Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution (2023)

Children were widely used as labour in factories, mines, and agriculture during the British Industrial Revolution (1760-1840). Very often working the same 12-hour shifts that adults did, children as young as five years old were paid a pittance to climb under dangerous weaving machines, move coal through narrow mine shafts, and work in agricultural gangs.

It was very often the case that children's jobs were well-defined and specific to them, in other words, child labour was not merely an extra help for the adult workforce. The education of many children was replaced by a working day, a choice often made by parents to supplement a meagre family income. It was not until the 1820s that governments began to pass laws that restricted working hours and business owners were compelled to provide safer working conditions for everyone, men, women, and children. Even then a lack of inspectors meant many abuses still went on, a situation noted and publicised by charities, philanthropists, and authors with a social conscience like Charles Dickens (1812-1870).

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Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution (1)

A Lack of Education

As sending a child to school involved paying a fee – even the cheapest asked for a penny a day – most parents did not bother. Villages often had a small school, where each pupil's parents paid the teacher, but attendance was sometimes erratic and more often than not the education rudimentary in hopelessly overcrowded classes. There were some free schools run by charities, and churches often offered Sunday school. Not until 1844 were there more free schools available, such as the Ragged schools established by Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury (1801-1885). These schools concentrated on the basics, what became known as the 3 Rs of Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. Compulsory education for 5 to 12-year-olds, and the institutions necessary to provide it, would not come along until the 1870s. Consequently, "at least half of nominally school-age children worked full-time during the industrial revolution" (Horn, 57).

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Some factory owners were more generous than others to the children in their employ. An example is the Quarry Bank Mill in Styal in the county of Cheshire. Here the owner provided schooling after the long working day was over for 100 of its child workers in a dedicated building, the Apprentice House.

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(Video) Child Labor in the Industrial Revolution - Video Infographic


For the vast majority of children, working life started early & involved at best tedium & at worst an endless round of threats.

An indicator of better education, despite all the difficulties, is literacy rates, rather imperfectly measured by historians by recording the ability of a person to sign one's name on official documents such as marriage certificates. There was a great improvement in literacy, but by 1800, still only half of the adult population could sign their name to such documents.

For those children who could find work in the Industrial Revolution, and there were employers queueing up to offer it, there were no trade unions to protect them. For the vast majority of children, working life started at an early age – on average at 8 years old – but as nobody really cared about age, this could vary wildly. Working involved at best tedium and at worst an endless round of threats, fines, corporal punishment, and instant dismissal at any protest to such treatment. In one survey taken in 1833, it was found that the tactics used with child labourers were 95% negative. Instant dismissal accounted for 58%. In only 4% of cases was a reward given for good work, and a mere 1% of the strategies used involved a promotion or pay rise.

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Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution (2)

Traditional Child Work

In the traditional cottage industry of handweaving, children had always washed and carded raw wool so that their mother could spin it on a spinning wheel, which then was woven into fabric by the father using a handloom. Craftworkers often took on an apprentice or two. Apprentices were given their board and lodgings and taught a particular trade by their master. In return, the child not only worked for free but was expected to pay a large fee upfront before starting a contract that could last a year or several years or even up to seven years, depending on the trade. Then there were children who worked in their parents' or relations' small businesses, such as small-scale manufacturers like basket-weavers, blacksmiths, and potters.

Children worked in agriculture, still a significant area during the Industrial Revolution and one which involved 35% of Britain's total workforce in 1800. Children, as they always had done, continued to tend herds of animals and flocks of fowl, and they essentially performed any task required that they were physically capable of. Many children joined agricultural gangs which moved around to where there was temporary or seasonal employment.

(Video) Documentary - The children who built Victorian Britain

Children in Mines

Men, women, and children worked in Britain's mines, particularly in the coal mines, which boomed as they produced the fuel to feed the steam engines of the Industrial Revolution. All three groups had been involved in mining before the arrival of machines, but the industry's expansion meant that many more were now involved than previously. Children as young as five years old were found useful by mine owners since they were small enough to climb into narrow ventilation shafts where they could ensure that trapdoors were regularly opened and shut. Testimony like James Pearce's in 1842 was common:

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I am 12 years of age. I went down to the pits about 7 years and a half to open doors. I had a candle and a fire beside me to show me light…I was 12 hours a-day, and got 6d a day. I attended and got the money. When I was paid I took it home to my mother. I was a year and a half at this work. I once fell asleep and was well threshed by a driver.

