The spread of mechanisation in manufacturing from the late 1700s created unparalleled economic growth in Britain. Textile output for example increased in volume by around fifteen times between 1800 and 1900 and employed thousands of people in highly-mechanized cotton mills.

The success of the ‘factory system’ nevertheless came at a tragic human cost. Children were exploited for their size and nimbleness and were often forced to work twelve hours a day in highly dangerous conditions for little pay. In 1832 novelist Frances Trollope conducted a visit to Manchester to examine the condition of children employed in the textile mills there. During her investigations Trollope consulted with campaigners of factory reform who were able to describe the plight of the young boys and girls involved in the cotton trade.

In 1840 Trollope began to publish her novel Michael Armstrong: Factory Boy in monthly parts, a story of a factory boy who is at first rescued by a wealthy benefactor but who is later returned to the mills. The central aim of Trollope’s work was to both expose the misery of factory life and to suggest how private philanthropy alone was not enough to solve the widespread misery of factory employment. The images shown here are illustrated by French artist Auguste Hervieu who accompanied Trollope on her visits to the northern mill towns.