The Industrial Revolution that took place in Great Britain radically changed the structure of its society and launched the British Empire into near global hegemony. The well-being of a large percentage of the nation’s children were casualties of this revolution as they increasingly found themselves working in crowded and unhealthy factories, mines, textile mills, farms, and as chimney sweeps and matchmakers. During the time period, there were many that despised the use of child labor. But even reformers, while calling for some regulation, did not advocate for its abolition as they didn’t believe the industry nor the children’s families could survive without it. Child labor had more or less always been present in England as children had worked on family farms throughout history. This new outrage at the use of child labor resulted in part because it was now “more readily observable in the factory than in the obscurity of the cottage” (Hewitt, 406).
Before the Industrial Revolution, children worked hard and long hours, but usually with their family members in domestic industries and agriculture. Some scholars argue that there may not have even been an increase in child employment during the Industrial Revolution. However, for many of the children, their work became “more regular and more intensive” (Cunningham, 117). As the Industrial Revolution progressed, the percentage of a family’s income provided by the father could have been as low as 25%. This follows the steady drop in real wages that took place during the time period. Now, whether this drop in real wages was due to an increase in cheap child labor or child labor came about as a result of the effect a drop in real wages had on the family unit, the two are nevertheless correlated.
Additionally, the Industrial Revolution originally centered around water powered mills from the cotton industry. These were often far from population centers and lacked enough traditional labor sources. Therefore, children were brought on as labors, similar to apprentices, and housed on site.
Written by Taylor Egbert
Cunningham, Hugh. “The employment and unemployment of children in England c. 1680-1851.” Past & Present 126 (1990): 115-150.
Hewitt, Margaret, and Ivy Pinchbeck. “Children in English Society, 2 vols.” (1973): 546-581.
Horrell, Sara, and Jane Humphries. “”The Exploitation of Little Children”: Child Labor and the Family Economy in the Industrial Revolution.” Explorations in Economic History 32.4 (1995): 485-516.
Nardinelli, Clark. “Child labor and the factory acts.” The Journal of Economic History 40.04 (1980): 739-755.