In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Children in the Industrial Revolution

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Childhood Studies Children in the Industrial Revolution
Carolyn Tuttle
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0197


Children aged six to sixteen who had worked on farms, in their homes, or in domestic workshops began to work away from home in textile mills and mines in the late 18th century. The novelty was not that they worked but whether the nature of their work changed and why it became a social problem. There is very little consensus among contemporaries and historians regarding the impact of industrialization on the lives of the working children. Did they benefit or were they harmed? The obvious place to begin is where the first “Industrial Revolution” occurred, Great Britain. Although it wasn’t entirely “industrial” in nature and certainly didn’t occur quickly, scholars concede that it was a time of dramatic change to industry and the economy. Contemporaries and historians disagree, however, on what role children played. Some claim that children constituted a large percentage of the workforce, their tasks were essential to the production process, they were independent wage earners, and their contribution to the family was significant. Other argue that idleness and unemployment was more the problem and that children had been contributing to the family income for decades. The most contentious debate revolves around whether or not children were exploited in the new industries. A few contemporaries were thrilled to see children hard at work while others were horrified and felt it had become a social problem. A group of concerned parliamentarians ordered reports on the conditions in the textile factories and mines, hoping to settle the debate. Factory and mining commissioners surveyed hundreds of working children, parents, and overseers to document the effects of employment on children. The evidence from these reports was used to develop labor legislation that would regulate child labor but not eliminate it. Pessimists used this evidence as well as personal observations to argue that children were exploited and must be protected. Optimists argued the evidence was biased and that factory children suffered no worse than those in domestic industry. As a consequence of the Factory Movement, legislation was passed but its effectiveness is disputable because enforcement proved difficult. Using data from other Parliamentary Papers historians have furthered the debate over children’s welfare by comparing health records of children in industry to others, with conflicting conclusions. There is consensus, however, that a formal education was logistically impossible and not particularly relevant for working-class children. Child labor persisted as other European and North American countries industrialized. History is repeating itself, as research by ethnographers, economists, and historians has documented substantial child labor in developing countries today.

General Overview

There is considerable debate as to the novelty of child labor during the Industrial Revolution and whether it was dramatically different in the factories and mines than it had been on farms and in homes. Berg 1986, Pinchbeck 1930, and Wallace 2010 claim that the nature of child labor did not change by demonstrating that children had been working hard for centuries in the informal economy. Historically, child labor referred to any work children did, whether or not they were paid. This includes a diverse set of activities ranging from running errands to straw plaiting. Other scholars argue industrialization changed the nature of child labor by removing them from their home and parental supervision into factories and mines where they worked long hours in unhealthy conditions and were mistreated. There are a number of scholars who concentrate on child labor in the formal economy in the textile industry. Tuttle 1999 and Pollard 1965 conclude children’s work in textile factories was noticeably worse than in the cottage industry due to the new industrial regime. The textile industry became Britain’s leading industry as the extraordinary demands of the industrialists and their automated machinery placed new burdens on children. The arduous tasks children performed on the new spinning machines are meticulously described by Bolin-Hort 1989 and Chapman 1967. There are other scholars who focus on children working in the formal economy in the coal and metallurgy mines. In the literature on children working in the mines there is a consensus that this work was dramatically different from work in the cottage industry and that children suffered. Leifchild 1853 and Leifchild 1857 provide extensive details (ages, numbers of children, working conditions) on children working underground in coal mines and above ground in metallurgy mines. Tuttle 1999 augments Leifchild’s data with information from the 1842 Report of the Mines to develop a comprehensive picture of the importance of child labor in coal and metallurgy mines.

  • Berg, Maxine. The Age of Manufactures: Industry, Innovation and Work in Britain, 1700–1820. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

    An in-depth examination of “the other Industrial Revolution” is developed by analyzing the life of artisans, their tools, and their skills to shed light on the variety of production types that co-existed during the Industrial Revolution. The extent and broad coverage of children in various cottage industries (metal, leather, silk, paper, and printing) with accompanying illustrations of the techniques they used fills a void in the literature.

  • Bolin-Hort, Per. Work, Family and the State: Child Labor and the Organization of Production in the British Cotton Industry. Lund, Sweden: Lund University Press, 1989.

    This book offers a different perspective on the reason numerous children were employed in the textile mills. A comparative analysis of the new spinning machinery adopted in British, Scottish, and American textile factories casts doubt on a primarily technology-driven argument. Instead, the use of child labor was also driven by labor relations (subcontracting between the spinner and piecer) and union goals to limit the supply of spinners.

  • Chapman, Stanley D. Early Factory Masters: The Transition to the Factory System in the Midlands Textile Industry. Devon, UK: Newton Abbot, 1967.

    The major problem facing industrialists was the recruitment and retention of a productive labor force for the textile mills. The organization of production under one roof and the adoption of machines that required unskilled labor increased the demand for women and children. A thorough examination of the labor requirements of each innovation beginning with the Spinning Jenny provides an explanation for the increased demand for children in the textile industry.

  • Leifchild, J. R. Our Coal and Our Coal-Pit: The People in Them and the Scenes around Them. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1853.

    An extremely detailed description from a contemporary of the workings of a coal mine and the various tasks performed. Sketches of coal seams, methods of excavation, and personal observations below and above ground reveal the unhealthy and dangerous working conditions of trappers and putters. It also includes some statistics on the number of children employed and their wages.

  • Leifchild, J. R. Cornwall: Its Mines and Miners. London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans and Roberts, 1857.

    A contemporary’s detailed description of the workings of tin and copper mines in Cornwall. In contrast to coal mines, children usually worked with their father and did not work underground. The largest number of children, mostly girls, worked as “bal-maidens” dressing the ores. Along with an analysis of the 1842 Report on the Mines, statistics on the number of children and the output of various mines are presented.

  • Pinchbeck, Ivy. Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750–1800. London: George Routledge, 1930.

    Pinchbeck offers a broad examination of the role of women and children in the family economy beginning in agricultural gangs, moving to cottage industries (lace makers, straw plaiting, glove making, and button making) and ending in textile factories and mines. She argues that the working conditions and exploitation of children in the cottage industry were far worse than they were in the factories and coal mines.

  • Pollard, Sidney. The Genesis of Modern Management. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.

    This book describes how the labor requirements for factory work were dramatically different from those in the cottage industries. It argues that industrialists hired children because they found it difficult to recruit adult workers to enter the factory system with its rules and discipline. The children because of their obedient nature made especially productive workers in this new industrial regime.

  • Tuttle, Carolyn. Hard at Work in Factories and Mines: The Economics of Child Labor during the Industrial Revolution. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.

    A detailed economic analysis of child labor in the textile and mining industry. It makes the argument that child labor was driven by the demand for labor due to biased technological change. Considerable empirical data from the British Parliamentary Papers and qualitative data on the new automated machinery and underground tunnels offer support that children were preferred because of their physical, emotional, and psychological characteristics.

  • Wallace, Eileen. Children of the Labouring Poor: The Working Lives of Children in Nineteenth-Century Hertfordshire. Hatfield, UK: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2010.

    Using testimony of children from factory inspectors, school log books, and newspaper accounts of living conditions, this book provides a thorough examination of the lives of working children during 19th-century Hertfordshire. It describes, and often illustrates, children working in agriculture, straw plaiting, brickfields, silk, papermaking, domestic service, textile mills, and chimneys. Wallace concludes that children in brickfields and chimneys suffered the most (not the factory children).

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