Low Wages During Industrial Revolution Essay

John Majewski is an economics major at the University of Texas at Austin. He is currently serving as a summer intern with the Institute for Humane Studies. Following graduation in 1988, John hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in economics. This paper was awarded second prize, college division, in FEE’s Freedom Essay Contest,

How the industrial revolution raised the quality of life for workers and their families.

Since it began approximately two centuries ago, the industrial revolution has captured the minds of an endless number of historians and economists. An era of relatively laissez faire economics, the period between 1760-1850 is for many academics the key to unlocking the secrets of economic growth, technological change, and economic development. But, for defenders of the classical liberal tradition of free enterprise, the industrial revolution is important for more insidious reasons. Writers such as Dickens, Engels, and the Hammonds have made the terms industrial revolution and capitalism synonymous with degradation of the working class. Pessimistic interpretations of the industrial revolution have led to the popular acceptance of what R.M. Hartwell terms the “theory of immiseration”—a belief that unrestrained capitalism was making the rich richer and the poor poorer during the industrial revolution (Hartwell, 1974). For the general public, the horrors of the industrial revolution prove the horrors of capitalism.

But it is not only laymen who perceive the industrial revolution in terms of “dark, satanic mills.” A brief glance at almost any university history or English textbook reveals that most academics who do not specifically study the industrial revolution accept without reservation the view that capitalism led to a deterioration of living conditions for the working class. For example, a text commonly used in college British literature classes describes the industrial revolution in these terms:

For the great majority of the laboring class the results of the policy (of laissez faire) were inadequate wages, long hours of work under sordid conditions, and the large-scale employment of women and children for tasks which destroy body and soul. Reports from investigating committees on coal mines found male and female children ten or even five years of age harnessed to heavy coal-sledges which they dragged crawling on their hands and knees . . . (Norton Anthology, p. 3).

Such harsh interpretation of the industrial revolution has directly affected public policy. The industrial revolution has become a successful battle cry for detractors of capitalism. The specter of working class poverty and misery during the industrial revolution has been and still remains an important justification for government intervention into social and economic affairs. A vast amount of legislation, from minimum wage to antitrust laws, owes its existence to the anticapitalist mentality created by pessimistic views of the industrial revolution. As Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek pointedly argues, the industrial revolution portrayed by the pessimists is the “one supreme myth which more than any other has served to discredit the economic system to which we owe our modern day civilization” (Hayek, pp. 9-10).

This paper will attempt to show that the pessimistic interpretations, however popular, are unfounded. It will be argued that the quantitative (material) standard of living improved as real wages rose, while falling mortality rates indicate that the qualitative (sociological) standard of living also improved. Although there was considerable social and economic disruption throughout the revolution, this paper will try to show that these problems were caused by various government interventions, especially the Napoleonic Wars. Far from being a cause of misery and despair, this essay concludes, capitalism in the early nineteenth century improved the standard of living and set the stage for the modern comforts that we enjoy today.

An Increase in Real Wages

As noted above, the pessimistic case is widely accepted by both the general public and academia. However, it is fair to say that the majority of modern economic historians who study the industrial revolution believe that at least a slight increase in the material standard of living occurred. Since the introduction of reliable statistical evidence in Sir John Clapham’s An Economic History of Modern Britain in 1926, it has become increasingly obvious that real wages rose. The evidence is now so conclusive that one historian has confidently declared that “unless new errors are discovered, the debate over real wages in the early nineteenth century is over: the average worker was much better off in any decade from the 1830s on than any decade before 1820" (Williamson, p. 18).

The evidence vindicates such confidence. Although money wages remained stable, the prices of manufactured and agricultural goods plummeted as entrepreneurs struggled to deliver consumers low-priced goods and services (Hartwell, 1971, pp. 326-27). Although the extent of the increase in real wages is hotly debated, the most recent evidence suggests that blue-collar real wages doubled between 1810 and 1850 (Williamson, p. 18), McCloskey, although emphasizing a much longer period of time, also concludes that real wages increased significantly. He argues that real wages rose from an average of £11 per capita in 1780 to £28 per capita in 1860 (McCloskey, p. 108).

As one can imagine, the increase in real wages resulted in significant improvements in the standard of living. An excellent example is the changes in diet that occurred. Per capita consumption of meat, sugar, tea, beer, and eggs all increased. An even better indication of the rising affluence was the great increase of imported foods. Per capita consumption of foreign cocoa, cheese, coffee, rice, sugar, and tobacco increased. Meanwhile, meat, vegetables, and fruits, long considered luxuries, were by 1850 eaten regularly (Hartwell, 1971, pp. 328-29). in fact, the average weekly English diet of 1850—five ounces of butter, thirty ounces of meat, fifty-six ounces of potatoes, and sixteen ounces of fruits and vegetables—is quite similar to the English diet of today (Hartwell, 1971, p. 330).

