Child Labor in the 19th Century

2720 words (11 pages) Essay in History

01/06/17 History Reference this

Disclaimer: This work has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work produced by our Essay Writing Service. You can view samples of our professional work here.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UK Essays.

The Industrial Revolution, one of the mainly crucial periods of change in Great Britain, occurred because of the stable political, social, and economic, stance of the country, as well as brought lasting effects in Britain in each of these areas. With its rapid growing monopoly on ocean trade, its renewed interest in scientific invention, and its system of national banks holding tight to its financial security, Britain was, at the time of the Industrial Revolution, ready for change. It was the great historical era we call the Industrial Revolution which would forever revolutionize city life, social class structure, the power of the British nation amongst others of the world, the fabrication of machinery, and the power of the economy of Britain. Because of the Industrial Revolution, never again would the British have to suffer the results of no changes concerning the inequalities of the working world, nor doubt the power of their country, yet come to view the word “technology” in a completely new way.

Get Help With Your Essay

If you need assistance with writing your essay, our professional essay writing service is here to help!

Find out more

Throughout the early 19th century, the Industrial Revolution extend hugely all over Britain. The use of new Technology such as steam-powered machines, led to an massive raise in the number of factories particularly in textile factories or what is called mills. Samuel Greg who owned the large Quarry Bank Mill was one of the first factory owner to use the new technology .

With the increase of those factories, families began to move from the countryside into towns searching for better life and better paid work. The incomes that a farm worker was getting ,were very low, were not enough to feed his family and there were less jobs working on farms because of the of new machines such as threshers and other inventions. Also thousands of new workers were needed to work machines in mills and the factory owners built houses for them. Cities packed to overflowing and Manchester was mainly bad. To conquer this labour shortage factory owners had to find other ways of obtaining workers. One key to the problem was to get children from orphanages and workhouses. These children became known as pauper apprentices. This involved them signing contracts that nearly made them the property of the factory owner. even Many families were unwilling to let their children to work in these new textile factories.

Children of poor and working-class families had worked for centuries before industrialization – assisting around the house or helping in the family’s enterprise when they were capable.

The practice of placing children to work was first documented in the Medieval period when fathers had their children roll thread for them to weave on the loom. Children did a range of tasks that were auxiliary to their parents but critical to the family economy. The family’s household needs determined the family’s supply of labor and “the interdependence of work and residence, of subsidence requirements, family relationships constituted the ‘family economy'”, and household labor needs.


Britain became the first country to industrialize. And for that reason, it was also the first country where children’s nature in work changed so radically at a point child labor was seen as a leading political issue and a social problem.

One of those first factory owners that used the system (pauper apprentices) was Samuel Greg who had the huge Quarry Bank Mill . Greg had complexity finding sufficient people to work for him. Manchester was a bit far, by eleven miles away and local villages were extremely small. The workers that have been imported needed cottages, and these cost about £100 each.

By 1810 Greg became certain that the best solution to the labour problem was to build an Apprentice House near the Quarry Bank mill and to obtain children from workhouses. The building for the apprentices cost £200 and provided living accommodation for over 90 children.

The first children to be brought to the Apprentice house came from local parishes like Macclesfield and Wilmslow, however, later he went as far as London and Liverpool to look for these young workers. To give confidence to the factory owners to take workhouse children, people like Greg were rewarded between £2 and £4 for each child they employed. Greg also demanded that the children were sent to him with “two shifts, two pairs of stockings and two aprons.

The 90 children (30 boys and 60 girls) made up 50% of the total labor force. The children received their lodging and board, and two pence every week. The younger children worked as scavengers and piecers, but after a two years, they were permitted to become involved in spinning and carding. Some of the more older boys became skilled mechanics.

John Kay published “The Moral and Physical Conditions of the working Classes” in 1832, Engels wrote his well-known “The Condition of the Working Class in England” in 1844 based on the plight of the Manchester underclass, and in 1842 Edwin Chadwick published his “Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population”. ‘Official’ paupership figures for the “Township of Manchester” were the highest in Britain – higher even than in London’s east end.

