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Child Labour in the Industrial Revolution | Essay

Info: 2122 words (8 pages) Essay
Published: 17th Aug 2018 in History

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Nardinelli (1980; pp.739-55) argues, contrary to popular opinion, that the employment of children in the early Industrial Revolution was not ceased by the Factory Acts of 1833[1] and 1844[2], but rather that the Factory Acts simply speeded up a process that was already underway, in terms of technological changes and increases in family incomes, which meant that child labour was no longer necessary (Nardinelli, 1980; p.739). Using data from school enrolment rates, Nardinelli (1980; p. 751) shows that, following the introduction of the Factory Acts, no difference between school enrolment rates existed between the textile districts and the rest of the country. Nardinelli (1980; p.755) concludes that the textile industry, which used child labour, was only one of the industries that formed the Industrial Revolution, and, indeed, was almost the only industry to use child labour, and that, as such, the issue of child labour and its role in the success of the Industrial Revolution is diminished.

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Verdon (2002; pp.299-323) also discusses child labour, in rural areas, and its relation to women’s employment, family income and the 1834 Poor Law Report. As Verdon (2002; p.299) argues, it is important to take a regional approach to studies of the Industrial Revolution, and its effect on the lives of children throughout the nineteenth century, as child labour levels, family incomes and social class relations varied widely from region to region during the time of the Industrial Revolution. Verdon (2002, p.322) concludes that region, gender and age were all key determinants of labourers’ experience of work in nineteenth century rural areas, with children contributing a substantial proportion of the household income in 1834, across every region. At this time, therefore, rural child labour was an important source of childhood income. How this was affected by the introduction of Factory Acts (which, of course, would not directly have affected rural employment, outside of urban factories) is not discussed.

Horrell and Humphries (1995; pp. 485-516) look at child labour and the family economy during the Industrial Revolution, using data from household budgets of this period, and found that during the period of early industrialisation, the number of children working and the number of children working in factories increased, and the age at which children started work decreased, due to the fact that older children became economically independent from families at an early age, thus leaving younger siblings to work to increase the household income. Horrell and Humphries (1995; p. 510) conclude that, indeed, during the early Industrial Revolution, little children were exploited, in that there was an “enormous growth in the employment of children in factories” during this period. Horrell and Humphries (1995; p. 511) show, supplementing the work of Verdon (2002), that there was an “intensification of child employment in the factory districts” during the early Industrial Revolution and that this was in stark contrast to the under- and unemployment of children in the rural South East during the later Industrial Revolution. In contrast to Nardinelli (1980), Horrell and Humphries (1995; p. 511) conclude that the Factory Acts did have the effect of reducing children’s employment in factories, but that this doesn’t seem to have had any effect on the numbers of children within families who were expected to work, and that “legislation….may have displaced more girls than boys”, who then, it is hypothesised, moved into domestic service, for example, thus remaining in employment.

Horn (1974; pp.779-796) looks at child workers in the pillow lace and straw plait trades in Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire, stating that the cottage industries in the regions outside of the urban centres of the Industrial Revolution (i.e., the towns across Lancashire) provided employment for many female workers, who, otherwise, would have been employed in domestic service. Thus, again, a regional view of child labour during the Industrial Revolution proves important, as this work of Horn (1974) essentially goes against the conclusions of Horrell and Humphries (1995). Horn (1974; p.795) concludes that cottage industries, such as these two industries, gave much-needed supplement to the household incomes of working-class families in these counties, and that similar cottage industries in other rural areas must have had the same effect too. Horn (1974; p. 795) notes that “the general education of the children (who worked in the cottage industries) was neglected” and the next section will look in further detail at how the education of children changed during the period of the Industrial Revolution.

Johnson (1970; pp.96-119) looks at educational policy and social control in early Victorian England, showing that educating the poor seemed to be one of the strongest of early Victorian obsessions, with concern for education figuring largely, for example, as we have seen, in the Factory Act of 1833, and with private institutions, such as the National Society, launching many educational projects during the period 1838 and 1843 (Johnson; p.97). Johnson (1979; p.119) concludes, essentially, however, that the concern for educating the poor as expressed by early Victorian governments was more about controlling the working class population than it was about providing opportunity for the working classes, although issues surrounding what he terms the ‘educational problem’ of this time were hotly debated[3].

Reay (1991; pp.89-129) looks at the context and meaning of popular literacy in nineteenth century rural England, and shows that functional analyses of literacy tell little about the actual educational state of people living and working during the Industrial Revolution (Reay, 1991; p.128) as recorded declines in illiteracy amongst rural child workers, for example, often reflect the acquisition of a new skill, such as writing, rather than a shift towards full literacy. Analyses of signatures and marks are also not particularly useful, argues Reay (1991; p.129) as these can tell us little about the actual literacy level of the signatory, especially, as he argues, for much of the nineteenth century population, reading equalled literacy, in its correct cultural context, such that “the ability to sign one’s name is, actually, one of the least interesting aspects of literacy” (Reay; 1991; p.129).