(Shelley, 42)

Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution (3)

Most children, as they got older, were then employed to either shift the coal from the working level to the surface or to sort it out from other debris before it was shipped away. Those who pulled the coal in carts using a harness were known as 'hurriers', and those who pushed were 'thrusters'. This was back-breaking work detrimental to the child's physical development. Many parents were not opposed to their children working, despite the health hazards, since they brought in much-needed earnings for the family. In addition, over half of the children working in mines kept their employment when they reached adulthood, so it was a good route to secure a job for life. From 1800 to 1850, children composed between 20-50% of the mining workforce.

A child worker was about 80% cheaper than a man & 50% cheaper than a woman.

The consequence of working at such an early age was that most children employed in mines never had more than three years of schooling. Children very often suffered health problems from the physical hard work and long, 12-hour shifts. Breathing in coal dust year after year caused many to develop lung diseases later in life. As the historian S. Yorke emphatically notes, "The coal mining industry must represent one of the worst exploitations of men, women and children ever to have taken place in Britain" (98).

(Video) Victorian child labour: all work and no play

Children in Factories

Factories with new steam-powered machines like power looms were the great development of the Industrial Revolution, but they came at a cost. These places, especially the textile mills, were dark and noisy, and they were deliberately kept damp so that the cotton threads were more supple and less likely to break. The new mechanization of manufacturing meant that few skills were needed anymore for the basic workforce. Children were required to go under the machines to clear up cotton waste for reuse or to repair broken threads or remove blockages from the machinery. This was often dangerous work as the machines could be unpredictable. A massive weaving machine might come to a crashing halt with heavy parts falling down and movable pieces like spindles flying around like bullets.

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In the factories, children worked, just like the adults around them, long 12-hour shifts six days a week. 12 hours nicely split the day in two for employers. As the machines were operated 24 hours a day, one child would return to a warm bed after work as the occupant rolled out to start their own shift, a practice known as 'hot bedding'. Children were the cheapest labour to be found, and employers were not slow to use them. A child worker was about 80% cheaper than a man and 50% cheaper than a woman. Children had the advantage of having nimble fingers and smaller bodies that could get into places and under machinery that adults could not. They could also be bullied and threatened by supervisors much more easily than an adult, and they could not fight back.

Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution (4)

Children were also apprenticed to factory owners in a system similar to indenture. Parents were given money by their parish to allow their children to work in factories. The practice was common, and it was not until 1816 that a limit was put on how far away the children were required to work – 64 km (40 mi).

Children made up around one-third of the workforce in Britain's factories. In 1832, as the Industrial Revolution reached its final decade, these children were still subject to appalling working conditions in factories, as here described by the MP Michael Sadler, who pressed for reform:

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(Video) Child Labor during The British Industrial Revolution


Even, at this moment, while I am thus speaking on behalf of these oppressed children, what numbers of them are still at their toil, confined to heated rooms, bathed in perspiration, stunned with the roar of revolving wheels, poisoned with the noxious effluvia of grease and gas, til at last, weary and exhausted, they turn out almost naked, plunge into the inclement air, and creep shivering to beds from which a relay of their young work-fellows have just risen; and such is the fate of many of them at the best while in numbers of instances, they are diseased, stunted, crippled, depraved, destroyed.

(Shelley, 18)

The Poor & Orphans

Children without homes and a paid position elsewhere were, if boys, often trained to become a Shoe Black, that is someone who shined shoes in the street. These paupers were given this opportunity by charitable organisations so that they would not have to go to the infamous workhouse. The workhouse was brought into existence in 1834 and was deliberately intended to be such an awful place that it did little more than keep its inhabitants alive in the belief that any more charity than that would simply encourage the poor not to bother looking for paid work. The workhouse involved what its name suggests – work, but it was tedious work indeed, typically unpleasant and repetitive tasks like crushing bones to make glue or cleaning the workhouse itself. No wonder, then, given the squalid life in the workhouse, that many children worked in factories and mines.

Government Labour Reforms

Eventually, governments did what the fledgling trade unions had struggled to achieve, and from the 1830s, the situation for workers in factories and mines, including for children, began to slowly improve. Previously, governments had always been reluctant to restrict trade in principle, preferring a laissez-faire approach to economics. It did not help that many members of Parliament were themselves large-scale employers. Nevertheless, several acts of Parliament were passed to try, although not always successfully, to limit employers' exploitation of their workforce and lay down minimum standards.

Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution (5)

The first industry to receive restrictions on worker exploitation was the cotton industry, but soon the new laws applied to workers of any kind. The 1802 Health and Morals of Apprentices Act stipulated that child apprentices should not work more than 12 hours a day, they must be given a basic education, and they must attend church services no fewer than two times each month. More acts followed, and this time they applied to all working children. The 1819 Cotton Mills and Factories Act limited work to children 9 years or over, and they could not work for more than 12 hours per day if under 16 years of age. Possible working hours for children were established as between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. The 1833 Factory Act stipulated that children in any industry could not be legally employed under 9 years of age and could not be asked to work for more than 8 hours each day if aged 9 to 13, or no more than 12 hours each day if aged between 14 and 18. The same act prohibited all children from working at night and made it obligatory for children to attend a minimum of two hours of education each day.

Although there were many abuses of the new regulations, there were government inspectors tasked with ensuring they were followed. These officials could demand, for example, age certificates for any child employee or a certificate from a schoolmaster that the required number of hours of education had been given to a specific child.

Progressive changes followed the earlier acts. The 1842 Mines Act stipulated that no child under 10 years of age could be employed in underground work. The 1844 Factory Act limited anyone's working day to 12 hours, dangerous machines had to be placed in a separate workspace, and sanitary regulations were imposed on employers. The 1847 Factory Act further limited the working day to a maximum of 10 hours, a reduction that campaigners had long been lobbying the government to make. There were still many abusers of the new laws, and many parents still desperately needed the extra income their working children brought, but attitudes were finally changing in wider society in regard to using children for labour.

Authors like Charles Dickens wrote such damning works as Oliver Twist (1837) that pointed out the plight of poorer children. In the moralism of the Victorian period, many people now wanted children to preserve their innocence longer and not be so early exposed to the temptations and moral pitfalls of adult life. The idea that childhood was worth keeping but could be lost if not protected saw the foundation of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1889. The arts continued to prick people's consciences. J. M. Barries' character of Peter Pan, which first appeared in 1901, confirmed this shifting of attitudes and the realisation and recognition that childhood was a thing of value in and of itself, a precious thing that should not be obliterated in the daily grind of mines and factories.

(Video) The Industrial Revolution: A Boon to Industry, A Bane to Childhood

Editorial ReviewThis article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication.


Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution? ›

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.

What did the Industrial Revolution do to child labor? ›

Working children were often hurt due to industrial accidents on unsafe machinery, uneducated since there was no time for school after working over 12 hours a day, and were infected with illness and disease due to the unsafe working conditions in which they were exposed.

How did child labor start in Britain? ›

Child labour first started to occur in England when household businesses were turned into local labour markets that mass-produced the once homemade goods. Because children often helped produce the goods out of their homes, working in a factory to make those same goods was a simple change for many of these youths.

Was child labor legal in the Industrial Revolution? ›

The Fair Labor Standards Act banned children under 18 from working dangerous jobs and children under 16 were forbidden from work in manufacturing or mining or during school hours.

How many child laborers died during the Industrial Revolution? ›

An average of 112 dead and 6,389 injured. This was the daily toll of the deaths and injuries of children during the Industrial Revolution.

What problems were caused by children working? ›

Child labour can result in extreme bodily and mental harm, and even death. It can lead to slavery and sexual or economic exploitation. And in nearly every case, it cuts children off from schooling and health care, restricting their fundamental rights.

What were the effects of the Industrial Revolution in Britain? ›

The Industrial Revolution brought about sweeping changes in economic and social organization. These changes included a wider distribution of wealth and increased international trade. Managerial hierarchies also developed to oversee the division of labor.

Who ended child labour in Britain? ›

In 1833 the Government passed a Factory Act to improve conditions for children working in factories. Young children were working very long hours in workplaces where conditions were often terrible. The basic act was as follows: no child workers under nine years of age.

Why was child labor important in England? ›

The small fingers and hands of the children were ideal for unclogging these machines, which made children important in the production process. Therefore, factory owners employed children because it helped in the production of goods.

How much did a child get paid in the Industrial Revolution? ›

Children were paid less than 10 cents an hour for fourteen hour days of work. They were used for simpler, unskilled jobs. Many children had physical deformities because of the lack of exercise and sunlight. The use of children as labor for such long hours with little pay led to the formation of labor unions.

What were some negative effects of child labor on the children? ›

Victims of child labor usually suffer from depression and anxiety, pushing them to destructive habits like smoking, alcoholism, or drug abuse. Abusive abuse environments also trigger a lifetime of low self-esteem, depression, and relationship difficulties.

What country was child labor during the Industrial Revolution? ›

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Great Britain became the first country to industrialize. Because of this, it was also the first country where the nature of children's work changed so dramatically that child labor became seen as a social problem and a political issue.

Where is child labor most common? ›

Sub-Saharan Africa has 86.6 million child laborers, more than anywhere else. Family poverty and ill-equipped schools are two major reasons children in low-income countries are in the labor force.

