The Changes in Child Labor in the Age of Industrialization

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The Changes in Child Labor in the Age of Industrialization

Diane Ried

Gainesville High School

Gainesville, FL

NEH Seminar 2006
Working children are not anything new as Britain enters the Industrial Revolution, but the nature of that labor does change significantly for most children. In pre-industrial Europe, “jobs were differentiated by age and by sex, as well as by training and skill. But among the popular classes, some kind of work was expected of all able-bodied family members” (Tilly, 21). Children of the countryside and children of the towns were all expected to contribute to the family economy as soon as they were able. What distinguishes child labor in the industrial revolution from that in pre-industrial Europe was the situation of the work. Work in pre-industrial society involved work in family units usually in the home. Work in industrial society took the children out of the homes and into mines, factories, and unfamiliar towns. The hours and conditions were no longer determined by family or friends, but by complete strangers. The impact of these changes effected generations.

Prior to industrialization in Europe (1750-1860) children worked within the family economy. Tilly and Scott in Women, Work, and Family define the family economy as the “interdependence of work and residence: of household labor needs” (Tilly, 12). Whether the family lived in a town or on the land, there were small jobs that were expected of the youngest family members. Parents taught their children how to work within the context of family life. The smallest children helped with winding yarn, carding wool, gleaning, feeding chickens, and other tasks that would be of help to the mothers. If the mother went to sell goods at market or became a petty trader, the small children accompanied her (Tilly, 49). Tilly goes on to explain that children were dependent until age 7 or 8 when they could then be useful to the family or sent off to apprentice with other relatives and friends (Tilly, 58). Sometimes when hard times hit the family, children were expendable. They would be sent temporarily to charitable institutions or even abandoned. The family economy was of the utmost importance to every member of the family.

As stated, life for children even prior to industrialization was not easy. Leisure was rare even in the home setting, but the rhythm of the workday was according to the family needs. Tasks varied from season to season. If a child lived to age 6 or 7, they began to work in the environment of adults and to contribute as adults. Unfortunately many children died before that useful age because of disease and malnutrition. Some were sent to charitable institutions and not reclaimed. Others were abandoned. In any case, the need for the many, outweighed the need for the few, and family life was maintained to the best of their ability.

In the period of industrial development, family life and the family economy changed. Instead of working for and with the family there is a shift to the “family wage economy” and children became only as valuable as the wages they could earn. Tilly and Scott define the family wage economy as consisting of the need for wages/income rather than laborers (Tilly, 15). Everyone’s role in the family was defined by their labor and earning potential. Again, the family budget determined how many children could stay in the family unit. Maxine Berg in The Age of Manufactures mentions a variety of occupations for young children including calico printers’ assistants, weaving assistants, bleaching fields, and child spinners (Berg, 161). If times were rough, children had to be sent away. In this new economy, the children could be sold for their future income value. The Hammonds say that some boys were “sold by inhuman parents for two or three guineas…and the parents would take them round and dispose of them to the highest bidder” (Hammond, 178). Infanticide was not uncommon and charity houses did keep abandoned children. It is difficult to calculate the impact the industrialization of Great Britain had on child labor, because the statistics are not only missing a considerable number of uncounted occupations, but also children were often not independently counted. Children worked with women, sometimes related to them and sometimes strangers, and sometimes in family units. However their work was often for such small wages, it is not all mentioned individually or specifically. The three major areas of documented information about child labor are in mining, factories, and in various town jobs.

