Child Labor During Britain’s Industrial Revolution

One of the main reasons that the new capitalist economic order was established in Great Britain during the second half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century was the working people’s deeply felt wish to free themselves from the “coercive economic arrangements” of the preceding feudal system. As a result, the serf was gradually replaced by the free worker and it is generally agreed that there followed a period of time – between 1750 and 1850 -marked by sweeping economic shifts. Indeed, the transformations were so great that they gave this historical period the name of “Industrial Revolution”. It was an age enabled by and generating a series of life-changing technical innovations which resulted in a spectacular rise in the amount and variety of the goods produced, a blossoming of global commerce, and a fast increase in town populations. While historians, economic analysts, sociologists and other commentators have generally agreed on the big scale and fast pace of these changes, they seem to find it harder to agree on the nature of these transformations: did they mean an advance or a setback in the life of the majority of people? One of the specific areas of discussion in this connection is the phenomenon of children’s labor in factories, which arose from the early days of capitalism and was, knowingly or innocently, yet consistently, misinterpreted and misrepresented even by the so-called primary sources, the result being a confusion about the realities of the issue and a distortion of the contemporary and historical perception of this socio-economic phenomenon. This paper sets out to answer the question “Who was responsible for the distortion of the contemporary public perception of the phenomenon of factory child labor during Britain’s Industrial Revolution?”

Observers and analysts of child labor in Great Britain’s new industrial order and the factory system it created sometimes innocently misinterpreted the phenomenon, thus contributing to a false perception of the issue by the general public and historians. An example would be the writer Alfred Kydd who in examining the controversial issue of child labor in British factories failed to make the all-important distinction between free labor children and parish apprentices (The History of the Factory Movement, 1857). Unlike Kydd, J.L. and Barbara Hammond, authors whose writings on the topic, such as The Village Labourer and The Skilled Labourer, came to be regarded as reference literature on the issue, did make this significant difference. However, after justly classifying factory children into “free labour children” and “parish apprentice children”, these popular historians failed to follow through the distinction in their examination of the realities of industrial child labor. It was an important distinction, because there was a major difference in the personal circumstances of these two categories of children, as well as in the way they were treated on the factory floor. Thus, “free labor children” lived at home and only labored in factories at the request of their parents; they were better nourished and received a more decent treatment on the factory floor. “Parish apprentice children”, on the other hand, were the responsibility of the state, that is mostly abandoned or orphaned children, or poor kids from the workhouse, who were practically sold into slavery by government officials to the factory owners and were generally the recipients of a much harsher treatment. The Hammonds’ failure to keep this distinction in sight resulted in a twisted public perception of the phenomenon of factory children as an out-and-out crime of the new industrial order, rather than what it actually was, namely a failure of duty on the part of the government authorities who were directly responsible for the supervision and protection of the unfortunate “parish apprentice children”. According to Lawrence W. Reed, such publicly expressed views were misleading because they spread the false idea that the factories cruelly deprived children of their right to play and condemned them to a hell of hard toil; they failed to take into account the fact that for these starving children factory work literally made the difference between life and death.

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On the other hand, there were observers and commentators on the question of factory child labor who intentionally misrepresented the phenomenon just because they had their own political or ideological agenda. Such is the case of Michael Sadler (1780-1835), an MP who made a biased report on the issue in an attempt to make political capital from the passage of the Ten Hours’ Bill, a political project he had championed from the very beginning. His Report, which was packed with accounts of factory floor victimization of laborers of every age, became compulsory reading for outspoken social reformers until late into the 20th century. In the essay entitled “The Factory System of the Early Nineteenth Century”, W.H.Hutt challenges Sadler’s objectivity by making the point that, although the work and pay conditions were pretty poor, they were never quite as bad as Sadler would have had the general public believe, and that in his eagerness to raise his political profile Sadler used a whole range of dirty tricks, of which the most serious was falsification of proof. Further condemnation of the Sadler Report is provided by R.H.Greg in his The Factory Question (1837), a book in which he claims that the Report contains such a high number of “falsehoods and ex-parte statements” as are rarely to be encountered in any official paper. Finally, in his book The Condition of the Working Class in England, a great enemy of the capitalist system, Friedrich Engels, charges Sadler with “making assertions of a most misleading and erroneous kind”, as well as securing biased testimony from witnesses by formulating leading questions.

Yet, contemporary public perception of the issue of child labor in the factory system was also often innocently distorted by the misguided viewpoints expressed by honest politicians. Strong evidence of this type of misleading input into the public debate around this socio-economic issue is provided by the case of Edward Baines, Leeds’s representative in the House of Commons between 1859 and 1874 and owner of The Leeds Mercury newspaper. Baines compiled a History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain, which was published in 1835 and in which he criticized those who were campaigning against the use of child labor in the factory system. More specifically he charged them with misrepresenting the realities of work in a mill, contending that such labor is actually much less harmful to the children’s health than other kinds of work. He claimed that if the incidence of sickness was high among textile factory child workers this was due to the fact that anyways so many of them suffered from a sickly constitution from birth, which caused them to “sink under factory labour, as they would under any kind of labour.” The MP for Leeds also declared himself in complete opposition to the principle of state-funded education, actively agitating against the idea of establishing factory schools and making the unfounded argument that such a step would only cause the poor to feel entitled to state handouts instead of “looking to their own industry.”

