Child Labour in the Industrial Revolution | Essay

Nardinelli (1980; pp.739-55) argues, contrary to popular opinion, that the employment of children in the early Industrial Revolution was not ceased by the Factory Acts of 1833[1] and 1844[2], but rather that the Factory Acts simply speeded up a process that was already underway, in terms of technological changes and increases in family incomes, which meant that child labour was no longer necessary (Nardinelli, 1980; p.739). Using data from school enrolment rates, Nardinelli (1980; p. 751) shows that, following the introduction of the Factory Acts, no difference between school enrolment rates existed between the textile districts and the rest of the country. Nardinelli (1980; p.755) concludes that the textile industry, which used child labour, was only one of the industries that formed the Industrial Revolution, and, indeed, was almost the only industry to use child labour, and that, as such, the issue of child labour and its role in the success of the Industrial Revolution is diminished.

Verdon (2002; pp.299-323) also discusses child labour, in rural areas, and its relation to women’s employment, family income and the 1834 Poor Law Report. As Verdon (2002; p.299) argues, it is important to take a regional approach to studies of the Industrial Revolution, and its effect on the lives of children throughout the nineteenth century, as child labour levels, family incomes and social class relations varied widely from region to region during the time of the Industrial Revolution. Verdon (2002, p.322) concludes that region, gender and age were all key determinants of labourers’ experience of work in nineteenth century rural areas, with children contributing a substantial proportion of the household income in 1834, across every region. At this time, therefore, rural child labour was an important source of childhood income. How this was affected by the introduction of Factory Acts (which, of course, would not directly have affected rural employment, outside of urban factories) is not discussed.

Horrell and Humphries (1995; pp. 485-516) look at child labour and the family economy during the Industrial Revolution, using data from household budgets of this period, and found that during the period of early industrialisation, the number of children working and the number of children working in factories increased, and the age at which children started work decreased, due to the fact that older children became economically independent from families at an early age, thus leaving younger siblings to work to increase the household income. Horrell and Humphries (1995; p. 510) conclude that, indeed, during the early Industrial Revolution, little children were exploited, in that there was an “enormous growth in the employment of children in factories” during this period. Horrell and Humphries (1995; p. 511) show, supplementing the work of Verdon (2002), that there was an “intensification of child employment in the factory districts” during the early Industrial Revolution and that this was in stark contrast to the under- and unemployment of children in the rural South East during the later Industrial Revolution. In contrast to Nardinelli (1980), Horrell and Humphries (1995; p. 511) conclude that the Factory Acts did have the effect of reducing children’s employment in factories, but that this doesn’t seem to have had any effect on the numbers of children within families who were expected to work, and that “legislation….may have displaced more girls than boys”, who then, it is hypothesised, moved into domestic service, for example, thus remaining in employment.

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