Legislation Regulating Child Labor

Children at a mill (note the child hunched over in the bottom right).  From Wikipedia Commons.

Before the flurry of rules and regulations known as the Factory Acts were passed by the United Kingdom’s Parliament, beginning in 1802 with the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act and leading to the Factories Act of 1961, the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom was cesspool of unchecked and nearly barbaric exploitation of impoverished workers, most notably children.  The first Acts were targeted towards labor in cotton and woolen factories, which were dangerous to work in but extremely profitable (Redgrave 1878).  Later, the term factory was applied to any place in which machinery is moved by the aid of steam, water, or other mechanical power.  Textile factories would often hire children because they were a cheap and accessible part of the labor pool. Children were forced to supplement the income of poor families by going to work at early ages.  At the height of the Industrial Revolution, bureaucrats of the time and historians now, saw a corresponding increase in the exploitation of child labor.

Portrait of Sir Robert Peel. From Wikipedia Commons.

The first of the Factory Acts, the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act 1802, was introduced and passed by Sir Robert Peel.  He sought to address the health and welfare of children specifically employed in cotton mills, who suffered from dangerous working conditions and poor hygiene. He wanted to ensure children employed by these cotton mills would have suitable living and working conditions and would receive an education (Hutchins, 1911). Under the Act, all textile mills and factories employing three or more apprentices or twenty employees (non-indentured children were left unregulated) were required to improve working conditions by adding sufficient ventilation and performing required cleaning twice a year.  In addition, the Act required factory owners to provide two sets of clothing, linen sheets, stockings, hats, and shoes for its employees and established work hours and regulations.  For apprentices, the Act required education in basic reading, writing and arithmetic to be provided each day by the factory itself with Christian religion taught on Sundays (Rickards 1807).   However, the act allowed local magistrates the ability to enforce its regulations and the local magistrates rarely did so.  Despite the non-compulsory nature of the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act 1802, its rules and regulation served as a template for future Factory Acts.

19th century Factory Acts. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Following Acts focused on regulating the age of employed children, reducing the hours in a work day, and increasing the ease with which magistrates could inspect textile mills.  Unfortunately, their success was widely influenced by the political parties and bureaucrats in power.   The Factories Act of 1844, also known as Graham’s Factory Act, attempted to do two things. First, it sought to repeal the factory act of 1833, which largely covered the legality of a ten-hour work day vs a twelve-hour work day. Second, it sought to extend the act from all young persons to women of all ages.   The voting on the Act was across party lines, specifically on the case of ten vs twelve hour workdays (Hutchins 1911).   When the bill was finally passed it provided the following:

  • Children 9-13, age verified by a surgeon, were limited to nine hour work days with a single lunch break
  • Women and children could work no more than twelve hours a day, including one and a half hours for meals, except for Sunday which only allowed nine hours.
  • Machinery, particularly dangerous or expensive, was to be securely fenced off and women and children were not allowed to clean it in operation.
  • Accidental death must be reported and investigated by a factory inspector and surgeon.
  • Factories must be washed with lime every fourteen months.
  • An abstract of the Act must be easily accessible, detailing the times, hour limits, and breaks allowed each day.

In a City of London Medical Officer of Health report 1961, a table detailing the number of factories and what defects they found during inspection and if they were remedied for the year 1938. (MOH 1961, p. 8).


H.M. Inspector of Factories, in accordance with Section 9 of the Factories Act 1937, on the 12th May reported an infringement of Section 7 of that Act in that a sanitary convenience in a clothier’s factory was not provided with an intervening ventilated space as is required by the Sanitary Accommodation Regulations 1938. During the ensuing months the occupier of the factory made frequent promises to do the
necessary work “within a week or so” but none of these promises was implemented.
On the 1st December, the Port and City of London Health Committee authorised the institution of legal proceedings. The occupier of the factory was subsequently prosecuted when the Magistrate imposed a fine of £50 and 5 guineas costs.
This is the first prosecution ever instituted by the City Corporation under the Factories Act 1937, or, indeed, so far as memory and records, some of which were destroyed by enemy action, indicate under any previous Factory Act.
The fact that no prosecution has been previously brought by the City Corporation under the Factories Acts, which have been in operation for well over half a century, reflects great credit on the powers of persuasion of the Medical Officer’s staff, especially in view of the fact that Section 9(3) of the Factories Act 1937 stipulates that “If within one month after notice of an act or default is given by a Factory Inspector under this section to a district council proceedings are not taken for punishing or remedying the act or default, the inspector may take the like proceedings for the punishment or remedying thereof as the district council might have taken, and shall be entitled to recover from the district council summarily as a civil debt all such expenses incurred by him in and about the proceedings as are not recovered from any other person and have not been incurred in or about any unsuccessful legal proceedings. “On no occasion has the Factory Inspector taken action in default of the “district council” in regard to a City factory. Some dozen or more reports on infringements are received annually by the Medical Officer’s Department from H.M. Inspector of Factories.

This signifies the enforcement of the Factory Acts by the Medical Officer of Health organization and the beginning of public awareness for exploitation of the impoverished by factories at the time.   As working conditions improved for the lower class and opportunities to earn a living wage increased as a result of the Industrial Revolution, families became less inclined to send children out to supplement the family’s living expenses (Collier 1965).  Coupled with an increased emphasis on obtaining an education and intense regulation from the Factory Acts, child labor began to decline in the cities it once thrived in.

Written by D Kim


Collier, Frances. The Family Economy of the Working Classes in the Cotton Industry, 1784-1833. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1965. Print.

Hutchins, B. L., and A. Harrison. A History of Factory Legislation. London: P.S. King & Son, 1911.

Redgrave, Alexander. The Factory and Workshop. Act, 1878. with Introduction, Copious Notes, and an Elaborate Index. London: Shaw and Sons, 1878.

Report of the Medical Officer of Health for the City of London, 1961

Rickards, George K. The Statutes of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. London: His Majesty’s Statute and Law Printers, 1807.