25.6.4: Child Labor
Although child labor was widespread prior to industrialization, the exploitation of child workforce intensified during the Industrial Revolution.
Indicate the circumstances leading to the use of industrial child labor
- With the onset of the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the late 18th century, there was a rapid increase in the industrial exploitation of labor, including child labor. Child labor became the labor of choice for manufacturing in the early phases of the Industrial Revolution because children were paid much less while being as productive as adults and were more vulnerable. Their smaller size was also perceived as an advantage.
- Children as young as four were employed in production factories and mines working long hours in dangerous, often fatal conditions. In coal mines, children would crawl through tunnels too narrow and low for adults. They also worked as errand boys, crossing sweepers, shoe blacks, or selling matches, flowers, and other cheap goods.
- Many children were forced to work in very poor conditions for much lower pay than their elders, usually 10–20% of an adult male’s wage. Beatings and long hours were common, with some child coal miners and hurriers working from 4 a.m. until 5 p.m. Many children developed lung cancer and other diseases. Death before age 25 was common for child workers.
- Workhouses would sell orphans and abandoned children as “pauper apprentices,” working without wages for board and lodging. In 1800, there were 20,000 apprentices working in cotton mills. The apprentices were particularly vulnerable to maltreatment, industrial accidents, and ill health from overwork, and contagious diseases such as smallpox, typhoid, and typhus.
- The first legislation in response to the abuses experienced by child laborers did not even attempt to ban child labor, but merely improve working conditions for some child workers. The Health and Morals of Apprentices Act 1802 was designed to improve conditions for apprentices working in cotton mills. It was not until 1819 that an Act to limit the hours of work and set a minimum age for free children working in cotton mills was piloted through Parliament.
- A series of acts limiting provisions under which children could be employed followed the two largely ineffective Acts of 1802 and 1819, including the Mines and Collieries Act 1842, the Factories Act 1844, and the Factories Act 1847. The last two major factory acts of the Industrial Revolution were introduced in 1850 and 1856. Factories could no longer dictate work hours for women and children.
- Cotton Mills and Factories Act of 1819
- An 1819 Act of Parliament in the United Kingdom that stated that no children under 9 were to be employed and that children aged 9–16 years were limited to 12 hours’ work per day. It applied to the cotton industry only, but covered all children, whether apprentices or not. It was seen through Parliament by Sir Robert Peel but had its origins in a draft prepared by Robert Owen in 1815. The Act that emerged in 1819 was watered down from Owen’s draft.
- Mines and Collieries Act 1842
- An 1842 act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that prohibited banned) all girls and boys younger than age 10 from working underground in coal mines. It was a response to the working conditions of children revealed in the Children’s Employment Commission (Mines) 1842 report.
- Second Industrial Revolution
- A phase of rapid industrialization in the final third of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Although a number of its characteristic events can be traced to earlier innovations in manufacturing, such as the establishment of a machine tool industry, the development of methods for manufacturing interchangeable parts, and the invention of the Bessemer Process, it is generally dated between 1870 and 1914.
- A child or woman employed by a collier to transport the coal that they had mined. Women would normally get the children to help them because of the difficulty of carrying the coal. Common particularly in the early 19th century, they pulled a corf (basket or small wagon) full of coal along roadways as small as 16 inches in height. They would often work 12-hour shifts, making several runs down to the coal face and back to the surface again.
- Health and Morals of Apprentices Act 1802
- An 1802 Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, sometimes known as the Factory Act 1802, was designed to improve conditions for apprentices working in cotton mills. The Act was introduced by Sir Robert Peel, who became concerned with the issue after an 1784 outbreak of a “malignant fever” at one of his cotton mills, which he later blamed on “gross mismanagement” by his subordinates.
