The result of a three-year investigation into working conditions in mines and factories in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the Report of the Children’s Employment Commission is one of the most important documents in British industrial history. Comprising thousands of pages of oral testimony (sometimes from children as young as five), the report’s findings shocked society and swiftly led to legislation to secure minimum safety standards in mines and factories, as well as general controls on the employment of children.
Britain had a long tradition of agricultural child labour, in which children were most often employed to scare crows or lead animals to pasture. With the rise of industrialisation, and particularly the development of coalmining, more children began entering the workforce at an earlier age. Children were on average five times cheaper to employ than adults, and were expected to work the same hours – which, in mining communities, could mean a 14-hour day. The Commission also uncovered many cases in which children had been used to climb into the workings of industrial machinery to clear a jam, sometimes with fatal consequences.
The Commission was established Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, with the report compiled by Richard Henry Horne, a friend of Charles Dickens and sometime contributor to Dickens’s Daily News. The report inspired protest literature from the likes of Benjamin Disraeli, Elizabeth Gaskell, Elizabeth Barrett Browning ('The Cry of the Children') and Dickens himself – most notably in A Christmas Carol.