Child Labour
L0047457 The Potter Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images The Potter. Child assisting, handling clay. 1804 The costume of Great Britain / W. H. Pyne Published: 1804. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Child Labour

Never support child labour, children need your favour.


Many of our early ancestors supported themselves by working the land, cultivating crops and breeding animals. Their children often worked along side them, planting seeds, pulling weeds or looking after the livestock. This work by the children was accepted by society as necessary for the survival of the family. Other ancestors earned their living in small cottage industries, working at weaving, dressmaking, shoemaking or pottery making in their homes. Here too, their children contributed to the daily work.

From the middle of the 18th century however, the largely agricultural society of our ancestors was transformed into a more industrialized and urban society, a transformation often referred to as the Industrial Revolution.  From the 1770s, when textile mills began taking work from the home weavers, very young children began working in the mills for long hours at jobs that paid a minimal wage.

Child labour in Vermont
Young Doffers in a Cotton Mill

By the early 19th century, society’s view of child labour began to change. The textile mills, in particular, were criticized for employing children under unhealthy working conditions. Children as young as eight or nine were employed to repair broken threads, working under the massive looms, an occupation known as piecening. The work was demanding, and the days were very long. Cruelty, harsh discipline and low wages were common.

The first factory legislation was passed in 1802. The Health and Morals of Apprentices Act mandated that apprenticed children could not be forced to work at night or for more than twelve hours a day and provided for some basic education.  Later, the Cotton Mills Act of 1819 required that no child under the age of nine could be employed in the mills, nor could anyone under the age of sixteen be required to work more than sixteen hours in a day. Neither act, however, provided any means of enforcement, and the exploitation of children continued.

Child labour in Georgia

By the 1830s, a growing number of people, some of them mill owners themselves, were campaigning for a ten-hour work day for children under the age of sixteen but the legislation passed in 1831 only limited the working day to twelve hours. A notable supporter was Richard Oastler, who launched a campaign for factory reform with an open letter entitled ‘Yorkshire Slavery’ published in the Leeds Mercury newspaper in 1830. He was supported in Parliament by the Tory, Michael Sadler, who proposed a bill to restrict the hours that young children worked, and by Lord Ashley who became involved with the campaign. Two years later, as the question of child labour assumed even greater importance in the public eye, a Royal Commission was appointed to collect information in the manufacturing districts regarding child labour practices in the factories. The stories uncovered by the Commission were horrendous and deeply disturbing to the public.

Benjamin Gummersil, a sixteen-year-old boy from Bradford, Yorkshire, told the Commission:

“I have been employed in piecening at a worsted mill. I have worked at Mr. Cozen’s mill; the hours of labour were from six in the morning until seven and half-past seven and eight at night; half an hour was allowed at noon for dinner – not any time was allowed for breakfast or drinking.”

Benjamin went on to say he had started working in the mill at the age of nine, his father being unable to provide for him. He told of being forced to work in a bent over position for thirteen or fourteen hours a day, of having been beaten until he was black and blue and of having had his ears torn. He became deformed from the intense stooping posture required by the work, his height shortened by several inches. Now, unable to walk and unable to stand without crutches, he had been forced to leave the mill and was in constant pain. He was unable to write and could read only poorly, having not received any type of education and had no prospects.

Child Labour in Lancaster Cotton Mills

Another witness, Elizabeth Bentley, told the Commission that she went to work in Mr. Busk’s flax mill when she was six years old, often working from five o’clock in the morning until nine o’clock at night to support her widowed mother. Her job was that of a ‘doffer’. When the machines were full, her job was to take the full bobbins off, carry them to the roller, put empty bobbins back on again and then start the frame going once more. There were many machines to tend and the penalty for being too slow was the strap, which was wielded hard enough to raise a blister. When she was ten, she said, she went to Benyon’s factory where she worked as a weigher in the carding-room from half-past five in the morning until eight at night. The carding room was full of dust, which got in her lungs and made it impossible to see across the room. The basket she pulled around was filled with weights, and her shoulder often became dislocated. For this work, she was given five shillings a week. When she was eighteen, her mother died, and she had only herself to depend on. Now, at the age of twenty-three, she was living in the poor house at Hunslet and dependent on the parish, no longer able to work.