Children faced a huge change as they observed working in textile mill was completely different from working at home. In the textile mill, Children worked from Monday to Saturday, beginning work from six in the morning and finishing at seven in the evening, with only one hour break for lunch between twelve and one. If children were late because of the work they were fined. If children fell asleep or made just a mistake on the job they were beaten. Children’s income were very low, sometimes just a few pence for working sixty hours in a week, there were rules and regulations. Children workers must arrive at the mill by certain time. Lateness was punishable with a fine. Everybody worked a number of hours and no-one was allowed to leave before a certain time. All this was a new experience for children, even where they lived.

The circumstances they used to live in were awful, the apprentice House “jerry” built, without control or regulation of any kind…there was even less water and services, and no effort to give privacy of any kind. Children worked in shifts and shared beds. Nine or ten children were sharing one bedroom, and al thosel ninety children shared the three toilets. It was moist – there were no double brick walls, and no damp-proof courses. Rain leeched between the walls, and even in summers, damp rose up the walls. The only break from damp was the building of cellars to contain it. However, these cellars unavoidably became dwellings for subtenants.

Even the conditions at the Mill working environment were horrible; it was built on a massive open plan scale so that the foremen could see every single child worker. If they thought that workers weren’t working hard enough or absent they were punished. The rules for working in the mill were posted on walls but that was not enough as most of the children workers were not educated and could not read them. Child workers had no rights and sometimes missed their dinner breaks because the foreman ordered them to keep on working. Children who worked long hours became very exhausted and found it hard to maintain the rapidity required by the superiors. Children were usually beat with a strap to make them work quicker. Some were dipped head first into the water reservoir if they became sleepy. Children were also punished for arriving late for work and for chatting to the other children. Parish apprentices who ran away from the factory were in danger of being sent to jail. Children who were considered potential runaways were located in irons.

One of the main complaints made by factory reformers concerned the state of the building that they children were forced to work in. A statement published in July 1833 confirmed that Quarry Bank Mill was ” ill-drained, no conveniences, low-roofed, dirty;; ill-ventilated;; for dressing or washing; no contrivance for carrying off dust and additional effluvia”.

Robert Southey (1774-1843), the poet and historian, arrived in Manchester in 1808, pretending to be a Spanish traveller. He was given a guided tour at Quarry Bank mill and saw sights ‘which makes me thank God I am not an Englishman’. While his guide was praising the principles of child labour, Southey was looking at ‘the unnatural dexterity with which the fingers of these little creatures were playing in the machinery’, and when his guide told him that the mill worked twenty four hours a day, Southey concluded that ‘if Dante had inhabited one of his hells with children, here was a scene worthy to have supplied him with new images of torment.’

Until the Factory Act of 1833, the factories were free to decide on the working hours. The laborers usually worked for more than twelve hours without breaks. Consequently, child laborers suffered lack of sleep and were more vulnerable to mistakes and injuries.

Find out how can help you!

Our academic experts are ready and waiting to assist with any writing project you may have. From simple essay plans, through to full dissertations, you can guarantee we have a service perfectly matched to your needs.

View our services

Matthew Crabtree was one of the forty-eight people whom the Sadler Committee interviewed in the year of 1832. According to the Sadler Report that catalyzed the Factory Act of 1833, Crabtree had worked in a factory from the age of eight. He had worked sixteen hours a day, from five a.m. to nine p.m. He usually went to sleep immediately after supper, and was woken up by his parents every morning. According to Crabtree, he was ”very severely” and ”most commonly” beaten whenever he was late to work. The fear of being beaten, said Crabtree, was ”sufficient impulse” to keep up with his work despite his drowsiness.

a few child laborers were from deprived working families who could not afford to feed themselves without the children contributing financially. Even with the children’s income, the majority of families were hardly capable to sustain themselves. in addition, the child laborers regularly complained about the quality of food given in the place of work. Some testified before the Parliament that they could not eat the meager meal they were given because of exhaustion and pollution. The photographs of childhood workers testify malnutrition and abuse. Child laborers have smaller build than their wealthier peers, yet the wrinkled faces covered with soot block the viewer from accurately concluding the children’s age. The child workers were under the supervision of strangers — factory managers who were employed by the factory owners. Also, the work did not require much finesse, and there were many unemployed children willing to substitute the worker’s place. Consequently, the factory managers did not carry the responsibility of the welfare of the workers; they were simply paid to ensure that the factory is operated smoothly.

