of Mr Stephen Brown, Mr Burns, Mr Cameron, Mr H.C. Dangar, Mr. Farnell, Mr Stuart, Mr Fitzpatrick and Mr Suttor. The areas to be examined were the tobacco, tweed (woollen) and leather manufactories and brickyards. Evidence was also taken from the industrial school ship ‘The Vernon’, the School of Industry, the Destitute Asylum and public school teachers at St Peters, Marrickville and Fort Street Model Public School.

Early in 1876 the inquiry into the brickyards interviewed school master Richard Guille, brickmaker James Cook and brickyard proprietors Frederick John Goodsell, George Toyer and Mr Harber. At this time the majority of the brickyards were in the St Peters and Marrickville areas. There were about sixty to eighty of them, the chief portion being on the Waterloo flat. The children generally lived pretty close to their work; in some instances only a few yards away, others a quarter of a mile; but others, whose parents were not connected with the trade, came from Newtown.

The ages of the children were from 8 to 14 years. James Cook said ‘There are some younger; they may not be there now but they have commenced work before they have been that age’. Girls as well as boys were employed. ‘

There were five some time ago, but now there are only two girls; the youngest is 9, and the other 15 years of age. One makes and the other pugs up. By “makes” you mean moulds bricks? Yes in fact she can beat her father’.

Richard Guile, schoolmaster stated,

‘As to the age at which children are sent to work in the brickyards, I have many instances of children being removed from the infant department to go pugging -up; that would be from the ages of 6 to 8 years. I have a list here of thirteen names of children were removed from the infant department of my school within the last five years to go pugging, and children are not as a rule kept in that department over the age of seven’.

In a great many instances the children were employed with their fathers. Where a brickmaker had more than one boy others would employ them. There were some employed where the parents had nothing at all to do with the brickyards. They were not employed by the proprietors, the brickmakers, who worked by piece work, employed their own boys.

The children worked on a ten hours principle, before 1873 it was from daylight to dark. Intervals of rest were for breakfast and dinner, from 8 till 9 in the morning and from 1 till 2. Wages varied, James Cook stated.

‘They generally get from 10s. to 14s. The first price that is given to a boy when he can only pug up is from 9s. to 10s., and as soon as he can roll in the walks he gets more pay. The boy I have now is 15 years of age, and I pay him £1 a week. We get £1. 2s. 6d. for making setting and burning; when they are burnt we are paid £1. 2s. 6d. per thousand. We have to burn them with wood supplied to us and you pay the pugger-up. The boys that we are now paying a pound a week to, ten or twelve years ago we could have him for ten or fourteen shillings; but that is caused through the scarcity of boys. If one brickmaker has got a good boy and only pays him a certain price; if another brickmaker wants him he offers two or three shillings a week more, and of course the boy takes it.

Frederick Goodsell said,

‘the average wage for a boy from 12s. to 27s. a week – about 18s. a week’.

When asked if the parents of these children pay them these wages, or did they retain them in their own hands Cook replied,

‘I think if they employed their own children they would retain them, but the children are often employed by others’.

Goodsell said,

‘the man always pays the boy every Saturday night …. but I think I could answer for those that work in my yard that they do hand over their wages to their parents’.

Health of the children was investigated by the committee. Cook stated that there were problems.

‘From the way they have constantly to lean back, when carrying the clay, it generally causes weakness in the knees. There are two boys I know had to be taken away from the brickyard altogether, being unfit for the work from weakness in the knees. The chief complaint is cough. They are always working barefoot; in most cases after breakfast-time they take their boots off, and of course they have got to be in water or damp earth, coughs and colds are what they are principally subject to. The moist clay rest against the boy’s chest as he carries it. He has always got what we call an apron against his chest, and I have seen some of them quite wet to the skin where they are not supplied with a good canvas or leather apron. They are exposed to sun during the whole time they are carrying the clay’. George Toyer had other ideas, ‘Is it healthy? Well he believed it was; sometime ago he had a little fellow, an orphan, with him and he seemed dwindling away, he had almost to carry him to his work at first, but after a little time he got quite strong, and would go dancing up and down the plank’.

Education seemed to be the biggest problem of all. Schoolmaster Guille’s opinion was,

‘My experience as a teacher is that there is scarcely a trade where there are so many illiterates as are to be found among the brickmakers of St. Peter’s; and I impute it to the early age at which they have to go pugging up; of course there are noble exceptions, where the children have been kept well at school, but parents who keep their children at school are heavily handicapped in the earnings of the family, as a boy can earn about as many shillings a week as he is years of age, which is very different from paying school fees when there is a family to be brought up. The Sunday-schools assist some boys with their reading, but for writing or arithmetic five sixth of them have scarcely any knowledge at all of these subjects’.