Although such improvements obviously are important, they take on added significance when considering the large population increase that took place during the industrial revolution. Because of a fall in the death rate, the population of England and Wales rose 1.25 per cent per year between 1780 and 1860, an annual expansion that translates into an unprecedented threefold increase (McCloskey, pp. 105-108). Rising real wages (and consequent increases in food consumption) coupled with a rapidly rising population was a first in European history. The Malthusian trap of geometrically increasing populations outstripping arithmetically increasing food supplies had finally been broken. Whereas more people invariably resulted in less food per person throughout earlier European history, the industrial revolution provided more food per person. Breaking the bonds of Malthus is perhaps the crowning accomplishment of capitalism in general and the industrial revolution in particular.

Untenable Arguments

Considering the preponderance of evidence indicating substantial improvement in real wages, it is clear that the arguments of early pessimists, such as Engels, have become untenable. Clearly, the material standard of living did not plummet. With the advent of reliable statistical evidence supporting real wage increases, sophisticated pessimists began to emphasize the qualitative effects of industrialization. Openly admitting that the working class enjoyed higher wages, more food, and better clothing, these pessimists argue that the cost for such gains in material wealth was dear. They contend that the evils of child labor, sordid working conditions, increased pollution, and various other discomforts outweighed any progress due to increasing real wages. E.P. Thompson, in his influential book The Making of the English Working Class, succinctly summarizes this new pessimistic position, arguing that, “By 1840 most people were ‘better off’ than their forerunners, but they suffered and continued to suffer this slight improvement as a catastrophic experience” (Rude, p. 67-68).

The pessimistic quantitative versus qualitative position is open to considerable criticism. For example, many of the poor conditions cited by the pessimists existed well before the industrial revolution. Pre-industrial society was very static and often cruel—child labor, dirty living conditions, long working hours, and a host of other ills associated with nineteenth century capitalism were just as prevalent before the industrial revolution. Although by today’s standard conditions were indeed poor, they were no worse than living conditions before the revolution (Hartwell, 1971, pp. 339-341).

A second general problem with the new pessimistic position is that it fails to take into account the significant improvement in life expectancy that took place. The great population explosion that happened during the industrial revolution was fueled by a steep fall in death rates. Even in cities, where living conditions are said to have been the worst, mortality rates improved somewhat (McCloskey, pp. 105-106). Deteriorating living conditions and longer life spans are difficult positions to reconcile. Clearly, improving mortality rates indicate that the standard of living rose during the industrial revolution.

Besides the two general arguments outlined above, the qualitative pessimistic position can be refuted by a close look at its specific charges.

Technological unemployment and underemployment. It has been long held by many pessimists that the wage increases of the industrial revolution were eroded away by extremely high unemployment and underemployment rates caused by the introduction of labor-saving technology. Although there were some pockets of technological unemployment, the calculations of Williamson suggest that the unemployment rate was at most eight per cent per year, and was probably far lower (Williamson, p. 22). Furthermore, the stable money wages between 1820 and 1850 indicate that there was little competition from unemployed workers that would have lowered wages (Hartwell, 1971, pp. 318-319). As for underemployment, the tremendous shift from agriculture, which provided only seasonal employment, to the more stable manufacturing sector, led to decreasing underemployment (Hartwell 1971, p. 323).

Pollution and Urban Conditions. Another popular argument of the pessimists is that the real wage increases were merely “bribes” to workers forced to endure polluted and unsanitary urban conditions. According to this line of reasoning, the gain in real wages was simply a means of luring workers to the horrid working conditions of the cities, and did not constitute a net gain in wealth. Although it is certainly true that urban conditions during the industrial revolution were appalling, the aforementioned improvement in mortality rates indicates that conditions were not bad enough to grievously affect the health of the city dwellers. Secondly, the workers voluntarily moved into urban areas, suggesting that the “opportunity cost” of pollution and various other urban discomforts did not outweigh the gains in real wages.