As we can convey from the above text the treatment of children in the factories’ was often cruel and extreme. The children’s safety was generally neglected and it did prove fatal on numerous occasions. The youngest children, around the age of eight, were not old enough to activate the machines and were commonly sent to be assistants to adult main workers. The people in charge of the factory’s whereabouts would beat and verbally abuse the children, and take little consideration for the worker’s safety. Girls could not be the exception to beatings and other harsh forms of pain infliction; children were dipped head first into the water cistern if they became drowsy. The girls were also vulnerable to sexual harassment.

Trivial mistakes due to lack of sleep resulted in serious injuries or mutilation. The Sadler Report commissioned by the House of Commons in 1832 said that: ”there are factories, no means few in number, nor confined to the smaller mills, in which serious accidents are continually occurring, and in which, notwithstanding, dangerous parts of the machinery are allowed to remain unfenced.” The workers were in most cases abandoned from the moment of the accident with no wages, no medical attendance, and no monetary compensation. The regulation was harsh and the punishment inhumane and sporadic.

Such punishment for being late or not working up to the work assigned would be to be ”weighted.” An overseer would tie a heavy weight to worker’s neck, and have him walk up and down the factory aisles so the other children could see him. This punishment could last up to an hour. Weighting led to serious injuries in the back and the neck.

In addition to the above the violators sometimes had to pay the consequence monetarily! Elizabeth Bentley, before the Sadler Committee in 1832, mentioned that she was usually quartered; ”If we were a quarter of an hour too late, they would take off half an hour; we only got a penny an hour, and they would take a halfpenny more.” Some witnesses compared themselves as slaves, and the overseer as slave drivers.

One could argue that lack of schooling had forced the children to factories, and mandatory schooling was the key to eradicating industrial child labor. It is true that illiteracy blocked the children from elevating the social and economic hierarchy. However, the Education Act of 1870 contained provisions to allow school boards to compel attendance but necessary by-laws were not enforcement to implement these provisions. In short, the mandatory schoolings in Britain were introduced too late to critically contribute to the reform.

Also, one could argue that mandatory schooling would only wear off children who are already exhausted from long hours of tiring labor. Schooling did little good to children who were physically deprived. Lack of sleep will most likely risk dangers of lethargy and expose the children to more accidents.

Child workers generally labored to assist the task of the adult workers; the two labor populations did not directly compete with each other. Therefore, one could argue that the child workers considerably contributed to the impoverished family income. As the children were regarded source of labor for long, some did not object to sending their children to factories. Even if others did not approve of the treatment in workplaces, they had no valid and legal means to protest.

Most statistics that are available could not be completely trusted. One especially was careful not to depend entirely on skewed numbers or individual case studies. Also, throughout history, many scholars and ideologists have distorted the facts to prove their assertions.

Until the child labor issue became a state issue, most of the investigators touched only the surface of the problem. The factory overseers could easily usher the investigators away from the truth. Also, the survey has not been conducted systematically as to portray an accurate sketch of the labor picture. On the other hand, some reports have been accused of exaggerating the current situation to bring the child labor issue to a state concern. Major government reports on child labor were uneven in the coverage, focusing predominantly upon children in industrial occupations.

In addition, some ”determined” historians have maneuvered the statistics to exaggerate child labor as an example of corruption and depravity when child labor helped improve the family’s financial status.


Industrial child labor has occupied only a small portion of the child labor population. Also, it had lasted for a fleeting moment in British history. However, child workers in industrial workplaces need to be highlighted as history in which children were placed under the custody of a stranger in a confined, unwholesome space; the children were exposed to a higher possibility of abuse and mistreatment.

Although child labor in Britain shared similar characteristics with other industrialized countries of a later period of time, the British government relatively peacefully restricted the employment of children. The publicity of the special commission reports and the attention of the public had contributed greatly.

Child labor, as much as it is criticized for its faults, should be analyzed, considering every possible factor. It is true that the child laborers have suffered from exploitation and unintended neglect, yet the family would’ve starved if not for the contribution of the children. History should not be hastily judged, but observed objectively for future’s sake.

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.

Related Services

View all

DMCA / Removal Request

If you are the original writer of this essay and no longer wish to have the essay published on the UK Essays website then please:

Related Lectures

Study for free with our range of university lectures!