‘Of those who attend school after that age (6 to 8) their attendance is so irregular, through having to go pugging, that little progress can be made, and they remain in one class for years. Some of these only attend an average of three or four weeks in a quarter, and as their name appears on the school-roll the parents seem to think that sufficient for conscience sake. When the Rev. Mr. Baber commenced his night- school at St Peters Church, and it was an account of the above state of things that he started it, he made a rule that none under 14 years should be admitted for fear some might be removed from school and sent pugging, that they might attend the night-school. But Mr. Baber soon found he would have to close the school or admit them younger. So he reduced the age to 11 and then many said very hard things about him because because he would not admit boys of eight or nine years old, who were working all day in the brickyards’.

Those who did go to night school were too tired to do much good or were not there to learn:

‘they are of that class of boys that when they go to a night school they carry on with nothing but mischief and play, so that they take no learning’.

The children were not subject to ill usage but plenty of talk of a somewhat rough description. There was not much crime only some rare instances of drunkenness. The boys took most interest in cricket. Pugilism was indulged in to fight their own battles. They were regarded as a moderately steady set of people altogether but it was believed their morals were on the decline, their manners and conduct often become very unsatisfactory. As regards the boys from 14 years upwards, the parents had not the same control over them as they had in years gone by.

The committee visited St. Peter’s Certified Church of England School. Mr. Guille, the teacher of the school, called upon all who had been employed as puggers to stand up, about twelve arose, these boys were of ages varying from 7 to 12.

  • Charles Scriber in answer to various questions from the Committee stated that he is 12 years old and has been employed as a pugger-up; can read and write; was at work all day from morning till night; was able to carry the clay but does not know how much he carried each journey from the pit; did not receive any wages as he was only learning, and was employed not more than a month; during the time he was at work was too tired to learn any lessons when he went home at night.
  • Arthur Edwards, nine years old; has worked at pugging-up for a week and a half; his father is a brickmaker; did not get any wages as he worked for his father; did not like the work; would rather come to school; is just beginning to put letters together.
  • Henry Burrell, 15 years old; has worked at pugging-up for his father, who is a brickmaker, for four years; his work as a pugger-up was to carry clay from the pit to the stool; he was not working constantly but off and on; the working hours were ten, and there was no rest but for two hours at meal times; never received wages as he always worked for his father who now paid another lad 25s. a week: £1 a week is what he would get if he were employed by any other brickmaker than his father; did not find it very hard work, and liked it well enough.
  • Henry Cook, stated he is nine years of age, and has worked as a pugged-up; he is known as a water cress gatherer and likes it better, gets the same wages as he did for pugging, 2s. a day; was at the infants school for a short time but cannot read and write; knows his letters.

The committee visited brickyards. Mr. George Toyer stated –

‘his pit at which the boys are now working is about 10 feet deep. The boys at work are his sons, the two at the stool brickmaking are 18 and 14, the boy bringing up the clay is 10, he fetches about five bricks at a time, the weight of a wet brick is about 10lbs, does not think it hurts boys to do the work, for where will you find a stronger class of men than brickmakers. The great thing they wanted was education, it came hard upon a poor man who had a lot of children, and he had a dozen of them, to pay for their schooling. He had to pay about 5s. a week for his, he liked to give them a spell and a spell about when he had the chance, wished he could get spell about himself and not always be working and slaving, was not likely to make a fortune at it, did not believe himself and his whole family, and he had half a dozen of them working, earned more than £5:00 a week on the average. Were the boys too tired to learn after they had done their days work? Well it did not look much like it to see them playing and skylarking about after the days work was over. Three of theirs went to day and three to night school, though it was not much they learned at night at night, because the teacher was pretty well tired as well as the children, they went from half past seven to nine, four nights a week, the youngest boy there at pugging has been at work for about three years, that other one, the next, is the worst of the lot for learning – the very name of school is enough for him, not one of his family but what could read and write; they were certainly not much of scholars, but they had all had some schooling. At the day-school they had now to pay 9d for one, 15d for two, 18d for three, and 1s. 9d. for four. One of his boys was sent back from school for going there without shoes and children prefer to go barefoot if they can, though their mother liked to see them respectable, had often tried to persuade his boys off brickmaking but they did not seem to care for anything else. (Here the elder boy said, “I would not care to be at anything of indoor work”) The children are generally healthy, except there is any fever about’.