Coal mining became one of the most famous signs of the first Industrial Revolution. In the early 18th Century shafts of 200 feet or more were sunk into the earth and many underground galleries and tunnels extended from these shafts enabling the miners to retrieve more of this precious fuel. Children became an important part of mining because of their diminutive size. Ventilation was key for the survival of miners and children often manned the ventilation doors from tiny holes in the shaft walls. These boys and girls were called trappers and often sat for 8-10 hours in the dark opening and closing the traps. The Hammonds in The Town Labourer state that “trapping was done everywhere by children, generally from five to eight years of age” (Hammonds, 173). Ponies were also used to haul loads of coal in some areas with small boys and girls leading the ponies up the tunnels. Some tunnels were too small for ponies and children were attached to the carts, pulling them along on hands and knees through the tunnels. This job for children, often girls, is included in the mining analysis of Tilly and the Hammonds. In other mines, women and children carried loads of coal in baskets on their backs to the surface up narrow ladders. The Hammonds list some noblemen who were in charge of mines as being mute on the point of “slave children in their mines” (Hammonds, 176). Children according to the Hammonds also suffered much abuse in the name of discipline. The authors quote a master who states “that child was one of the slow ones, who would only move when he saw blood, and that by throwing a piece of coal at him for that purpose he had accomplished his object” (Hammond, 175). A guide from the National Coal Mining Museum at Caphouse told of his first day in the mines as frightening. He began work in the mines at age 15. The younger children could have been petrified of the dark, noisy atmosphere.

Some writers mention children in mines and others seem to have missed seeing them. In Barthelemy Faujas de Saint-Fond’s On the Newcastle Coal Mines from 1784, de Saint-Fond does not even seem to have seen any children working. He mentions only men. In fact he uses passive voice to explain some of the events in the mine: “…one of these baskets arrives at the mouth of the pit every four minutes. The coal is then transported by horses and carts to the riverside.” How does Saint-Fond suppose the baskets and then the horses and coal got there? According to The Report of the Commissioners on the Labour of Women and Children in Mines of 1842, more than 1/3 of all workers in the mines of Britain were under age 18. In most mines listed in this report many had 1/3 of the workers under age 13. Because of the difference in dates of these two articles, it is possible that some increase occurred, but not a total influx of children. The first protests mentioned in the literature about children in the mines according to the Hammonds dates to 1825, when Northumberland miners made a point of mentioning the long hours worked by boys in the mines. T. S. Ashton in The Industrial Revolution writes that boys were assisting in the mines as early as the 1730s (Ashton, 28). It is quite likely that children were in the mines seen by de Saint-Fond, but not “worth” mentioning. After 1874, the law restricted women and girls to working on the surface of mining operations. Boys would have to wait for later legislation. (Tilly, 85)

Factory work is another area in which children contributed to the new “family wage economy”. In On the Working Conditions in the New Factories from 1836, Peter Gaskell makes the connection of wages to labour very clear. “…Labour being the poor man’s sole possession, his property, deserves an equal portion of legislative protection with property of any other kind…” Gaskell is clearly arguing for the protection of labour of men. If labour is the poor man’s property, what was it to the children? Usually child labor was seen as an extension of the parent or guardian: the property of the parent. Only children, who were old enough to live independently, could claim the earnings of their labours for themselves. Dickens in Hard Times mentions “Hands” as the label for the working class laborers (Dickens, 84), and this appropriate name is repeated by many other industrial critics and advocates alike. Gaskell states that children start working in the mills as young as 9 years old and become part of the “staple hands”. . Ashton explains how children of even 7 years old work 12 to 15 hours daily for 6 days a week (Ashton, 91). Ashton also discusses the difficulty of hiring enough adults to work in mills in the early industrial period, so many mills hired children (Ashton, p. 90). Other authors argue that it is simply economics that led the factory owners to hire children at cheaper wages than adult males at a premium wage. In any case, as in mining, factories hired large numbers of children. Ashton’s figures show approximately 50% of all mill workers in 1816 were between 10 and 18 years old (Ashton, 93). Clearly, some of the “hands” in industry were those of children

