The Erosion of Childhood: Child Oppression in Britain, 1860-1918

By Lionel Rose | Go to book overview

2

FACTORIES AND MINES LEGISLATION

The cotton industry was at the forefront of the new factory system in the early 1800s and became the prime focus in the early exposures of the evils of mass-congregated wage slavery. Textile workers were the first targets of legislation to protect child workers; but the intention was to create sufficiently tolerable conditions for them to prolong their productive lives and to make them more tractable as a massed workforce through rudimentary education. The image of a harsh, callous capitalist profiteering from his child slaves is simplistic. Under the old cottage system of production, where the child was under parental supervision, conditions were at least as bad; children received no wages, and young hand-loom weavers might work in cold, damp cellars. There were, it seems, some indications that factory children were in less bad health than child domestic weavers in the 1830s. 1 The Children’s Employment Commission of 1842-3 found that much ‘child slavery lay not between the child and the capitalist, but between the child and the adult employee who took him or her on as an assistant and paid the child out of his or her own earnings; it was the latter who was more given to brutality and ill-treatment than the factory owner. It was common in parts of the Midlands in the 1840s for parents to bond their children to an employer for no wages as payment for debts incurred at work. In 1873 Mr Blenkinsopp, a factory sub-inspector in the Black Country iron trade, observed how parents and adult employees could be more exploitative than employers in evading the factory laws; employers might be unaware of the cheating over ages by parents who falsified Bible entries, or produced the birth certificates of older children. Hours of work were exceeded and the child assistants were taught to run and hide when a factory inspector was in the

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