Industrialisation led to a dramatic increase in child labour. Professor Emma Griffin explores the dangerous, exhausting work undertaken by children in factories and mines, and the literary responses of writers including Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Child labour was not an invention of the Industrial Revolution. Poor children have always started work as soon as their parents could find employment for them. But in much of pre-industrial Britain, there simply was not very much work available for children. This changed with industrialisation. The new factories and mines were hungry for workers and required the execution of simple tasks that could easily be performed by children. The result was a surge in child labour – presenting a new kind of problem that Victorian society had to tackle.
Geological map of England, showing coal-mining districts
Map revealing vast expanses of coal mining and industrial districts in early 19th century Britain, particularly in the north, 1820.
Research has shown that the average age at which children started work in early 19th-century Britain was 10 years old, but that this varied widely between regions. In industrial areas, children started work on average at eight and a half years old. Most of these young workers entered the factories as piecers, standing at the spinning machines repairing breaks in the thread. A few started as scavengers, crawling beneath the machinery to clear it of dirt, dust or anything else that might disturb the mechanism. In the mines, children usually started by minding the trap doors, picking out coals at the pit mouth, or by carrying picks for the miners. As work was often scarce in the country, rural children tended to start work later – typically at 10 and a half years old. Their work consisted of bird-scaring, sowing crops and driving horses. In towns, most boys were employed as errand boys or chimney sweeps, though once again finding employers who wanted to hire a child could be a difficult task. The average age for starting work was 11 and a half years old. There was, therefore, considerable variety in the age at which children started work, with those in the industrial districts typically starting work the youngest. All children laboured under the same disadvantages, though, working for very low pay, performing work that was dirty and dangerous, and usually working long hours as well.
The life and adventures of Michael Armstrong, the factory boy
Published in 1840, Michael Armstrong, the factory boy depicted life for children in a Manchester factory as horrific and unnatural.
The widespread employment of very young children in factories and mines marked a break with traditional practice, and was something that some contemporaries found distasteful. It triggered a series of Parliamentary enquiries into the working conditions of children in mines and factories. Their reports famously shocked Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Charles Dickens – inspiring ‘The Cry of the Children’ and A Christmas Carol. Child workers appeared in several other Dickens novels, most memorably in the form of Oliver Twist, with his narrow escape as the apprentice of Mr Gamfield the chimney-sweep, and in David Copperfield. David Copperfield was based loosely on Dickens’s own experiences of starting work at Warren’s Blacking factory at the age of 12 following his father’s imprisonment for debt. Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies took up the plight of the nation’s chimney sweeps and a host more ephemeral novels, such as Frances Trollope's The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy and Charlotte Elizabeth’s, Helen Fleetwood also exposed the suffering of child workers to the middle-class reader. In addition, many of the period’s most vocal and prolific commentators turned their attention to child workers. And of course, the situation of child workers entered the political heart of the nation when reformers such as John Fielden and Lord Ashley, the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, took up their cause in Parliament.
Report on child labour, 1842
Distressing illustrations of children’s working conditions from a revised edition of the Report of the Royal Commission on the Employment of Children and Very Young People in Mines and Factories, 1842.
The campaign against child labour culminated in two important pieces of legislation – the Factory Act (1833) and the Mines Act (1842). The Factory Act prohibited the employment of children younger than nine years of age and limited the hours that children between nine and 13 could work. The Mines Act raised the starting age of colliery workers to 10 years. In effect, these two Acts brought the industrial districts into line with the rest of the country and brought an end to the systematic employment of young children.
Information concerning the state of children employed in cotton factories
Published in Manchester, Nathan Gould’s Information concerning the state of children employed in cotton factories (1818) provided statistical and documented information on the employment of children in cotton mills.
Raising the age at which children started work was an important step forward for child welfare, but it did little to improve the working conditions of the many children that remained at work. Children in the workplace still remained largely unprotected from the mistreatment at the hands of employers and co-workers. In the 1850s the future liberal MP, George Edwards, worked as a farmboy under a man who ‘never missed an opportunity to thrash me’. This, he concluded though, was ‘no exception to the rule, all poor boys in those days were badly treated.’ Even when parents were aware of their children’s abuse, poverty often meant they were unable to take any effective action. Roger Langdon, for example, described how he was nearly killed by the drunken ploughman under whom he worked. He informed his parents, but as ‘every other place in the parish was filled and my parents could not afford to keep me in idleness’ he carried on working for the man. Tackling the systematic abuse of young and vulnerable workers proved a more difficult problem than removing small children from the factories.
Further progress was made towards the end of Victoria's reign. The Factory Act of 1878 prohibited work before the age of 10 and applied to all trades. It was bolstered by the Education Act of 1880, which introduced compulsory schooling up to the age of 10. Subsequent amendments raised the school-leaving age to 12, with dispensations to leave before this age if pupils reached the required standards in reading, writing and arithmetic. By the end of Victoria's reign, almost all children were in school up to the age of 12. This helped to ensure that a marked improvement in child welfare occurred between the beginning and end of Victoria's reign.
 George Edwards, From Crow-Scaring to Westminster: an Autobiography with a foreword by the Rt. Hon. Lord Ailwyn of Honingham, introduction by W R Smith (London: Labour Publishing, 1922), pp.18-19.
 Roger Langdon, The Life of Roger Langdon, Told by Himself (London: Elliot Stock, 1909), pp.31-3.
Emma Griffin is a Professor of History at UEA, where she specialises in the social and cultural history of Victorian Britain. She has published on the history of popular recreation, hunting, and the industrial revolution. Her most recent book, Liberty’s Dawn (Yale University Press) considers the impact of the industrial revolution on the ordinary men, women and children who did the most to make it happen. She is currently working on a history of everyday life in Victorian Britain.