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Child Labor and the British Industrial Revolution

Lawrence W. Reed

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 nineteenth 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. All were in the custody of “parish authorities.” As the Hammonds themselves wrote, “[T]he first mills were placed on streams, and the necessary labour was provided by the importation of cartloads of pauper children from the workhouses of the big towns. . . . To the parish authorities, encumbered with great masses of unwanted children, the new cotton mills in Lancashire, Derby, and Notts were a godsend.”

Though consigned to the control of a government authority, these children are routinely held up as victims of capitalist greed. But as historian Robert Hessen writes, those very children “were sent into virtual slavery by a government body; they were deserted or orphaned pauper children who were legally under the custody of the poor-law officials in the parish, and who were bound by these officials into long terms of unpaid apprenticeship in return for bare subsistence.” Indeed, the first act in Britain that applied to factory children was passed to protect these very parish apprentices, not “free labour” children.

Though it is inaccurate to judge capitalism guilty of the sins of parish apprenticeship, it would also be inaccurate to assume that free labor children worked under ideal conditions in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. By today’s standards their situation was clearly bad. Such capitalist achievements as air conditioning and high levels of productivity would in time substantially ameliorate working conditions, however. The evidence in favor of capitalism is thus compellingly suggestive: From 1750 to 1850, when the population of Great Britain nearly tripled, the virtually exclusive choice of those flocking to the country for jobs was to work for private capitalists.

Conditions of employment and sanitation were best, as the Factory Commission of 1833 documented, in the larger and newer factories. The owners of these larger establishments, which were more easily and frequently subject to visitation and scrutiny by inspectors, increasingly chose to dismiss children from employment rather than be subjected to elaborate, arbitrary, and ever-changing rules on how they might run a factory employing youths. The result of legislative intervention was that these dismissed children, most of whom needed to work in order to survive, were forced to seek jobs in smaller, older, and more out-of-the-way places where sanitation, lighting, and safety were markedly inferior. Those who could not find new jobs were reduced to the status of their counterparts a hundred years before—that is, to irregular and grueling agricultural labor or, in the words of Mises, “to infest the country as vagabonds, beggars, tramps, robbers, and prostitutes.”

Child labor was relieved of its worst attributes not by legislative fiat but by the progressive march of an ever more productive capitalist system. Child labor was virtually eliminated when, for the first time in history, the productivity of parents in free labor markets rose to the point where it was no longer economically necessary for children to work to survive. The emancipators and benefactors of children were not legislators or factory inspectors but factory owners and financiers. Their efforts and investments in machinery led to a rise in real wages, to a growing abundance of goods at lower prices, and to an incomparable improvement in the general standard of living.

This column was adapted from an article first written in 1976.

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