The Industrial Child Workforce
With the onset of the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the late 18th century, there was a rapid increase in the industrial exploitation of labor, including child labor. The population grew and although chances of surviving childhood did not improve, infant mortality rates decreased markedly. Education opportunities for working-class families were limited and children were expected to contribute to family budgets just like adult family members. Child labor became the labor of choice for manufacturing in the early phases of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. In England and Scotland in 1788, two-thirds of the workers in 143 water-powered cotton mills were described as children. Employers paid a child less than an adult even though their productivity was comparable. There was no need for strength to operate an industrial machine and since the industrial system was completely new, there were no experienced adult laborers. Factory and mine owners preferred child labor also because they perceived the child workers’ smaller size as an advantage. In textile factories, children were desired because of their supposed “nimble fingers,” while low and narrow mine galleries made children particularly effective mine workers.
The Victorian era (overlapping with approximately the last decade of the Industrial Revolution and largely with what is known as the Second Industrial Revolution) in particular became notorious for the conditions, under which children were employed. Children as young as four worked long hours in production factories and mines in dangerous, often fatal conditions. In coal mines, children would crawl through tunnels too narrow and low for adults. They also worked as errand boys, crossing sweepers, shoe blacks, or selling matches, flowers, and other cheap goods. Some children undertook work as apprentices to trades considered respectable, such as building or as domestic servants (there were over 120,000 domestic servants in London in the mid-18th century). Working hours were long: builders worked 64 hours a week in summer and 52 in winter, while domestic servants worked 80-hour weeks.
Agile boys were employed by the chimney sweeps. Small children were employed to scramble under machinery to retrieve cotton bobbins and in coal mines, crawling through tunnels too narrow and low for adults. Many young people worked as prostitutes (the majority of prostitutes in London were between 15 and 22 years of age).
Child labor existed long before the Industrial Revolution, but with the increase in population and education, it became more visible. Furthermore, unlike in agriculture and cottage industries where children often contributed to the family operation, children in the industrial employment were independent workers with no protective mechanisms in place. Many children were forced to work in very poor conditions for much lower pay than their elders, usually 10–20% of an adult male’s wage. Children as young as four were employed. Beatings and long hours were common, with some child coal miners and hurriers working from 4 a.m. until 5 p.m. Conditions were dangerous, with some children killed when they dozed off and fell into the path of the carts, while others died from gas explosions. Many children developed lung cancer and other diseases. Death before the age of 25 was common for child workers.
Those child laborers who ran away would be whipped and returned to their masters, with some masters shackling them to prevent escape. Children employed as mule scavengers by cotton mills would crawl under machinery to pick up cotton, working 14 hours a day, six days a week. Some lost hands or limbs, others were crushed under the machines, and some were decapitated. Young girls worked at match factories, where phosphorus fumes would cause many to develop phossy jaw, an extremely painful condition that disfigured the patient and eventually caused brain damage, with dying bone tissue accompanied by a foul-smelling discharge. Children employed at glassworks were regularly burned and blinded, and those working at potteries were vulnerable to poisonous clay dust.
Workhouses would sell orphans and abandoned children as “pauper apprentices,” working without wages for board and lodging. In 1800, there were 20,000 apprentices working in cotton mills. The apprentices were particularly vulnerable to maltreatment, industrial accidents, and ill health from overwork and contagious diseases such as smallpox, typhoid, and typhus. The enclosed conditions (to reduce the frequency of thread breakage, cotton mills were usually very warm and as draft-free as possible) and close contact within mills and factories allowed contagious diseases such as typhus and smallpox to spread rapidly, especially because sanitation in mills and the settlements around them was often poor. Around 1780, a water-powered cotton mill was built for Robert Peel on the River Irwell near Radcliffe. The mill employed children bought from workhouses in Birmingham and London. They were unpaid and bound apprentices until they were 21, which in practice made them enslaved labor. They boarded on an upper floor of the building and were locked inside. Shifts were typically 10–10.5 hours in length (i.e. 12 hours after allowing for meal breaks) and the apprentices “hot bunked,” meaning a child who had just finished his shift would sleep in a bed just vacated by a child now starting his shift.
Children as young as 4 were put to work. In coal mines, children began work at the age of 5 and generally died before the age of 25. Many children (and adults) worked 16-hour days.