Child Labor. Another qualitative argument brought forth by the pessimists is that children were forced to endure long hours of work in unhealthy conditions. Although the existence of child labor cannot be denied, it is clear that most pessimists have overstated both its magnitude and the effects on the health of the children involved. In fact, much of the evidence for the pessimist’s case comes from the very famous, yet very inaccurate, reports from the government committees investigating the factory system. Almost all of the “condition of England” novels by Dickens, as well as the works of Engels and the Hammonds, have been in large part based on these committee reports (Jefferson, p. 189). Politically motivated and seriously defective, the evidence in these reports is marred by the fact that the doctors who testified against child labor in the factories had not even been in a factory and refused to testify under oath (Hutt, pp. 161-167). Moreover, the great improvement in mortality rates seems to indicate that either child labor was not extensive as before or was less harmful. Indeed, it was the great improvement in productivity instigated by the industrial revolution that has enabled Western societies to banish child labor.

Capitalism and “the spirit of the age.” Perhaps the most common yet most difficult to define charge made against capitalism and the industrial revolution is that the working class was filled with “spiritual” loss. According to this argument, rural farm workers were torn from their roots and thrust into the industrial towns and cities, thus losing sense of their heritage and individualism. However, the very fact that workers moved voluntarily from rural to urban areas once again suggests that the advantages of more material wealth outweighed the “opportunity cost” incurred from the move. Moreover, many friendly societies, workers’ societies, and voluntary organizations developed during this time, throwing the whole notion of “isolation of the individual” into dispute (Ashton, p. 137).

Any sociological costs endured during the industrial revolution must he counterbalanced against the many sociological benefits. For the first time, there was a sense of hope and optimism. The industrial revolution spawned the attitude that progress could be made and problems could be solved. Perhaps it is worth quoting Hartwell at length on this point:

The new attitude to social problems that emerged with the industrial revolution was that ills should be identified, examined, analyzed, publicized, and remedied, either by voluntary or legislative action. Thus evils that had long existed—child labor, for instance—and had long been accepted as inevitable, were re garded as new ills to be remedied rather than old ills to be endured (Hartwell, 1971, p. 343).

Government Intervenes

As the above analysis demonstrates, the industrial revolution resulted in a significant improvement in the quality of life for the working class. However, progress was slow, uneven, and sometimes nonexistent during many periods. For example, in the early stages of the revolution growth was minimal, resulting in little or no improvement for the working class (Williamson, p. 162). Is capitalism to blame for this slow rate of progress? To the contrary, it was the many forms of government intervention, not capitalism, which slowed British economic growth during the industrial revolution.

Perhaps the most important of these many interventions that hindered progress was the long period of intense war during the early years of the revolution. From 1760 to 1815, Britain was constantly engaged in war, either against France or the American Colonies. In fact, between 1780 and 1810, England was in the midst of a massive military build-up that was unmatched until World War I (Williamson, p. 163). Early commentators were quick to recognize the debilitating effects of this military build-up on the English economy. The historian J.E. Thorold Rogers, for instance, observed that the cost of the Napoleonic Wars was high indeed:

Thousands of homes were starved in order to find the means for the great war . . . the resources on which the struggle was based, and without which it would have speedily collapsed, were the stint and starvation of labor, the overtaxed and underfed toils of childhood, and the underpayed and uncertain unemployment of men (Rogers, 1891, quoted in Hartwell, 1971, p. 326).

Modern statistical evidence and economic theory lends support to such observations. Government war spending and borrowing increased interest rates, thus “crowding out” private investors who desperately needed capital to construct new factories, build better canals, and design new inventions. Growth was present during the war, but it was excruciatingly small. In the long run, this meant fewer jobs and lower wages for the working class.

But, for the common man, the war had more painful and immediate consequences than slowing the rate of economic growth. Various government schemes to finance the war debt led to monetary instability and uncertainty. This monetary instability, coupled with severe harvest failures, led to rapidly increasing food prices throughout the Napoleonic Wars (Redford, pp. 89-93). In fact, food prices soared upward by more than twenty- five per cent (Williamson, p. 187). Considering that the British working class then only earned on the average little more than £11 per year, it is no wonder how these developments led to hardships and deprivation that invariably resulted in social unrest.

Although decidedly the most important, war was not the only form of government intervention that decreased the quality of life. Government monopolies, such as the East India Company and Cutler’s Company, served to lessen economic efficiency and growth. The entire area of foreign commerce and trade was forced to contend with massive government regulation (Ashton, pp. 138-39).

Notwithstanding the popularity of pessimistic interpretations, the evidence of increasing real incomes and improving mortality rates indicates that significant improvement took place in the standard of living of the working class. These factors and other evidence also suggest that most qualitative aspects of the quality of life at least remained stable, and probably improved. This progress took place despite constant warfare and other counterproductive forms of government intervention that significantly hindered improvement.

