Child labour: lessons from the Industrial Revolution

Jane Humphries

24 April 2008



Societies have long sought to eliminate child labour. Yet two hundred years after the first Factories Act and despite a level of prosperity that our forefathers would have deemed unimaginable, there are an estimated 186 million child labourers worldwide –5.7 million in forced labour, 1.8 million in prostitution and 0.3 million soldiers.1 In designing policy to mitigate this persistent problem, it is vital to have a theoretical and empirical understanding of child labour and its consequences. Well-meaning but poorly conceived interventions could cause more harm than good. Perhaps the past provides some lessons.

In a new study, I use the reminiscences of 617 working-class men who lived through the Industrial Revolution to provide insight.2 Drawn from economically and demographically representative families, the memoirs contain rich detail on early employment. Children were motivated to work by various mechanisms, some operating through family ties and some through incentives like improved status and small subventions from their own earnings. Violence was sometimes used to drive children and was more likely where the incentives of piece rates, competition for jobs and the threat of dismissal were irrelevant.

Children’s occupations

Children’s jobs were specific but integral to production processes. In textiles, mechanisation created new jobs for children and these were then duplicated en masse. In mining, it was the expansion of output with little change in production methods that increased child labour. Similarly, agriculture continued to provide huge employment for children even as it slowly contracted. Elsewhere, subdivided production processes, either of old goods like boots and shoes or new ones like biscuits, created new niches for children.

The continuing importance of agriculture in children’s employment fits with evidence from the censuses but has been obscured by the classical fixation on mills and mines. The ability of children to hold their ground in agriculture suggests that the physical demands of jobs rarely operated to exclude young workers. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century farm work was hugely demanding in terms of strength and size but tasks were broken down and divided up in ways that made it possible for children to contribute.

Mining was another sector where heavy physical demands did not screen out child workers. Children did not do the same work as adult males; hewing coal from the rock face was physically beyond them. But the work that they did do was psychologically stressful and physically demanding.

The increasing importance of clerical jobs for children could be dismissed as an artefact of the sample: autobiographers likely being particularly bookish. But it also reflects the invention of new jobs designed for children, such as monitors in the novel Board Schools and boy clerks in the multiplying offices of commercial Britain.

Services comprised another sector where the subdivision of labour created new opportunities for employing children, not separated out from mainstream activities but as ancillaries working in conjunction with adults.

Finally some new jobs (railways, utilities) appear in the children’s labour force of the mid-nineteenth century while as yet absent from an earlier generation of adults’ jobs.

The nature of jobs

In almost all cases, children’s pace of work was determined exogenously: by adults working on piece rates, by machinery, by throughput or by the need to accomplish a task by a specific time. In agriculture for example, even if children were not capable of adult tasks they worked with adults and were locked into a pace of work dictated by the latter.

The autobiographers recorded their fathers’ occupations along with their own first jobs, allowing movement between occupations to be tracked. Comparison with a model of perfect mobility confirms the importance of occupational inheritance and its intensification within high and low prestige groups, results found in most mobility tables.

But one further common characteristic of mobility tables, the correspondence between the amount of movement between two categories (relative to the standard) and their nearness in prestige, which is taken to be a manifestation of the underlying order of the occupational groups along the prestige continuum, is less evident. Instead, the analysis suggests greater movement between groups which enjoyed locational, training, or technical linkages, and provides individual-level support for the recent findings from large-scale data sets on the importance in the British case of a dynamic tertiary sector, and insight into the microeconomic processes involved in Britain’s precocious structural change.

Children’s earnings

Evidence on earnings suggests clear progressions by age and physical competence. Even young children could earn 10-20% of men’s and even more of women’s wages. Teenage boys could earn more than their mothers; their rates of pay were higher, they had wider opportunities, and unburdened by domestic cares, they could work longer hours. Where families had a choice it made sense for sons to seek employment while mothers remained at home.