So how did the children get into these jobs, which are overwhelmingly filled with youths? Eric Hobsbawm in Industry and Empire explains the challenge to traditional workers’ independence as part of the issue. “Workers were reluctant to enter (the new factories), because in doing so men lost their birthright, independence” (Hobsbawm, 46). In 1838 only 23% of textile factory laborers were men (Hobsbawm, 46). Hobsbawm continues his argument mentioning that women and children were also cheaper labor. Berg supports that argument saying, “men cost more than half as much again as women to employ” (Berg, 250). Ashton says the “reliance on workers of tender years” (Hobsbawm, 93) was because it was easier to convert younger people into “useful factory hands” (Hobsbawm, 94). That implies that traditional male workers resisted the new methods and the mills had to find “hands” somewhere. In early factory years, sometimes families worked for the factory as a team. Tilly mentions two families who worked in the Greg and Sons mill in the 1830s, where the parents were often “harsh taskmasters” (Tilly, 112-13). The parents would push the children to earn wages and keep working so that the entire family would benefit. Sometimes children earned more than the parents could and were extremely important to the family wage economy. In the film “Credit where credit is due”, James Burke explained how orphans were brought from cities to industrial sites to work in the mills. Tour guides in Southwell’s Workhouse and at Styal Apprentice House support this information in their talks. In the booklet Mill Life at Styal Nixon and Hill write that the mill workers included children from London and Norfolk (Nixon, 6). The Hammonds also say that factories got “children from the workhouses” (Hammonds, 11) and imply that they came from urban areas and parishes. When local labor was not enough, workers were imported and new towns were born. Arkwright’s Cromford was such a town. It started as a small coal-mining village and grew into a mill town.

So how is life different for children in the new wage economy? It is clear that many of them are no longer living at home, but rather are sent from workhouses and orphanages to work in mills taking up residence in Apprentice Houses. Although some factory owners attempted to use a paternalistic approach to recruit young workers to their establishments by providing dormitories and supervision, having strangers as “parents” was often the reason some children chose to run-away from the Apprentice houses to try and reach home and family. Tilly states that some country families were convinced by such advertisements to send their daughters to “protected” jobs out of concern for their safety (Tilly, 109). The hours worked were still brutal compared to the work at a civilized pace that was the custom in the family economy of pre-industrial times. The Apprentice House at Styal housed an average of 85 children, mostly girls (Nixon, 21). The children lived dormitory style and were locked in at night to prevent them from running away. Many of these young workers never saw their parents again. Superintendents of workhouses or apprentice houses are hardly a loving replacement for parents.

Children in some mills were given a rudimentary education to teach them to read and maybe write a little. The schoolroom at Styal Apprentice House seemed to provide a better learning environment than what was observed in the Southwell Workhouse. In workhouses, children were punished for the sin of their parents’ poverty. Many children were crowded into an inadequate space and taught by a teacher who may have had little or no formal education. Schooling was limited because everything was state or parish financed. The teachers were paid poorly and given many hours of responsibility for the children. Poor Laws limited what could be expected at a workhouse. “There have been few more inhuman statutes than the Poor Law Act of 1834…(confining the poor) to the jail-like workhouse, forcibly separating husbands, wives and children in order to punish the poor for their destitution” (Hobsbawm, 67). William Pitt in a statement to parliament proposed “children should be set to work when they were five” (Hammonds, 144). Few in the government supported educating the poor. Even the children should earn their way in society. All the care and education was financed by the Greg and Sons Company in the Styal Apprentice House The Greg family valued education and provided teachers for the children since 1788. It has been stated that life was often better for the children at these formal homes than it would have been with their parents on the streets. Education was not standardized even once laws made it obligatory for children to attend school. Sometimes parents objected to the lost income from children spending time in classrooms.

The children working in their own homes prior to industrialization were at risk of dying from malnutrition and disease. The factories added new medical threats. Nixon and Hill explain some of the risks in Mill Life at Styal. Although children are not specifically mentioned, these illnesses impacted adults in the industry and must have put the children at risk too. In Quarry Bank Mill the following were hazards of working in the mill: Eye inflammation, lung disease, deafness, tuberculosis, mule-spinners’ cancer, and body deformities (Nixon, 37). Just as in the mines, ventilation was a big issue in mills. The guide at Cromford Mill mentioned that children could lose fingers in the machinery. That is certainly a chance at any other mill too. There were few safety devices to prevent injury and tired workers would be more likely to get hurt. It is difficult to picture elementary aged children working 10-15 hours daily in a hot mill and not occasionally getting so tired they slip and injure themselves. Although Greg’s Quarry Bank Mill kept records of treatment of injured children, many mills and mines did not make that information public.