What were the horrors of child labor Industrial Revolution? ›

Children in textile factories were frequently scalped, maimed, crushed and killed. The burgeoning industrialization of Great Britain required a large and cheap workforce. Lenient labor laws made children a prime source of workers, and by 1830, children made up 50% of the workforce.

When did child labor start in Britain? ›

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.

How long did a child work during the Industrial Revolution? ›

Children as young as four worked long hours in production factories and mines in dangerous, often fatal conditions. In coal mines, children would crawl through tunnels too narrow and low for adults. They also worked as errand boys, crossing sweepers, shoe blacks, or selling matches, flowers, and other cheap goods.

Were children often hurt working in industrial jobs? ›

Children often had to work under very dangerous conditions. They lost limbs or fingers working on high powered machinery with little training. They worked in mines with bad ventilation and developed lung diseases. Sometimes they worked around dangerous chemicals where they became sick from the fumes.

Why was it difficult to be a child laborer? ›

Miserable working conditions including crowded and unclean factories, a lack of safety codes and long hours were the norm. Children could be paid less and were less likely to organize into unions. Working children were typically unable to attend school, creating a cycle of poverty that was difficult to break.

Why was child labor a big problem? ›

Many implications follow child labor, but most importantly, it jeopardizes children's health. Children often work with dangerous machinery and are exposed to harmful chemicals. Also, they work long and strenuous hours with little or no regard for their education and mental health.

What were five positive consequences of the Industrial Revolution in Britain? ›

The Industrial Revolution had many positive effects. Among those was an increase in wealth, the production of goods, and the standard of living. People had access to healthier diets, better housing, and cheaper goods. In addition, education increased during the Industrial Revolution.

Who benefited the most from the Industrial Revolution? ›

The Industrial Middle Class

Those who benefited most from the Industrial Revolution were the entrepreneurs who set it in motion. The Industrial Revolution created this new middle class, or bourgeoisie, whose members came from a variety of backgrounds. Some were merchants who invested their growing profits in factories.

What were the positive and negative effects of Industrial Revolution in Britain? ›

The positive include cheaper clothes, more job opportunities, and improvement in transportation. And the negative would include exploitation of women and children, workers work long hours and environmental damages.

How was child labor put to an end? ›

It was not until 1938 that Congress finally passed a child labor law (Fair Labor Standards Act, or FLSA) that would later be upheld by the Court.

When did child labor end and why? ›

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal sought to prevent extreme child labor, and almost all of the codes under the National Industrial Recovery Act significantly reduced child labor. The Public Contracts Act of 1936 required boys to be 16 and girls to be 18 to work in firms supplying goods under federal contract.

What was the youngest child to work in the Industrial Revolution? ›

In the factory, the youngest children, those around six years old, were given the job of scavenger. The scavenger's job was to pick up the loose cotton that accumulated under the machines. They did their work crouched down low under the operating machinery.

How did child labor start? ›

In the late 1700′s and early 1800′s, power-driven machines began to replace hand labor for the making of most manufactured items. Factories sprung everywhere, first in England and then in the United States. The owners of these factories found a new source of labor to run their machines — children.

At what factory machine did the girl work? ›

Girls made up an important part of the factory workforce. They could be found changing bobbins on spinning frames, working in silk factories, and painting watch faces. Young girls often worked as spinners or bobbin girls. Spinners ran machines that twisted fiber into yarn.

Does child labor still exist today? ›

Child labor still exists in US, but we have the power to end it.

Is there still child labor in the US? ›

Dreier estimates that some 250,000 children have crossed into the U.S. without their parents in the last two years, and that the majority of them wind up working full-time jobs. "These are jobs working for household brands like Cheerios, Cheetos, Ford," she says.

How did the Great Depression affect child labor? ›

The reduction in the absolute number of child workers has been the most obvious and the most frequently discussed effect of the depression on child labor. A more significant though less conspicuous effect has been the change in the types of employment and in general working conditions.

What are the worst cases of child labor? ›

"Any work that exposes children to sexual abuse (physically or psychologically). Any work that is done underground, under water, at dangerous heights or in confined spaces. Any work that is done with dangerous machinery, equipment and tools. Any work that involves the manual handling or transport of heavy loads.

Why was child labor so common? ›

Large families with less work than children would often send children to another household that could employ them as a maid, servant, or plowboy. Most families simply could not afford the costs of raising a child from birth to adulthood without some compensating labor.

Is Nike using child labor? ›

In 1996, Life magazine ran a reportage on child labor that included a shocking photo of a 12-year-old Pakistani boy sewing a Nike football. Nike has strongly denied the claims in the past, suggesting the company has little control over sub-contracted factories.

