Revealed: Industrial Revolution Was Powered by Child Slaves

By Keys, David | The Independent (London, England), August 2, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Revealed: Industrial Revolution Was Powered by Child Slaves


Keys, David, The Independent (London, England)


Huge factory expansion would not have been possible without exploitation of the young

Child labour was the crucial ingredient which allowed Britain's Industrial Revolution to succeed, new research by a leading economic historian has concluded. After carrying out one of the most detailed statistical analyses of the period, Oxford's Professor Jane Humphries found that child labour was much more common and economically important than previously realised. Her estimates suggest that, by the early 19th century, England had more than a million child workers (including around 350,000 seven- to 10-year- olds) - accounting for 15 per cent of the total labour force. The work is likely to transform the academic world's understanding of that crucial period of British history which was the launch-pad of the nation's economic and imperial power.

Early factory owners - located in the countryside in order to exploit power from fast-flowing rivers - found that local labour was scarce and that those agricultural workers who were available were unsuitable for industrial production. They therefore opted instead to create a new work force composed of children, tailor-made for their factories.

"Factory owners were looking for cheap, malleable and fast- learning work forces - and found them ready-made among the children of the urban workhouses," said Professor Humphries. Her statistical research shows, for the first time, the precise extent to which the exploitation of children massively increased as newly emerging factories began their operations in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Her work has revealed that during most of the 18th century only around 35 per cent of ten year old working-class boys were in the labour force while the figure for 1791-1820 (when large scale industrialisation started) was 55 per cent, rising to 60 per cent for the period of 1821-1850.

The number of eight-year-old working-class boys at work also rose substantially in that period - with around a third of them being part of the work force between 1791 and 1850 compared to less than 20 per cent before 1791.

The use of working-class children to provide much of the labour force for the Industrial Revolution was, however, merely an expansion and extension of an already long-established practice of working-class children employed by farmers or artisans.

Professor Humphries's research - just published by Cambridge University Press - reveals that the average age at which working- class children started work fell from eleven and a half (prior to 1791) to 10 for the period 1791-1850.

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