Decline of Child Labor


A group of children at Crumpsall Workhouse, Manchester, 1895–97. Photograph donated to library by Perry, Jean, fl 1985, of Crumpsall, Manchester.

By the dawn of the Victorian era, 20 percent of the population was made up of children between 5 and 14 and this corresponded to a rise in the number of children in the workhouses. There were quite a few factors that led to the eventual decline of child labor in the workhouses of Victorian England. One of the common explanations for this decline is the rise of the domestic ideology of the father as the primary breadwinner and the mother as the housewife. This view did not see the children as being responsible to provide for their family, and held that childhood should be free of adult responsiblilities. This ideology began to the spread to the working class during the Industrial Revolution due the rise in the standard of living. Families began having more disposable income and time and some no longer required the extra support from wages from their children. Also, families started to place an increased value and interest in education and began sending their children to school voluntarily. Another potential reason is that the advances in technology and machinery that required stronger adult males to operate.

As early as 1802 and 1819, there were some very ineffective parliamentary acts that were passed to regulate the work of workhouse children in factories and cotton mills to 12 hours per day. In 1831, “Short Time Committees” organized largely by Evangelicals began to demand a ten hour day. The Whig government recommended in 1833 through a royal commission that children aged 11-18 should only work a maximum of twelve hours per day and children 9-11 were only allowed to work 8 hour days. This act only applied to the textile industry and did not apply to the other types of workhouses and industries.

The Factory Act of 1847 prohibited work before the age of 10 and restricted a work day only up to 10 hours for women and children. It was bolstered by the Education Act of 1880, which introduced compulsory schooling up to the age of 10. The Act paved the way for free and compulsory education system. As technology improved and became more advanced, there was a greater need for well educated employees. This led to an increase in schooling, with the eventual introduction of compulsory schooling. Improved technology and automation also made child labor redundant as these basic tasks could now be easily replaced by relatively inexpensive machines. Furthermore, children were no longer tired and stressed from their work life and could instead focus on schoolwork. Steadily, every child in Britain was introduced to some sort of basic schooling.

In 1966, England adopted the UN General Assembly of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This act legally limited the minimum age for when children could start work to the age of 14.

Written by Surag Umakumaran


Tuttle, Carolyn. Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution. EH.Net Encyclopedia, 2001.

Reed, L. W. Child Labor and the British Industrial Revolution.  Mackinac Center for Public Policy, 2001.