Eighteenth-century families were heavily dependent on husbands and fathers for economic support, but if men died or disappeared, their contributions ceased. If they sought work away from home, or served in the army or navy, supply lines back to dependents became strained.

More mundanely, family needs often exceeded men’s wages. Children were available “added workers”. Mothers, who were responsible for the feeding and clothing of younger siblings, found it hard to resist the potential earnings of older children. However reluctantly, they often found children their first jobs and battled to keep them employed thereafter by ensuring their punctuality and discipline.

Child labour thus emerges as the outcome of the fragility of the male breadwinner family structure in a context where men’s support was irregular or insufficient, and a compact between children and their mothers, whereby working children surrendered their pay to their mothers who in return spent it carefully and in the interests of the family as a whole. In this way, older children helped to support their younger siblings, which was vital in an era of high fertility and large families.

The responsibility that children felt for their mothers and siblings prompted their entry into work and disciplined them on the job. But duty was leavened with other compensations for working children, who enjoyed improved status and carefully judged baksheesh from their own wages. They spent these coppers on nutritional treats and only when their earnings had increased and hunger abated, on market commodities. New clothes rarely spurred children’s efforts. Jam, biscuits, sweets, even bread, are not as glamorous as new fabrics or tropical groceries and not as readily tied into mainstream narratives of an Industrial Revolution highlighting the cotton industry or expanding empire, but they may be important nonetheless.

Regulation and abuse

Children were prevented from starting work or caught working under-age and expelled with sufficient frequency to suggest that scepticism about the effectiveness of regulation may be misplaced. Feelings about such expulsions were mixed; children in needy families were dismayed to no longer be able to contribute but grateful for the relief afforded. In some cases, autobiographers reflected that protective labour legislation saved them from impending physical collapse.

Violence was used to drive children. But it was not as important a motivator as the responsibility children felt for family wellbeing, particularly for the diets of siblings and mothers. Nor were factories the most violent workplaces, for they had alternative ways of ensuring discipline: supervision, piece rates, competition for jobs, and the threat of dismissal.

Violence was more likely where these incentives were irrelevant, as in the case of unpaid and orphaned children consigned by the state as pauper apprentices to specific employers or enterprises, and where the earnings of adults depended on child helpers and coercion was hidden by the isolation of the workplace. Where parents or co-workers could afford some check by their disapproving presence as well as active intervention, abuse was contained.

Child labour reconstructed through these memoirs is not the same as the version portrayed in classic accounts of industrialisation. But the child labour of working-class memoir slots neatly into revised interpretations of the British Industrial Revolution, where economic change has been pushed back in time and identified with the dynamism of the tertiary sector and productive agriculture.

Modern implications

Even more important perhaps are the implications for understanding child labour today. Two can be mentioned here.

First, it is not inevitable that growth will drive child labour to the economic margins before rooting it out completely. As in the past, if associated with an unequal distribution of income and child-intensive production processes, economic growth can increase child labour rather than eliminate it.

And once in place, child labour can be difficult to uproot as child workers forgo schooling and apprenticeship and so grow up to be unproductive adults, who, in turn, cannot earn enough to support their children through education or training. It only takes one generation of child workers to trap an economy in such a low-productivity equilibrium.

Second, despite the spectre of avaricious parents, the children most at risk of early, hazardous, and even slave labour are those without adult kin. Where families have been broken up and denuded of prime-age adults by wars and epidemic disease, the prospects for preserving childhood look bleak.




1 Kaushik Basu and Zafiris Tzannatos (2003). “The Global Child Labor Problem: What Do We Know and What Can We Do?” The World Bank Economic Review 17(2): 147-173.
2 Jane Humphries, “Children in the Labour Market: The Autobiographical Evidence” presented at the Economic History Society's 2008 annual conference at the University of Nottingham, 28-30 March.





Topics:  Development Economic history Labour markets

Tags:  child labour, family economics, Industrial Revolution

Professor of Economic History at Oxford University and a Fellow of All Souls College