According to the book from the Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh (so talking about British history here),
“In the past most children had few toys and little time or energy for games. They had to work.
In the country
Two hundred years ago the bulk of the population lived in the country and even the youngest children were given jobs on the farm. They could be bird scarers, goose girls, shepherd lads or help with hoeing, weeding, gathering the crops or stone picking to make the land better for planting. Children often worked in farm gangs, moving from farm to farm. They frequently laboured for long hours, from 5 in the morning to 7 at night. …
In the mines
Some children endured terrible conditions underground in coal mines. In 1842 a Government report highlighted the problem and a ban followed to try to prevent women and girls and boys under 10 working underground, but the law was not always obeyed. In Midlothian in 1842 nearly half of the workforce of the mines were children, 135 boys and 54 girls, under the age of 13. In the East of Scotland as a whole, children and young people formed an even larger proportion than that. It was very dangerous work and there were many children killed in accidents.
The 1842 report includes interviews with young miners. James Taylor of Oldham, Lancashire, aged 11, stated he ‘Never went to a day’s school; went to Sunday school for two months but father took me away because I had such ragged clothes; cannot say my letters. Have heard of hell in the pit where men swear; have never heard of Jesus Christ. Do not know what country I am in; have never been anywhere but here, i’ the pit, and at Rochdale. Have heard of Queen Victoria but dunnot know who he is.’ [Yes, ‘he’]
The youngest children, sometimes no older than 4, worked as Trappers. They would sit in a scooped-out hole in the pit ‘road’ or underground tunnel and open the door for coal trucks to pass through, then close it again to control the flow of air. A 12-hour shift was normal and they were often in total darkness. …
In the factories
Two hundred years ago families began moving from the country to find work in the towns at the new factories. Textile mill owners were glad to employ children; they did not have to pay them as much as adults. In spinning mills in Yorkshire a girl might be employed as a Piecener, joining together broken threads on a constantly moving machine. A boy could be a Doffer, replacing full bobbins with empty ones on a similarly unprotected machine. Before the appointment of inspectors in 1833 there was little regard for safety, and so terrible accidents could happen to exhausted children towards the end of what could be a 20-hour working day.” (p.7 italics in original)