Child Labor and the British Industrial Revolution

By Reed, Lawrence W. | Freeman, November 2009 | Go to article overview

Child Labor and the British Industrial Revolution


Reed, Lawrence W., Freeman


Profound economic changes took place in Great Britain in the century after 1750. This was the age of the Industrial Revolution, complete with a cascade of technical innovations, a vast increase in production, a renaissance of world trade, and rapid growth of urban populations.

Where historians and other observers clash is in the interpretation of these great changes. Did they represent improvement to the citizens or did these events set them back? Perhaps no other issue within this realm has generated more intellectual heat than the one concerning the labor of children. Critics of capitalism have successfully cast this matter as an irrefutable indictment of the capitalist system as it was emerging in nineteenth-century Britain.

The many reports of poor working conditions and long hours of difficult toil make harrowing reading, to be sure. William Cooke Taylor wrote at the time about contemporary reformers who, witnessing children at work in factories, thought to themselves, "How much more delightful would have been the gambol of the free limbs on the hillside; the sight of the green mead with its spangles of buttercups and daisies; the song of the bird and the humming of the bee."

Of those historians who have interpreted child labor in industrial Britain as a crime of capitalism, none have been more prominent than J. L. and Barbara Hammond. Their many works have been widely promoted as "authoritative" on the issue.

The Hammonds divided the factory children into two classes: "parish apprentice children" and "free labour children." It is a distinction of enormous significance, though one the authors themselves failed utterly to appreciate. Having made the distinction, the Hammonds proceeded to treat the two classes as though no distinction between them existed at all. A deluge of false and misleading conclusions about capitalism and child labor has poured forth for years as a consequence.

"Free labour" children were those who lived at home but worked during the day in factories at the insistence of their parents or guardians. British historian E. P. Thompson, though generally critical of the factory system, nonetheless quite properly conceded that "it is perfectly true that the parents not only needed their children's earnings, but expected them to work." Ludwig von Mises, the great Austrian economist, put it well when he noted that the generally deplorable conditions extant for centuries before the Industrial Revolution, and the low levels of productivity that created them, caused families to embrace the new opportunities the factories represented: "It is a distortion of facts to say that the factories carried off the housewives from the nurseries and the kitchen and the children from their play. These women had nothing to cook with and to feed their children. These children were destitute and starving. Their only refuge was the factory. It saved them, in the strict sense of the term, from death by starvation."

Private factory owners could not forcibly subjugate "free labour" children; they could not compel them to work in conditions their parents found unacceptable. The mass exodus from the continent to increasingly capitalist, industrial Britain in the first half of the nine-teenth century strongly suggests that people did indeed find the industrial order an attractive alternative. And there's no credible evidence suggesting that parents in these early capitalist days were any less caring of their offspring than those of precapitalist times.

The situation, however, was much different for "parish apprentice" children. Close examination reveals that the critics were focusing on these children when they spoke of the "evils" of capitalism's Industrial Revolution. These youngsters, it turns out, were under the direct authority and supervision not of their parents in a free labor market, but of government officials. Most were orphans; a few were victims of negligent parents or parents whose health or lack of skills kept them from earning sufficient income to care for a family. …

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