March of the Mill Children
On a steaming hot day on 7th July 1903, a raggle-taggle group of adults and children left a small union hall in Kensington, Philadelphia. Led by an elderly woman in a Victorian style dress, a parade of children and adults set out on the road towards Torresdale Park on the edge of the city and into history.
It presented as a chaotic picture in the burning sun, with some children carrying flags, a little children’s fife and drum band playing, a number of adult stewards and some provision wagons, between 300 and 400 people in all. By the following morning, many had returned home before the march recommenced with 60/70 children setting out for the nearby town of Bristol.
The elderly woman was Mother Jones, her march was being used to highlight exploitative child labour practices in the textile mills as well as collecting money for their parents who were in the middle of a textile factory strike in Philadelphia. Mother Jones was determined to march with the children the 125 or so miles to Wall Street in New York. The youngest marcher was little Thomas McCarthy.
Mother Jones (centre) at the start of the March of the Mill Children, Philadelphia (Pic: US Library of Congress)
From this inauspicious beginning thus began one of the most famous and inspirational marches in history, the publicity created especially in the New York media highlighted in the public domain and wider consciousness how at least two million very young children were forced to forego education to work long hours in the mills, mines and factories across America. Carrying signs with slogans such as “We Only Ask For Justice”, “We Want To Go To School”, “We Want Time To Play”, “Prosperity is Here…Where is Ours?” the children proclaimed their wishes to all.
Over the next three weeks, beset by disputes, poor weather, bad conditions, poor food and even mosquito attacks, the young marchers pressed on, Otter Creek bridge, Morrisville, Trenton, Princeton University, Metuchen, Elizabeth, …….arrive, hold a large public meeting, find a place to sleep and onwards early the following morning. Somewhere along the way, Mother Jones decided she would call out to Oyster Bay, the summer residence of the President of the USA to meet with Theodore Roosevelt.
Saggamore Hill, summer home of US President Theodore Roosevelt at the time of the march
Crossing the Hudson River on 22nd July, some 30,000 people gathered to welcome the young marchers. Mother Jones became a sensation in New York……..all she wanted was “public attention on the subject of child labour”. She certainly got that as she travelled out to Oyster Bay, Long Island with three children and despite the President refusing to meet her or the children “the President has nothing to do with such matters”, the local New York media covered it extensively. Cartoons satirising the President running away from Mother Jones and the children flourished in the newspapers.
Mother Jones had indeed achieved “a tipping point”. Child labour was now on the public agenda, it was being talked about on the streets and among some politicians. A National Child Labour Committee was established to reform child labour. Many States took action to ban young children from working and although it took nearly another 40 years for the Federal Authorities to ban it completely, the efforts of Mother Jones in 1903 certainly aroused public interest.
On August 4th 1903, Mother Jones and her mill children went back to Philadelphia by train. Back in Kensington the textile strikers had to return to work for 60 hours per week, the children probably did too and became another lost generation. However child labour was now on the public agenda and Mother Jones with some quiet satisfaction was able to conclude “our march had done its work”
Plaque at Philadelphia City Hall marking the March of the Mill Children and the role of Mother Jones (Pic: Donald D. Groff via Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)
This March initially appeared to achieve very little, as very powerful people and some union people could see little wrong with child labour. Yet in Mother Jones eyes …. child labour exploitation clearly exposed capitalism and its exploitation of labour at its most basic level…….the children had to work because the greedy powerful robber barons would not pay their parents a fair wage and families had no option but to send all members no matter what age out to work to survive. Her views became conventional wisdom.
Over time, the March of the Mill Children has grown in stature and fame as it triggered debate across a wide spectrum of public opinion. It became an important symbol in the struggle to abolish child slavery in the USA. While not yet gaining the national importance or recognition of the 1965 Selma Marches later did for civil rights, it remains today a powerful reminder of the injustice of child labour.
It resonates also today in the school children’s protests in relation to saving planet Earth from environmental destruction. Ironically the climate change children argue that there is little point in going to school if the planet is going to burn up as a result of human greed.
One cannot ignore either today that millions of young workers continue to work in dangerous conditions and face exploitation in the fashion industry in Asia, Africa and elsewhere. Young garment workers face appallingly low wages and sometimes work 12-14 hours per day to provide clothes and brand names as cheaply as possible for the affluent world. Worker’s right to organise are routinely ignored in many countries so the message of Mother Jones remains valid in much of the world today.
The Cork Mother Jones Committee with the assistance of the Cork Community Art Link project and the Foroige Group in Blarney Street will recreate the March of the Mill Children in a pageant beginning at 12.30 on Wednesday 31st July at the Shandon Plaza, alongside the Firkin Crane Theatre.
We believe this is the very first occasion outside of America where this famous March will be performed. It will take place in the very streets where Mary Harris walked when she was a young girl.
Mother Jones – The Most Dangerous Woman in America, Elliott J Gorn, Hill and Wang 2001. Chapter 5. The Children’s Crusade.
The Autobiography of Mother Jones, Mother Jones, Charles H Kerr Publishing Company 1925. Chapter X. The March of the Mill Children.
We Have Marched Together – The Working Children’s Crusade. Stephen Currie, Lerner Publications Company 1997.
On Our Way to Oyster Bay – Mother Jones And Her March for Children’s Rights. Written by Monica Kulling, Illustrated by Felicita Sala. CitizenKid 2016.