Child Labor in the British Industrial Revolution

Child Labor and The British
Industrial Revolution

Daniel Gaines

Everyone agrees that in the 100 years between 1750 and 1850 there took
place in Great Britain profound economic changes. This was the age of the
Industrial Revolution, complete with a cascade of technical innovations, a vast
increase in industrial 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. Were they "good" or "bad"? 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. The enemies of freedom---of capitalism-have successfully
cast this matter as an irrefutable indictment of the capitalist system as it was
emerging in 19th 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. "l

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, including Lord Shaftesbury (1923), The Village
Labourer (1911), The Town Labourer (1917), and The Skilled Labourer
(1919) have been widely promoted as "authoritative" on the issue.

The Hammonds divided the factory children into two classes: "apprentice
children" and "free labour children." It is a distinction of enormous significance,
though one the authors themselves failed utterly to appreciate. Once 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.

Opportunity or Oppression?

"Free-labour" children were those who lived at home but worked during the
days in factories at the insistence of their parents or guardians. British historian
E. R 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."2

Professor 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 which 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 kitchens 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."3

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 socialist Continent to increasingly capitalist,
industrial Britain in the first half of the 19th century strongly suggests that
people did indeed find the industrial order an attractive alternative. And no
credible evidence exists which argues that parents in these early capitalist days
were any less caring of their offspring than those of pre-capitalist times.

The situation, however, was much different for "apprentice" children, and close
examination reveals that it was these children on whom the critics were
focusing 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. Many
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 wrote, ". . .
the first mills were