Factory Workers

M0010961 Interior of cotton factory showing use of child labour
Interior of cotton factory showing use of child labor, 1931. Credit: Wellcome Library.

In the late 1700s, Great Britain began to experience one of the biggest transformations in business, manufacturing and labor that had ever been seen before. This period would later be called the Industrial Revolution, and has been identified as a time in which labor was at an all time high in factories, mining, agriculture, and many other fields. However, with all the new opportunities and all of the new jobs, there was also a very high demand for workers, and this led to the extensive use of child labor.

Now, while many look back on this time and criticize the people for allowing children to work at such a young age and in such harsh factory conditions, it is not realized that this was not the beginning. Before industrialization, and before factories, children were employed, but merely in their own homes and family farms. Once the factories began to multiply, however, child labor was thrown into the public eye, and society was forced to see the issue in a whole new light. Child labor was stressful, and unkind to the little ones it affected, and, especially in factories, the pay off was not that great.

To begin with, sanitary conditions within factories were mediocre at best. Many of the new factories had previously been simple workshops that were upgraded to factories by the addition of a few electrical gadgets. Health inspections were not required initially, and basic sanitation was all that was really required. The main focus was that there was no obvious issue with the facility that would cause major problems, but beyond that making sure the work space was spotless and entirely safe to be in was not of major concern. This situation really widened the opportunity for disease. The children working in these environments were already at higher risk due to their less developed immune systems, and constant exposure to even moderate health hazards took a toll on their bodies. Many children in this time period faced immense sickness of all varieties and the main reason was lack of care in an environment that was constantly bustling with the mechanics of new technology.

M0013538EA Child apprentices in textile factory.
Child apprentices in textile factory. Apprentice greeting former friend, the workers in rags. Life and adventures of Michael Armstrong, the factory boy Frances Trollope Published: 1876. Credit: Wellcome Library.

Conditions for the workers were bad at best. Even after a law reducing the amount of time people were allowed to work, children under the age of thirteen were still in the factory forty-eight hours a week. Access to machinery was not limited, so accidents would often occur when children crawled into the machinery. In addition to poor wages, children were also subjected to harsh punishment while working. Some of these included hanging weights around a child’s neck, nailing ears to the table, hanging from the roof in baskets, and dousing them in water. Ventilation in the factories was often poor, and numerous health reports suggested an increase in the factories’ ventilation quality. Overcrowding and long hours coupled with poor air quality gave rise to a disease physicians referred to as “fever” and “typhus.” Those afflicted experienced confusion, headache, flushed cheeks, dull and muddy eyes, and a dry hard tongue. If the disease were fatal, the patient would often have intermittent pulsing, “deafness, and an inability to articulate.” (Paterson 1995). Per the Battersea 1928 Medical Officer report, another disease associated with factory employment was silicosis due to the inhalation of dust containing silica. This occurred during the making of metal, boot, and furniture polish. A cone shaped apparatus designed to prevent the escape of dust was put into place in these factories. However, leaks would often occur, especially in windy weather.

With the majority of working children being a part of the factory workforce, change was demanded for better, safer, and simply more considerate action within the job. Later into the 1800s and early 1900s, these changes began to be seen with the creation of the Factory Acts. These acts were considered, for the most part, the turning point of child labor, at least in the realm of factory jobs, and brought about many rules that had the interests of young children in mind. For example, children under the age of 11 were not allowed to be employed within the factory setting. Children that did work and were attending school full time were only scheduled for a certain number of hours per week that was not to be exceeded. The tasks of children within the factory became more limited and the more dangerous responsibilities were left to adults. Many employers were also required to have a certificate of fitness for the children they were employing in order to guarantee that they were in fact fit to do the job they were being paid for. Some factories were even completely forbidden to hire children workers due to their dangerous requirements and responsibilities.

On top of that, child labor did not make as much of an impact as it was expected to. One of the main reasons for its implementation was to raise household income for families so that they were able to sustain themselves more heartily. But research shows that children working within factories were not making much of a major contribution to their families’ income. Children in other fields such as agriculture were, but factory children made little change in their families’ economic status. Later on in the mid- 1800s men, especially in the families of factory workers, began to make even more money, making their contribution more substantial, and those of their children extremely minimized and hardly worth the negative aspects involved.

Overall, the introduction of the Industrial Revolution along with factory child labor within Great Britain brought about one of the most infamous issues of the time. Society was appalled at the terrible circumstances children were being put through, yet major movements to do away with these circumstances were not prioritized. Instead, small changes were implemented in order to temporarily satisfy the cries of the outraged without really focusing on finding solutions to the very prevalent problems.

Written by Andra Sucilea with contributions by Denise Webb


Great Britain.  The Factory and Truck Acts. 11th ed. / by Charles F. Lloyd ; Statutory Orders, Regulations, Special Rules and Forms revised by W. Peacock. London, 1909. 533pp. British Law: Labor Law.

Harrell, Sara and Humphries, Jane. 1995. ‘“The Exploitation of Little Children”: Child Labor and the Family Economy in the Industrial Revolution’, Explorations in Economic History, xxxii (1995), 486.

Nardinelli, Clark. 1980. “Child Labor and the Factory Acts.” The Journal of Economic History 40 (4). Cambridge University Press: 739–55.

Paterson, Carla Susan. 1995. “From Fever to Digestive Disease : Approaches to the Problem of Factory Ill-Health in Britain, 1784-1833.” Retrospective Theses and Dissertations, 1919-2007. T.

John Fielden, M.P., The Curse of the Factory System. London, 1836, pp. 34-35.

Living and Working Conditions

Report of the Medical Officer of Health for the City of London, 1963

Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Fulham Borough, 1953

Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Battersea, 1928