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Another subtle instance of misleading yet innocent input by a politician into the public debate centered on factory child labor can be found in a speech delivered in Parliament in May 1836 by William Bolling, a Tory who represented Bolton-le-Moors in the House of Commons from 1832 to 1841. Out of genuine personal conviction shaped perhaps by unconscious social class bias, Bolling took a dim view of factory legislation. and in the speech mentioned above he indirectly suggested (perhaps due to insufficient investigation on the ground) that the instances of cruel exploitation of child laborers in the factory system were the exception rather than the norm. He said that “Certainly, there are cases of hardship and oppression, but I dislike all cases of legislative interference between master and man – between parent and child.”

A similarly well-intentioned and apparently honest opposition to the idea of improving the lot of factory children through legislative reform can be encountered in a speech held in March 1836 by James Heywood, Lancashire’s representative in the House of Commons. In his address, Heywood seemed to express the genuine concern that “from mistaken notions of humanity” the proponents of a reduction in the number of working hours from 15 to 10, may cause more harm than good by bringing about a dangerous diminution of the young laborers’ income and thus exposing whole families to starvation. A more balanced approach on his part to the whole issue of child labor should have included the possibility of offsetting the disadvantages of reducing the working hours by obliging factory owners to raise the meager hourly rates they were paying these poor children.

However, perhaps the most unconscionable and reprehensible misrepresentation of the fate of factory children came from precisely those who had taken the Hippocratic Oath to do their best to serve people’s health interests. For there appears to have been widespread corruption among medical doctors who knew at first hand the ill effects on young children and teenagers of long hours of toil in poor conditions on young children, yet they unscrupulously misrepresented the truth, thereby grossly misleading contemporary public perception of the issue. Take for instance the case of Andrew Ure, an anatomy expert, scientist, and philosopher, who after inspecting a large number of factories in Manchester and the adjoining districts, painted a very idyllic picture of the situation of child laborers. Thus, he falsely claimed that he had never witnessed a single example of corporal punishment; that “the work of these lively elves seemed to resemble a sport”; that they were invariably “cheerful and alert” and that they displayed no sign of being overworked. (Andre Ure, The Philosophy of Manufactures, 1835). Similarly dishonest and misleading evidence was given in May, 1918, by William Whatton before a House of Lords committee chaired by Lord Kenyon. In his testimony, the doctor asserted that during the three years he had worked as a surgeon in the Manchester area he had never noticed any particular signs of illness in the factory children he had examined, adding that “… the labour is so moderate it can scarcely be called labour at all.” Finally, there is the recorded testimony of Doctor William Wilson before the same House of Lords committee. In his evidence, the doctor claimed that after visiting some 16 textile factories in the Manchester area at the request of the head of The Cotton-spinners Association he had found the general condition of the factory children to be “very good”.

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The gross falsehood of such idealized views of the situation of factory laboring children was exposed by veritable indictments of the “crime” of child labor made by other contemporary medical doctors, indictments that often provided strong evidence in support of the heavy toll taken on children’s health by factory work. Thus, according to Sir William Blizzard, a lecturer on anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons, children younger than nine must not be allowed to work in textile factories as “the dust and flues” generated by the material “is a foreign body” which once inhaled adversely affects the “the little vessels of young lungs.” After mentioning the fact that factory children generally seem to be “languid, weak, and debilitated”, doctor Samuel Smith went on to say that “if horses in this country were put to the same labour that factory children are, in a very few years the animal would be almost extinct”. Asked whether he was aware of any particular accidents that factory children might have been subject to, Sir Michael Ward, a distinguished surgeon, cited the case of Lever Street School in Manchester where nearly half of the 106 children working in factories had suffered machinery-related accidents. Dr. Ward’s testimony constitutes a primary source that is highly relevant to the topic of factory children, addressing as it does the subject of the accidents they were exposed to on the factory floor, as well as being reliable (it provides specific figures and situations that could have been independently verified by the investigative authority) and using the clear language and objective tone of scientific observation.

In light of the evidence presented above, it may be safely concluded that those who were responsible for misrepresenting the realities of child labor in Britain’s newly emerged factory system of the late 18th and early and mid – 19th centuries came from various walks of life and had different reasons for misinforming contemporary public opinion and distorting future historical interpretation of this controversial topic. Thus, some of them, like Alfred Kydd and the Hammonds, were writers and observers who innocently overlooked the all-important distinction between free labor children and parish apprentices in examining the fate of factory children. Others were politicians, who distorted public perception of this socio-economic phenomenon either deliberately – because, like Michael Sadler, they wanted to make political capital out of the issue and thus advance their political career, or innocently – because, like Edward Baines, they genuinely believed that the long hours of factory labor were not really harmful to children or at least not harmful enough to warrant legislative intervention. Finally, there was a third category, perhaps the most reviled and reprehensible, namely that of corrupt medical doctors who probably under pressure or bribery from vested interests like factory owners and merchants, intentionally misrepresented the cruel realities of child labor in factories, painting an idyllic picture of the phenomenon in which the work carried out over long hours and in improper conditions by free labor or parish apprentices was so light as to be little more than a “sport”.

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