At Mr. Harber’s yard clay was drawn from the pit to a mill by machinery. Mr. Harber stated that –

‘he employed ordinarily about seven persons, two of which were boys of the ages respectively of 12 and 13 or 14’.

Thomas Cook stated ‘

he is 14 years of age and receives 12s. a week for attending the machine, taking the clay from it and putting it on the stool for the brickmaker; he has been at work for about four months, at first he worked at pugging-up at the top pit, when he was pugging-up was too tired when he got home to care to read, goes to St. Peter’s Sunday school and can read and write, reads books and writes in copy-books at home at night, likes his present work and is not very tired at night, gets books from St. Peter’s Sunday-school Library; is brother to the boy who carries water-cresses.

While interviewing Goodsell, when asked about the effect on the industry if boys under 14 were to attend school for so many hours a day, say for half a day, his reply was

‘there are a good many running about but the ‘buses have taken up a great many of them. If the boys were taken away of course the men must pug-up themselves, that would add materially to the expense, and he didn’t think there wasn’t sufficient labour available in the district to supply the places of the boys’ (sic).

Sometime after his interview brickmaker James Cook forwarded this letter to the committee –


Doubtless you will have thought that I had forgotten to forward you the promised information regarding the number of boys employed in the brick trade. The delay has not been of my being (as I thought it should) able to get such information from the books in my possesion, so that I had to go from yard to yard to take the number. I also tried to get the ages and amout of education which they had received, but this I had to give up, as where boys were engaged by parents they refused to give me any information into these subjects, and in many cases I had to put up with abuse.

The total number of boys, as far as I can ascertain are 160, that is in Waterloo, Marrickville, Petersham and Ashfield and by the looks of the boys I may say they are mostly under the age of 13 years’.
In February 1877 the report was presented to parliament. It found that ‘the brickyards were in the neighbourhood of Petersham and Marrickville. Between 100 to 200 boys were engaged in hard work and employed for ten hours a day. They have to carry masses of 50lb from the pits 40ft deep up an incline plane 10 to 14 yards, so that they carry 6 or 7 tons in the course of a day and traverse a distance of 5 or 6 miles. The children were found to be mostly uneducated and from the nature of their toil they were unable to take advantage of the educational institutions around them. One could hardly believe that the parents would care to see their children such slaves, but from the evidence it seemed that some of them considered it a good thing. In one instance a boy of 10 years engaged in this work had been so for 3 years’.

The tobacco and tweed factories were found unsatisfactory for the employment of young persons. They were ‘deficient in ventilation, far from satisfactory in a sanitary point of view, nothing was done to promote education, any education was limited due to tiredness after a days’ work’. One family earnt £5 6s a week but the parents had no time to give their children any instruction.

The following recommendations were made –

  1. That the time has arrived when it is desirable to legislate in order to regulate the employment of children.
  2. That the age at which children may be employed, and their hours of labour, ought to be fixed.
  3. That it is necessary children should not by the nature of employment be debarred from the possibility of mental improvement.
  4. That in order to obtain this desirable result of securing mental instruction to those whom necessity compels to labour at an early age legislation should take such a direction as to either compel a certain proficiency of learning to be attained before engagement be sanctioned or a certain amount of instruction be imparted during the term of employment. It appeared that parents neglected their duty so far as not to see this was done and their responsibility in this direction should be enforced.
  5. That the buildings and places in which children are employed should be under government inspection in order that undue crowding and any conditions injurious to health and morality may be prevented.
    Mr Davies, a member of parliament,

    ‘thought it a disgrace to us in this colony, with its prosperity and success, that we should have girls employed in such establishments as tobacco manufactories and that some girls were employed in brickyards. The evidence of Dr Renwick showed clearly the amount of injury done to society by the hard labour performed by many of our people in their youth. They become old and decrepit before they arrived at the age of maturity’.

It appears that after the report was presented no further action was taken to legislate for changes in the employment of children. No bills were passed in parliament until the Public Instruction Act, 1880, which made education compulsory for children between the ages of six and fourteen years. Fees were set at 3d per child with a maximum of 1/- per family. It also provided for the establishment of Public Schools, Superior Public Schools (which included some high school education), evening public schools (for adults who had not had the opportunity of school education), high schools for boys, which prepared them for University entrance and high schools for girls. Provisional schools and the appointment of itinerant teachers brought education to sparsely-populated areas. Education was to be secular with at least four hours secular education per day, although denomination-specific religious education could be given by a clergyman.


‘Key Concepts in Victorian Literature’ by Sean Purchase
NSW Parliament Legislative Assembly Votes & Proceedings 1875 – 1880
Sydney Morning Herald 1875 – 1877