Child Labor in the Industrial Revolution Sherri Ottis

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Child Labor in the Industrial Revolution
Sherri Ottis

Clinton High School

Clinton, MS
2008 NEH Seminar for School Teachers

Interpretations of the Industrial revolution in Britain

Throughout the world, all nations have had issues in their pasts that appear as blights on their historical memory. In the United States it was slavery, in Australia it was the poor treatment of native Aborigines, and in some nations it was instances of genocide, for example, the Russian Kulaks or the Rwandan Tutsis. Great Britain’s black spot occurred during the Industrial Revolution in the form of child labor.

While child labor was certainly an example of exploitation of the weak, it is very important to examine this aspect of British labor history in its proper context. Commonly accepted beliefs about human nature and the period of childhood during the 17th and 18th centuries led to the widespread use of children in the mines and factories for a variety of reasons. Among these was the idea that humans were naturally evil and must be kept busy to avoid sinfulness. For lower class or poor families, this translated to early employment.

Until the late 18th century when the new theories of childhood set forth by Jean Jacques Rousseau became popular, children were seen as non-productive consumers. They were not members of a unique and special period in life, but simply adults in smaller bodies. People perceived childhood as the period when these small adults must be provided for, while biding time until they could become productive and useful members of society. As the economy changed, the factory system opened up opportunities for these miniature adults that made them become productive sooner. This attitude greatly contributed to the rise of the child labor system. However, there were other issues that supported the system as well, among these were a lack of humanity in dealing with children, the drive for economic gain using laissez faire methods, and a desire by the local parishes to reduce the large numbers of poor people for whom they were responsible for supporting.

Child labor did not begin with the Industrial Revolution. Children had been working alongside their parents on farms and in small businesses for centuries. Daniel Dafoe wrote admirably about the children he saw working at carding, spinning, and weaving in the family cottage from as young as four years of age. The fact that children provided family labor served as an excuse for promoting and expanding child labor on the grounds that work was work whether at home or in the factory. Others disagreed making a distinction between family work carried out by children who assisted their parents who were the chief laborers as opposed to factory labor, which made the children the main breadwinners for the family.

The capitalist economy driven by the theories of laissez faire played a huge role in promoting child labor. Factory managers’ efforts to produce as much as possible at as little cost as possible not only allowed the child labor system to develop, but to expand to such proportions as to become a backbone of mass production. Fathers whose wages had been severely cut were left with no choice except to send their children into the factories or mines to make up what he, himself was no longer bringing home. Employers often took advantage of parents by promising them work only if they could provide children to work with them. For parents whose only other option was starvation, there was little to discuss in making the decision to send their children into the factories or mines.

The lack of regulation of child labor was a direct result of laissez faire economics in that manufacturers were most concerned with increasing production and reducing costs. A manufacturer or coal pit manager who chose not to employ children would soon find himself out of business as his production costs would increase the cost of his goods while other competitors who depended on child labor could keep their costs and prices lower. Lord Belgrave who fought to control child labor with legislative action commented: “Wealth was pursued in this country, [England] with an eagerness to which every other consideration was sacrificed, and with excesses calculated to call down the vengeance of Heaven, if the Legislature did not put a stop to them.” In spite of the efforts of Belgrave and other like-minded reformers, the movement to provide legislative regulation and, later, an end to child labor would be a long and uphill battle.

A second problem that promoted and supported child labor was the effort of local parishes to avoid paying the high costs of supporting poor people. The Poor Laws had made local government responsible for their homeless and unemployed. In an effort to reduce the number of people they had to support, parishes looked for ways to introduce workers to the factories, particularly orphan or pauper children. In many cases, parishes refused to provide relief to adults with children who could be sent into the factories. Parents whose families were hungry lost their ability to protect their children when the only way to keep them alive was to send them to work as indentured servants. Sadly for these children, in some cases they were given the most dangerous and difficult of jobs. Free labor children often had the advantage of a parent’s presence on site and, particularly in the mines, while the apprentice children were sent to do the jobs in which the men did not want to risk their own children.

One measure parishes used to reduce their expenses was to transport orphans and pauper children to factories that were looking for cheap child labor. Children as young as seven years were turned over to factories to serve indentures lasting until they turned twenty-one. The factory owners built apprentice houses to shelter and care for the children, and while a few of the factory owners provided strong supervision and care of the children, most concentrated on getting the most out of the children at the least expense to themselves. As a result, the children were exhausted and the population at the apprentice homes became similar to that of a prison in which “survival of the fittest” was the rule.

The condition of the apprentice workers was brought to the attention of the nation in 1784 when the overcrowded conditions in which they lived and worked resulted in a highly contagious fever that reached epidemic proportions. However, since it would be another eighteen years before any legislation was passed to improve the lives of apprentice children, the question arises as to whether it was concern for the apprentice children that caught the attention of the wider public, or the fear that the fever might move beyond the apprentice children and into the community at large thus presenting a threat to the upper classes.

In terms of the actual work day, the life of an apprentice child was no different than that of a free labor child, a child who lived at home and went to work in the factory each day. The hours were long and the work was often monotonous which led to accidents as children became sleepy, bored, or careless. Many children in the factories lost their lives when they were mangled by machinery and mine explosions or accidents took their toll on child mine workers. In spite of the hazards of using children, employers found them very useful.