How were child workers punished during the Industrial Revolution? ›

Topic: Punishments

Children were usually hit with a strap to make them work faster. In some factories children were dipped head first into the water cistern if they became drowsy. Children were also punished for arriving late for work and for talking to the other children.

What were the horrors of child Labour in Victorian Britain? ›

They worked long hours and were often treated badly by the supervisors or overseers. Sometimes the children started work as young as four or five years old. A young child could not earn much, but even a few pence would be enough to buy food Children were often forced to work almost as soon as they could walk.

When did child labour in Britain end? ›

Finding a solution. In the early 1830s, as Parliament became more preoccupied generally with the exploitation of child labour, the Chimney Sweeps Act was passed in 1834 outlawing the apprenticing of any child below the age of ten.

How did the Factory Act of 1833 affect child labor? ›

Ultimately, Parliament passed the Factory Act of 1833, which prohibited workers under the age of 9 and restricted the working day in textile mills to 12 hours for persons age 13 through 17 and to 8 hours for those age 9 through 12.

Did children go to school during the Industrial Revolution? ›

In 1833, the government passed the Factory Act making two hours of education a day compulsory for children working in factories. The government also granted money to charities for schools for the first time. In 1844, the Ragged Schools Union was set up to give schooling to very poor children.

What are some of the reasons for child labor? ›

Below are some of the root causes which make children particularly vulnerable to child labour.
  • Poverty. ...
  • Lack of access to quality education. ...
  • Poor access to decent work. ...
  • Limited understanding of child labour. ...
  • Natural disasters & climate change. ...
  • Conflicts & mass migration. ...
  • Fighting child labour.

How did the Industrial Revolution change working conditions for people? ›

The Industrial Revolution provided an incentive to increase profits, and as a result, working conditions in factories deteriorated. Long hours, inadequate remuneration, and minimal breaks became the norm. Child labor was a significant issue.

How did the factory Act of 1833 impact workers? ›

A maximum working week of 48 hours was set for those aged 9 to 13, limited to eight hours a day; and for children between 13 and 18 it was limited to 12 hours daily. The Act also required children under 13 to receive elementary schooling for two hours each day.

What is an example of child labor? ›

For example, Children in armed conflict are forced to fight or to work as cooks, porters and messengers. These children are abused and exploited, often being forced to kill or maim other human beings. The sexual exploitation of children (prostitution, pornography and pornographic performances):

How does child labor affect the economy? ›

Hence, the more child workers in the economy, the lower the wages of jobs that children engage in (unskilled work). This in theory creates a cycle of poverty: child labor leads to low wages, which leads to the need for more income in poor households, which leads to the need for child labor.

What were the working conditions like for child labor? ›

Miserable working conditions including crowded and unclean factories, a lack of safety codes and long hours were the norm. Children could be paid less and were less likely to organize into unions.

What was a common experience for working class children during the Industrial Revolution? ›

The Industrial Revolution was a time of few government regulations on working conditions and hours. Children often had to work under very dangerous conditions. They lost limbs or fingers working on high powered machinery with little training. They worked in mines with bad ventilation and developed lung diseases.

What were the bad working conditions in the Industrial Revolution? ›

Poor workers were often housed in cramped, grossly inadequate quarters. Working conditions were difficult and exposed employees to many risks and dangers, including cramped work areas with poor ventilation, trauma from machinery, toxic exposures to heavy metals, dust, and solvents.

Who ended child labor? ›

It was not until 1938 that Congress finally passed a child labor law (Fair Labor Standards Act, or FLSA) that would later be upheld by the Court.

What is the biggest negative impact of child labor? ›

Emotional and educational consequences

Worldwide, 61 million children do not go to school. Instead, these children spend their childhood away from the family, in adverse and, often, violent situations. All of this can lead to stress, depression or low self-esteem.

When was child labor banned in England? ›

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.

What were the rules for child labor in 1833? ›

The basic act was as follows: no child workers under nine years of age. employers must have an age certificate for their child workers. children of 9-13 years to work no more than nine hours a day.

What types of dangers did children face in the workplace? ›

Work dangers that affect children are not different from the dangers faced by adults. They include noise, dust, chemicals, fire, and repetitive motion. But dangerous working conditions can harm children more because their bodies and minds are still developing and are more vulnerable to injury and disease.

What groups of people led the fight against child labor in the United States? ›

Union organizing and child labor reform were often intertwined, and common initiatives were conducted by organizations led by working women and middle class consumers, such as state Consumers' Leagues and Working Women's Societies.


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