What other occupations were available to children in towns during the industrialization of Britain? Those children who lived in towns sometimes worked with their families, but more often were servants, apprentices, or vagrants. Tilly and Scott define servant as “synonymous with ‘lad’ or ‘maid’—a young, unmarried, and therefore dependent person” (Tilly, 20). Servants were dependent on the household in which they lived contributing whatever labor was required of them. As the middle class expanded in the industrialization, the demand for servants grew. Berg says that by 1851 servants represented 10% of the labor force (Berg, 137). Servants in a household became a symbol for wealth and set the middle class apart from the working class. Many girls moved to towns to become servants, when their labor was no longer useful to the family at home. This move often cut them off from the family circle and made them vulnerable (Tilly, 116). Because service could be terminated at any time and the girl could be left unemployed without a place to live, many girls had to turn to prostitution as a temporary or long-term solution to unemployment (Tilly, 117).

Children in towns could also be apprentices in many different fields. A growing number of children worked for Chimney sweeps. The Hammonds devote half a chapter of the Town Labourer to the occupation of mostly young boys as climbing boys (Hammond, 177). Working in chimneys was a dangerous and unhealthy job for anyone. As a job for very young boys: it was barbaric. Chimney sweeps “needed” very small boys often just able to walk to clean flues that were often only 7 inches square! Sometimes not only a tiny child, but also a naked child was necessary, since the flue was so small the clothing might get caught (Hammond, 183). The risks of the job included cancer, suffocation, being burnt, stunted growth, and deformed joints (Hammond, 180). Sometimes chimney sweeps used their own children, but other times children were bought from destitute parents for two or three guineas or kidnapped (Hammond, 178).

William Blake wrote poems about children chimney sweeps. In “The Chimney Sweep: A Little Black Thing among the Snow” Blake talks of the “notes of woe” as the child advertises in the streets. The child is clothed in “clothes of death” that most certainly were the mark of a child who was not likely to live to adulthood. The sentimental and sad tone continues in Blake’s “Chimney Sweeper: When my Mother died I was very young” from 1789. It is a reflection of the darkness the sweeps lived in, since most cleaning was done at night and the soot made all the chimneys dark as night. “So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep” is a line, which really described the life of some of these very young boys. Blake lived in the time when beautiful chimneys were on all of the homes. His sad reflections must be based on the sweeps he could see at his own home or around the towns. Blake was passionate about social issues and may have hoped to influence the limitations on the work of climbing boys.

The conditions of the chimney sweeps were compounded by fashion. Some of the flues were horizontal to avoid destroying the beauty of a room. Smaller flue pots were decorative and high, showing the wealth of the family. Although machines were developed to replace boys in most dangerous flues, some homeowners refused to have machines clean the flues, because they did not think that new technology did as good a job. The chimney sweeps did not want to use the machines, because they were fearful of losing their profession to anyone who could manipulate the machine! Sadly, the boys suffered.

The first Chimney Sweeping Act was passed in 1788, and banned the hiring of apprentices under the age of 8. It was not enforced (Cullingford, 3). Also, parents who wanted their boys sent to be apprentices, often lied about their ages. The Hammonds say the official age at which children began working was age 6, but documents from church records show the children were really four or five (Hammonds, 157). Cullingford in the Shire publication Chimneys and Chimney Sweeps states, that “small, undernourished children were perfect for sweeping narrow chimney flues” (Cullingford, 17). Children were not always readily available at such a small age. “In one instance (of kidnapping) …the little victim of four was sold by a beggar woman” to a master chimney-sweep (Hammonds, 178). The Hammonds maintain that it was in “big mansions and public offices that the difficult chimneys were found” and that is why many in the House of Lords refused to pass measures protecting the climbing boys (Hammond, 185). The Education Act of 1870 and the fifth Chimney Sweeping Act of 1875 finally ended the work of the climbing boys forcing the use of machines (Cullingford, 28). Many critics of this inhumane practice could not believe it lasted so long in a country so proud of its legal freedoms.