Sweeper in Lancaster Cotton Mill
Sweeper in Lancaster Cotton Millild Labour in a Lancaster Cotton Mill

Of the workers who were compelled to testify to the Commission, several of them were dismissed from their position after giving evidence and as a result, it was decided that no more witnesses would be called from among the mill employees.

Instead, the Commission solicited the highest medical opinions on the subject of child labour and the number of hours children should work. “More than ten hours is quite incompatible with health and moral propriety,” said Sir Anthony Carlile, FRS, principal Surgeon of Westminster Hospital for forty years. James Blundell, MD, a Physician to Guy’s Hospital in London, told the Commission “I look upon factory towns as nurseries for feeble bodies and fretful minds. Ten hours are enough for human beings.”

Mill owners were not the only employers that stood accused of overworking and over disciplining children. Chimney sweeps were also considered to be at high risk. In Charles Kingsley’s popular 1864 children’s novel, The Water Babies, he wrote of the character Tom, a young chimney sweep:

He cried when he had to climb the dark flues, rubbing his poor knees and elbows raw; and when the soot got into his eyes, which it did every day in the week; and when his master beat him, which he did every day in the week; and when he had not enough to eat, which happened every day in the week likewise.

Parliamentary concern for the young ‘climbing boys’ resulted in the Chimney Sweeps Act being passed in 1834, outlawing the apprenticeship of any child under ten years of age. In 1840, the minimum age was raised to sixteen, but like the other child labour laws of the time, it was frequently ignored since there was no enforcement.

In the mining districts, boys, and sometimes girls, as young as eight would be employed as child labour. Another Royal Commission was convened in 1842 to inquire into the ‘Employment and Condition of the Children of the Poorer Classes in Mines and Collieries,’ an industry that had not been included in the 1833 inquiry.

In most cases, children were taken into the mines by their fathers or older brothers, as soon as they were able to do the most menial tasks underground. As they got a little older, they were put to work in areas of the mines that were too small for men to work. Children would drag loaded carriages of coal through the low passages, moving along on their hands and knees. The Royal Commission heard testimony from some of the children, including John Knight, aged twelve.

Cannot tell his birthday exactly; ‘I do think ‘twere of a Thursday night.’ Is a hod-boy in Protection Pit; draws the hods on his knees through a way barely two feet high; earns 9 shillings a week. Never did any other work but would like to work above-ground best. The road he hods over is very wet. Never has any rheumatism or colds, or any lumps in his neck. Went to an evening school; reads and writes a little.

In South Staffordshire, Yorkshire, Lancashire and the west of Scotland, young boys, mostly orphans and paupers, would be apprenticed to the ‘butties’ or coal workers. These miners were said to be very ignorant and brutal and were often very irresponsible in the treatment of their apprentices. The apprenticeship might last for as long as sixteen years with the master benefiting from all the wages earned by his young charge.

One such apprentice, Thomas Moorhouse, told the commission that both his parents were dead and that he had worked as a collier-boy for William Greenwood since he was nine years old. Greenwood would hit him with the belt, and maul or sledge, and sometimes flung coals at him. Once Greenwood had stuck a pick into him, and on examination, he was found to have a large scar on his buttocks, likely to have been made by a pick. When he was old enough, he had run away. Now he had a better master who gave him a place to sleep and food to eat.

Because of the mining inquiry, the 1842 Mines Act was passed and dictated that no boy under ten years old was to be employed underground in the mines.

Throughout the second half of the 19th century, further legislation was passed that limited the number of hours children could work and ensured that younger children received a minimum number of hours of education. The Education Act of 1870 also brought significant changes. Although schooling was not yet free or compulsory, the 1870 act formed an important framework for future legislation that would eventually bring mandatory education to all children at no cost to their parents.

Today in the UK, thanks in part to the efforts of the 19th century social reformers such as Oastler, Sadler and Lord Ashley, many laws are in place to protect children from being exploited in the work place and ensure that they obtain an education. Children are not allowed to work full-time until they reach the minimum school leaving age nor are they allowed to work in factories or other industrial sites, during school hours or between the hours of 7 o’clock in the evening and 7 o’clock in the morning.

Play is the work of today’s child.