It is unfortunate that the children’s usefulness killed what scrap of humanity might have existed among factory and mine owners with regard to taking advantage of the weakest, most helpless members of society in order to better their economic status. Most free labor children began working in the mills around the age of seven. However, even a child as young as three could be useful at picking up waste cotton from beneath the looms, as long as they remembered not to let their heads touch the spinning threads above them. It only took a second for a child’s hair to be wound into the thread and torn from its head.

Employers liked to hire children partly because they could be paid a lower wage, but in addition to that, children could be more easily disciplined and could be quickly trained to work long hours without complaint. Children were also useful for doing simple clean-up jobs so that adults could be saved for more complicated work. In the coalmines, the position of trapper was always held by a young child, many as young as six years old. Trappers sat in the dark from twelve to fourteen hours a day listening for the sound of the horses approaching the door. Their job was to pull a string opening the door so the horses did not have to stop and lose their momentum. Obviously an easy job, pit managers did not want to waste an able-bodied man or teenager on such an unskilled job, so young children were the perfect choice for such a task. Sadly, by the time these children finished their job in the dark and emerged from the pit, the sun had already set. They returned to the pit before sunrise and so lived their lives as creatures of darkness.

The lack of humanity in using children for heavy labor existed not only among employers, but also among the adult co-workers, particularly in the mines. Around the age of ten or eleven, children were viewed as strong enough to move beyond the trapper’s job to that of a hurrier. The hurrier was harnessed to carts called corves filled with coal which they pulled to the surface for unloading. The Children’s Employment Commission Report described the young female hurriers they observed as “chained, belted, harnessed like dogs in a go-cart, black, saturated with sweat, and more than half naked – crawling upon their hands and feet, and dragging their heavy loads behind them – they present an appearance indescribably disgusting and unnatural.”

Despite the “disgusting and unnatural” appearance of the girls, they were still at risk of being used by many adult male miners as tools for sexual gratification. One young girl had been so repeatedly approached by one man that she eventually refused to enter the mine. Others gave birth to children, which resulted from sexual encounters in the mines.

Probably the greatest example of inhumanity with regard to child laborers is that related to the chimney sweeps. These children were used as human soot brushes who cleaned the passageways of chimneys by crawling through them. Because the passages were so narrow, only the smallest boys could be used. Most of the chimney sweeps were paupers provided by the parishes, but in some cases, they were children sold into bondage by their parents. They began their apprenticeships as young as four years of age though the majority of sweeps were around age seven. Like the trappers, chimney sweeps did their work in darkness as they climbed through claustrophobic passageways. Often the flues required not only a tiny child, but also a tiny, naked child since a bunched up shirt could result in the child becoming stuck in the chimney.

It took six or more months for the weepers’ skin and joints to adjust to their work and for several months they suffered great pain from the raw areas on their elbows and knees caused by the tight crawl spaces through which they moved. Many died when they lost their way through the various flues in the chimney systems and suffocated or landed in a lit fireplace. Generally they suffered from stunted growth, infected eyes due to exposure to soot, and many developed chimney sweep’s cancer, which was almost always deadly. Others were severely abused when they were jammed into chimneys they had grown too large to fit.

Ultimately legislation would be passed to regulate and eventually end the heinous use of child labor by manufacturers and mines, but it took a long time and came about piecemeal. While legislation to help apprentice children was first passed in 1802, the situation of free laborer children was not addressed for the first time until 1815. Legislation to end the abuse of chimney sweeps began in 1834 with the first Chimney Sweeps Act, but neither it nor any of the following three acts had any teeth to them to enforce the laws that were put in place. Not until the 1870 Education Act were the child chimney sweeps replaced with machines.

The fact that it took so long to achieve any child labor legislation, and even longer to make it effective, suggests the extent to which the economy controlled society during the Industrial Revolution. Even the parishes, institutions whose job it was to care for the poor and needy had sold out the children in an effort to lower their economic losses. Had the child labor force not provided such a great service to the factories and mines at low cost to the owners, would people’s humanity in dealing with the youngest and neediest members of society have been so easily stifled? It is interesting to note that while the upper classes were embracing Rousseau’s new theories of childhood as a unique time in life requiring special attention to children’s needs, the majority of England’s child population, the offspring of the lower classes, were still laboring under the oppressive thumbs of managers hired by those upper class factory and mine owners who owed their lifestyle to these small, overworked, and abused members of society.


Horn, Pamela, Children’s Work and Welfare, 1780-1890. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Hammond, J.L. and Barbara, The Town Labourer 1760-1832. London, Longmans, Green, and Company 1917.

Devlin, Ray, Children of the Pits.  England: Friends of Whitehaven Museum, 1998.

Benita Cullingford, Chimneys and Chimney Sweeps. Buckinghamshire: Shire Publications, 2003.

Keith Robinson, What Became of Quarry Bank Mill Apprentices, Styal: Quarry Bank Mill, no date.

J. Mitchell, “Report on the Coal and Iron Mines of South Staffordshire and Shropshire and on the Iron Smelting Works of those Districts,” Parliamentary Papers, 1842, Vol. XVI, Report No. 381

Keith Robinson, Esther Price: The Life Story of an Apprentice at Quarry Bank Mill. Styal: Quarry Bank Mill, no date.

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