Teeth enjoyed a rare prominence in the news towards the end of last year. 'As old as my tongue and a little older than my teeth', the answer to a riddle learnt from my grandmother, hints at the reason; teeth are widely regarded as a good means of judging a child’s age.

This common understanding apparently reached David Davies MP, Tory MP for Monmouth, who called for medical inspection of child immigrants admitted from the Calais camp to ascertain that they were in fact children. In doing so, he inadvertently demonstrated an inability to think things through and lack of relevant background knowledge, for which he suffered in subsequent media interviews. There is a history behind this tooth story, taking us back to the 18th century.

Many of the Brexiteers, of which group Mr Davies is an enthusiastic member, look back with some nostalgia to an age when Britain was great, ruled its empire and the waves, and was in the forefront of intellectual and entrepreneurial activity. They may sometimes forget the darker side, the involvement in slavery, the subjugation of conquered people, exploitation of the poor and of children, the harshness of the law.

The Industrial Revolution, triggered by the ideas of Adam Smith and powered by Arkwright’s machines and James Watt’s steam engine, took weavers from their cottages and moved factories from riversides into the great cities of Glasgow, Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester. Child apprentices were employed in their thousands and later unpaid orphans and the indigent were drafted in from poorhouses. It was an era when childhood was deemed in law to end at age seven; indeed after that age children could be and sometimes were executed for serious crimes involving theft or violence.

The need for the law to judge whether a child was of sufficient age to be punished caused some discussion in parliament in an era when birth certification among the poor was sporadic at best, and the law stated that in cases of doubt the child should be taken to court and evidence of age sought; this implied a medical opinion, and teaching of medical students by the early 19th century was that such opinions should be accompanied by a statement of their foundation. It is interesting that the requirement for medical evidence to be supported by reference to scientific evidence dates back to this time, in view of the fact that in English law it was widely ignored in favour of ex-cathedra opinions and required re-emphasising by Lord Woolf as recently as 1999 in his rules for civil procedure.

In the early 18th century the problem of determining age was disputed, depending on the opinion of a medical practitioner; height and signs of puberty were both considered but showed a lot of variability. Employers were looking for cheap labour and manual dexterity for which children were ideal. Competition in what was Britain’s main industry was fierce and long hours and weeks were the norm. Owners of mills delegated responsibility to master spinners and weavers who were paid by output, piecework, and forced their charges into intolerable situations.

However, reformers both legal and medical commented on the risks of mortality, disease and injury among these poor children. The first attempt at regulation was the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act of 1805, introduced by Sir Robert Peel (father of the prime minister of that name), after he discovered the conditions of children working in his own factories in Lancashire. Peel’s act was urged on by Dr Thomas Percival and the newly formed Manchester Board of Health, and much influenced by the views of Robert Owen and his factory at New Lanark where he was shortly to introduce an eight-hour day. The act obliged employers to introduce some reading and arithmetic lessons, instruction on Christianity, and also restricted hours of work to 12 per day. However, it introduced no enforcement and only applied to those children taken on as apprentices, ignoring those who were effectively enslaved; it was thus a dead letter.

The condition of the children, malnourished and decimated by disease including deformities caused by rickets, continued to cause scandal, especially after public opinion passed from contemplating the horrors of the French Revolution and were drawn to issues closer to home. Peel managed to introduce a Cotton Mills Act in 1819 which for the first time set a lower age limit of nine and restricted children in these mills to no more than 15 hours daily. Peel’s initial efforts were taken up by Lord Astley (later the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury) in parliament and in 1833 a more inclusive act was introduced, one that is regarded as the first Factories Act, leading ultimately to our current health and safety at work acts.

The evidence of reformers, including David Dale and Robert Owen of New Lanark and the physicians of the day, is recorded in 'Evils of the Factory System' by Charles Wing, surgeon to the Bluecoat School, published in 1837. It gives harrowing eyewitness accounts of the conditions of these children as well as recording in the parliamentary debates the nature of the opposition to reform, arguments that remain familiar to this day when some employers plea for freedom to exploit in the name of their shareholders and workers plea for their human rights.

Behind all this argument about the desirability and economic costs of humane reforms lay the question of how best to determine the age of children, and by the 1830s it was apparent that dentition was being considered. In 1837 Edwin Saunders published 'Teeth a test of age, considered with reference to the factory children', a book written to inform parliament and containing the results of his studies of hundreds of children. This demonstrated the unreliability of height or other physical measures for assessing age in children and made the case for careful examination of the teeth.

As every parent now knows, the first milk teeth usually appear within the first year, all are present by the end of the third year and have fallen out by the age of 13. The permanent teeth start to appear at age six and all save the third molars are present by age 13. The third molars are unreliable – indeed one of mine still lurks hidden at age 78. So dentition would have been a good guide to a child’s age for doctors deciding whether they met the limits for employment in the 18th century.

Setting aside all moral arguments about the rights and wrongs of discriminating between children and young adults who have endured the trials of leaving their homeland in search of a safer or better life, it is apparent that examination of teeth can only identify children under the age of 13, who would be pretty obviously children anyway. To call for such examinations shows an attitude towards migrants similar to that of the legislators in the late 18th and early 19th century who opposed the reforms on child labour in factories and mines. So much for our enlightened age.

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