Snell (1999; pp.122-168) looks at the role Sunday Schools played in the education of working class child labourers during the Industrial Revolution, and shows that Sunday Schools were widespread around both the urban centres of the Industrial Revolution and across the English regions, and that Sunday Schools, essentially, through a religious educational policy, taught many nineteenth century child labourers the value of education, and also about civic responsibility, although often, as Snell (1999; p. 168) notes, “clerical control was strict and the syllabus narrow”, such that, much as Johnson (1979) argued, at this time, education for working class child labourers was as much about social control as it was about providing opportunity to this section of the population.

Thompson’s (1981) paper looks at the issue of social control in Victorian Britain, arguing that social order in Britain was “subject to strains imposed by the dual processes of urbanisation and industrialisation” (Thompson, 1981; p.189), arguing that social control led to social transformation in Victorian society, throughout the course of the Industrial Revolution, not through legal systems, police forces and the threat of prisons, but through social control (Thompson, 1981; p.207) exercised from within each social class almost as an internal ‘thermostat’ of order, with social organisms such as community being important in defining, adapting and shaping popular culture (Thompson, 1981; p.208). This social control also included controls over relaxation and pleasure, with football, social clubs and music halls arising as a way in which the working classes could find release from their daily grind (Thompson, 1981; p.208).


This paper has looked at the issues of child labour, home life (in terms of household incomes and household demographics), and education in nineteenth century Britain, showing that successive changes in legislature provided better working conditions for child labourers during the nineteenth century, and that these changes in legislature meant that children were, at least to some extent, better educated towards the end of the period of the Industrial Revolution than they had been at the beginning of this period of history. This education, which, although, as we have seen, seemed to have been designed with the explicit purpose of exerting social control, did push forward some changes to child labour, in terms of shifting work from full-time to half-time, and, as we have seen, shifting the demographics of work, with younger children entering work in order to provide supplemental household income, as the older children of the household, during this period, had a tendency to become independent more quickly, leaving the household to enter in to domestic service, for example, which left a hole in the household’s purses, which needed to be filled. Education, during the nineteenth century was formulated through the Education Act of 1870, and was provided both by government institutions, as we have seen, and also private and religious organisations, through the Sunday School network, for example. As suggested, there is, perhaps, no consistent way in which to measure the effect of schooling on the literacy levels at the time, except to say that perhaps more children were able to write. It is clear, from the reviews of the articles presented here, that the working class developed as a clear cultural phenomenon, with social control coming from within this class, as a response to community expectations of behaviour. Thus, in sum, child labour was prevalent throughout the nineteenth century, across Industrial Britain (i.e., both in the urban centres and in rural areas) but this labour was, towards the end of the century, better regulated, in conjunction with increasing educational opportunities and standards, which led to the rise of a clear, self-controlling, working class.


Gordon Baker, ‘The Romantic and Radical Nature of the 1870 Education Act’, History of Education, 30,3 (2001), pp.211-232

Pamela Horn, ‘Child Workers in the pillow lace and straw plait trades of Victorian Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire’, Historical Journal, 17 (1974), pp.779-96

S.Horrell & Jane Humphries, ‘The Exploitation of little children: Child Labour and the family economy in the Industrial Revolution’ Explorations in Economic History, 32 (1995), pp.485-516

Richard Johnson, ‘Education Policy and Social Control in Early Victorian England, ‘Past and Present, 49 (1970), pp.96-119

Clark Nardinelli, ‘Child Labour and the Factory Acts’, Journal of Economic History, 40 (1980), PP.739-55

Barry Reary, ‘The Context and Meaning of popular Literacy: Some Evidence from Nineteenth-Century Rural Ireland’, Past & Present, 131(1991), pp.89-129

K.D.M. Snell, ‘The Sunday-School Movement in England and Wales: Child Labour, Denominational Control and Working-Class Culture, ‘Past & Present, 164 (1999), pp.122-16

F.M.L Thompson, ‘Social Control in Victorian Britain’, Economic History Review, 34,2 (1981) pp.189-208

Nicola Verdon, ‘The rural labour market in the early nineteenth century: women’s and children’s employment,family income, and the 1834 Poor Law Report’, Economic History Review, LV,2 (2002),PP.299-323


[1] which limited the employment of children to children over nine years of age (see Nardinelli, 1980).

[2] which established the half-time system, whereby children worked half-day and went to school half-day (see Nardinelli, 1980)

[3] Baker (2001; pp.211-232), for example, takes Johnson’s (1970) work further, and looks in detail at the 1870 Education Act and the consequences of this Act, in terms of what he terms ‘the distribution of life chances’ (Baker; p.211).


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