Who were these children? It seems a sad statement that child labor is not a practice of the distant past. There are photographs of children working in mines, working in factories, being servants, and carrying chimney-sweeping equipment. The situation of the mid-18th century into the early 20th century laid the foundations for many families’ attitudes about work and education. Ashton’s statement in his conclusions about working women and children seems insensitive to the trials that both groups went through during the industrial revolution. Ashton states, “ There must be set, also, the reduction of sweating of women and young children, the rise in the family earnings, the greater regularity of pay, and the gain in welfare that came as industrial work was taken out of the home” (Ashton, 128). So it is up to readers of history to decide whether the sweat was worth the growing pains of a more industrialized society. Just as the children’s working situations changed from pre-industrial society into the industrial society of the 19th century, the children now have different expectations of what life and work will be like. Today’s Western standards consider children a gift for the future. Education is valued as a tool to make literate citizens. Readers are appalled at the possibility that a parent might sell a child. And yet, there are still working class people and poor people who cannot afford the luxury of seeing their children enjoy leisure. Their children will work in their youth and adult obligations will come upon them at an early age, but no longer at age 4-6. In “the Speenhamland System of Poor Relief, 1795” the wages of the poor are linked to the price of bread. Perhaps all minimum wages should be so practical. The poor are still trying to make a living. How much harder it must be in modern life for the “hands” to make that living without the glorious factories many industrial revolution authors praise so highly.
Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet. Sheffield: Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust, on the web at

Ashton, T.S., The Industrial Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Berg, Maxine, The Age of Manufactures 1700-1820, Industry, innovation and work in Britain, second edition. London: Routledge, 1994.

Blake, William, “The Chimney Sweeper: A Little Black Thing Among the Snow”, in Songs of Experience (1794), in Gerard Koot, ed., Selected Primary Sources, Interpretations of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, 2006.

Blake, William, “The Chimney Sweeper: When my mother died I was very young”, in Songs of Experience (1794); in Gerard Koot, ed., Selected Primary Sources, Interpretations of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, 2006.

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

Dickens, Charles, Hard Times. New York: Bantam Classic edition, 1981.

Faujas de Saint-Fond, Berthelemy, A Journey through England and Scotland to the Hebrides in 1784, ed. Sir Archibald Geikie (1907), I, in D. B. Horn and Mary Ransome, eds. English Historical Documents, Vol. X, 1714-1783. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Gaskell, Peter, Peter Gaskell on the Working Conditions in the New Factories, 1836. Artisans and Machinery: the Moral and Physical Condition of the Manufacturing Population considered with reference to Mechanical Substitutes for Human Labour, 1836, in J.T.Ward, ed., The Factory System, Vol.II, Birth and Growth. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970.

Hammond, J.L. and B. Hammond, The Town Labourer: 1760-1832, The New Civilization. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1911.

Hobesbawm, Eric, Industry And Empire, the Birth of the Industrial Revolution. New York: The New Press, 1999.

Nixon, Nigel, and Hill, Josselin, Mill Life at Styal. Cheshire: Willow Publishing, 1986.

Report of the Commission on the Labour of Women and Children in Mines, Parliamentary Papers, 1842, XIII; in G.M. Young and W.D. Hancock, eds. English Historical Documents, XII, 1833-1874. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956.
The Speenhamland System of Poor Relief, 1795. The Reading Mercury, May 11, 1795, in J.F.C.Harrison, ed., Society and Politics in England, 1780-1960. New York: Harper and Row, 1965, pp. 43-44.

Tilly, Louise A. and Scott, Joan W., Women, Work and Family. New York: Routledge, 1987.

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