Early Attempts to Ban Child Labor
The first legislation in response to the abuses experienced by child laborers did not even attempt to ban child labor but merely to improve working conditions for some child workers. The Health and Morals of Apprentices Act 1802, sometimes known as the Factory Act 1802, was designed to improve conditions for apprentices working in cotton mills. The Act was introduced by Sir Robert Peel, who became concerned after a 1784 outbreak of a “malignant fever” at one of his cotton mills, which he later blamed on “gross mismanagement” by his subordinates. The Act required that cotton mills and factories be properly ventilated and basic requirements on cleanliness be met. Apprentices in these premises were to be given a basic education and attend a religious service at least once a month. They were to be provided with clothing and their working hours were limited to no more than twelve hours a day (excluding meal breaks). They were not to work at night.
Despite its modest provisions, the 1802 Act was not effectively enforced and did not address the working conditions of free children, who were not apprentices and who rapidly came to heavily outnumber the apprentices in mills. Regulating the way masters treated their apprentices was a recognized responsibility of Parliament and hence the Act itself was non-contentious, but coming between employer and employee to specify on what terms a person might sell their labor (or that of their children) was highly contentious. Hence it was not until 1819 that an Act to limit the hours of work (and set a minimum age) for free children working in cotton mills was piloted through Parliament by Peel and his son Robert (the future Prime Minister). Strictly speaking, Peel’s Cotton Mills and Factories Act of 1819 paved the way for subsequent Factory Acts and set up effective means of industry regulation.
These 1802 and 1819 Acts were largely ineffective and after radical agitation by child labor opponents, a Royal Commission recommended in 1833 that children aged 11–18 should work a maximum of 12 hours per day, children aged 9–11 a maximum of eight hours, and children under the age of nine were no longer permitted to work. This act, however, only applied to the textile industry, and further agitation led to another act in 1847 limiting both adults and children to 10-hour working days.
In 1841, about 216,000 people were employed in the mines. Women and children worked underground for 11 or 12 hours a day for smaller wages than men. The public became aware of conditions in the country’s collieries in 1838 after an accident at Huskar Colliery in Silkstone, near Barnsley. A stream overflowed into the ventilation drift after violent thunderstorms causing the death of 26 children, 11 girls ages 8 to 16 and 15 boys between 9 and 12 years of age. The disaster came to the attention of Queen Victoria, who ordered an inquiry. Lord Ashley headed the royal commission of inquiry that investigated the conditions of workers, especially children, in the coal mines in 1840. Commissioners visited collieries and mining communities gathering information, sometimes against the mine owners’ wishes. The report, illustrated by engraved illustrations and the personal accounts of mine workers, was published in 1842. Victorian society was shocked to discover that children as young as five or six worked as trappers, opening and shutting ventilation doors down the mine before becoming hurriers, pushing and pulling coal tubs and corfs. As a result, the Mines and Collieries Act 1842, commonly known as the Mines Act of 1842, was passed. It prohibited all girls and boys under ten years old from working underground in coal mines.
The Factories Act 1844 banned women and young adults from working more than 12-hour days and children from the ages 9 to 13 from working 9-hour days. The Factories Act 1847, also known as the Ten Hours Act, made it illegal for women and young people (13-18) to work more than 10 hours and maximum 63 hours a week in textile mills. The last two major factory acts of the Industrial Revolution were introduced in 1850 and 1856. Factories could no longer dictate work hours for women and children, who were to work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the summer and 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the winter. These acts deprived the manufacturers of a significant amount of power and authority.
- Child Labor
“Mines and Collieries Act 1842.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mines_and_Collieries_Act_1842. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
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“Health and Morals of Apprentices Act 1802.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Health_and_Morals_of_Apprentices_Act_1802. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
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“Industrial Revolution.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_Revolution. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Second Industrial Revolution.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Industrial_Revolution. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Baines_1835-Mule_spinning.png.” https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Baines_1835-Mule_spinning.png. Wikimedia Commons Public domain.
“Coaltub.png.” https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Coaltub.png. Wikimedia Commons Public domain.