Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution

Katrina Honeyman on a revealing study of the stories of young workers in industrialising Britain

July 1, 2010

Whether we like it or not, the work of children supports economic growth in many parts of the world today. It was also crucial to the British Industrial Revolution. Yet, until recently, historians assumed that adult men comprised the core of the manufacturing labour force in that process. Gender historians have now highlighted the important role of female labour; but children's work is still usually seen as limited in scale and scope.

It remains an inconvenient truth that most working-class children (and therefore most children) in 18th- and 19th-century Britain did not enjoy the freedom to develop physically and mentally through play and education. From an early age they laboured; contributing crucially to the fragile family budget and to wider manufacturing expansion. For most of the 617 stoic and sometimes proud male autobiographers who provide the central source for Jane Humphries' absorbing study, such responsibility was neither unreservedly bleak (although there was surely much suffering) nor a matter for rejoicing, but rather a reflection of how things were.

Humphries is not the first to identify the importance of working-class autobiography to historical analysis, but by subjecting her sources to quantitative as well as to cross-disciplinary qualitative analysis, she produces significant findings that are eloquently presented.

What did these men remember about their childhoods? Apart from the unyielding hunger that pursued working people for much of the 19th century and beyond, the autobiographers were most articulate about their families and their experience of work. Schooling also featured, but less vividly: many had been adult rather than youthful learners. Insights into family relations demonstrate the depth of emotional ties as well as their frequent fracture by death or desertion. Almost a third of the group had lost one or both parents by the age of 14; and the disappearance of the (usually male) breadwinner created family dependence on sons' wages.

Bonds between the boys and their mothers stand out. It was an unusual autobiographer who did not write of his mother in terms of enduring devotion, respect and gratitude. Interaction with fathers was usually less intense and occasionally resentful; but, overall, the writers recall more positive and less abusive relationships with parents than is conventionally suggested. The complicated sibling connection of rivalry, affection and solidarity was often curtailed by untimely death, but was powerful while it lasted. In times of family crisis, support was provided, although not always graciously, by an extended kinship network.

These life stories treat us to colourful detail about what it was like to be a working child in industrialising Britain. From the later 18th century, children were employed in growing numbers throughout the country. They came from all kinds of occupational backgrounds and were paid to work on farms and in factories, workshops and mines, in homes and sweatshops. Childhood work was endured, but not without tears, and recalled with clarity. When very young, child-specific tasks such as bird-scaring were performed; but thereafter most children's work formed an integral component of the wider division of labour in traditional trades as well as in new types of manufacturing. Apprenticeship (up to 20 per cent of which was of the pauper variety) comprised an important stage of the autobiographers' working lives. By early adolescence, most enjoyed greater earning capacity than their mothers and were jostling with their fathers for position as the main breadwinner.

So how robust are Humphries' compelling conclusions? How accurately did the autobiographers present their youth? In at least two ways her sources are biased. First, the 617 were atypical in their desire to write their life stories, and in their ability to do so; and second, they were all male. Humphries convincingly counters the first potential deficiency; and provides corroborating evidence for her findings. But for the absence of a female strand she is unapologetic: too few relevant autobiographies have so far come to light, she argues. But recent research has demonstrated that girls were widely employed during this period; that the majority of known parish apprentices to the burgeoning textile sector were girls; and that a significant proportion of these were retained into adulthood.

Nevertheless, while her focus on yet another set of sources privileging the male experience is regrettable, she has conveyed more about the nature and importance of children's employment than any previous study, and has provided confirmation that the labour of children, like that of women, is seriously under-represented in census returns.

Further research is needed to add more flesh to recent arguments, but as Humphries' accomplished interrogation of these valuable autobiographies demonstrates, young people were far more than bit-part players in Britain's show of industrial greatness. Now, bring on the girls!

Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution

By Jane Humphries
Cambridge University Press, 480pp, £60.00
ISBN 9780521847568
Published 24 June 2010

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