While these immediate effects should not be overlooked, the real benefits of the industrial revolution are enjoyed by those living in today’s world of comparative luxury and splendor. The industrial revolution was the “great discontinuity” that built the foundations for our modern society (Hartwell, 1971). It has led us into an age without the famines, epidemics, and other disasters that continually plagued preindustrial societies. Perhaps the only way to fully appreciate the impact of the industrial revolution is to look at those in the modern world who have yet to undergo industrialization. The fate of the hungry and disease-ridden peasants in such areas as Africa and India is perhaps the most forceful and convincing argument in favor of capitalism’s industrial revolution. []

Ashton, T.S,. The Industrial Revolution 17601830 (London: Methuen and Co., 1957).

Hartwell, R.M.,”Capitalism and the Historians,” Essays on Hayek (New York: New York University Press, 1976).

Hartwell, R.M., “History and Ideology,” Modern Age, Vol. 18, No- 4. Fall, 1974.

Hartwell, R.M., The Industrial Revolution and Economic Growth (London: Methuen and Co.. 1971).

Hayek, F.A., Capitalism and the Historians (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul. 1954).

Hurt. W.H., “The Factory System of the Early Nineteenth Century,” Capitalism and the Historians F.A. Hayek. editor. (London: Rout-ledge and Kegan Paul, 1954).

Jefferson, J.M., “Industrialization and Poverty: in Fact and Fiction,” The Long Debate on Poverty (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1972).

McCloskey, Donald, “The Industrial Revolution 1780-1860: A Survey.” The Economic History of Britain Since 1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

North, Douglass. Structure and Change in Economic History (New York: Norton, 1981). The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 2 (London: Norton and Co., 1979).

Redford, Arthur. The Economic History of England (1760-1860) (London: Longmans, Green, and Co.. 1931).

Rude, George. Debate on Europe 1815-1850 (New York: Harper and Row, 1972).

Williamson, Jeffrey, Did British Capitalism Breed Inequality? (Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1985).

Carolyn Tuttle, Lake Forest College

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Great Britain became the first country to industrialize. Because of this, it was also the first country where the nature of children’s work changed so dramatically that child labor became seen as a social problem and a political issue.

This article examines the historical debate about child labor in Britain, Britain’s political response to problems with child labor, quantitative evidence about child labor during the 1800s, and economic explanations of the practice of child labor.

The Historical Debate about Child Labor in Britain

Child Labor before Industrialization

Children of poor and working-class families had worked for centuries before industrialization – helping around the house or assisting in the family’s enterprise when they were able. The practice of putting children to work was first documented in the Medieval era when fathers had their children spin thread for them to weave on the loom. Children performed a variety of tasks that were auxiliary to their parents but critical to the family economy. The family’s household needs determined the family’s supply of labor and “the interdependence of work and residence, of household labor needs, subsidence requirements, and family relationships constituted the ‘family economy'” [Tilly and Scott (1978, 12)].

Definitions of Child Labor

The term “child labor” generally refers to children who work to produce a good or a service which can be sold for money in the marketplace regardless of whether or not they are paid for their work. A “child” is usually defined as a person who is dependent upon other individuals (parents, relatives, or government officials) for his or her livelihood. The exact ages of “childhood” differ by country and time period.

Preindustrial Jobs

Children who lived on farms worked with the animals or in the fields planting seeds, pulling weeds and picking the ripe crop. Ann Kussmaul’s (1981) research uncovered a high percentage of youths working as servants in husbandry in the sixteenth century. Boys looked after the draught animals, cattle and sheep while girls milked the cows and cared for the chickens. Children who worked in homes were either apprentices, chimney sweeps, domestic servants, or assistants in the family business. As apprentices, children lived and worked with their master who established a workshop in his home or attached to the back of his cottage. The children received training in the trade instead of wages. Once they became fairly skilled in the trade they became journeymen. By the time they reached the age of twenty-one, most could start their own business because they had become highly skilled masters. Both parents and children considered this a fair arrangement unless the master was abusive. The infamous chimney sweeps, however, had apprenticeships considered especially harmful and exploitative. Boys as young as four would work for a master sweep who would send them up the narrow chimneys of British homes to scrape the soot off the sides. The first labor law passed in Britain to protect children from poor working conditions, the Act of 1788, attempted to improve the plight of these “climbing boys.” Around age twelve many girls left home to become domestic servants in the homes of artisans, traders, shopkeepers and manufacturers. They received a low wage, and room and board in exchange for doing household chores (cleaning, cooking, caring for children and shopping).

Children who were employed as assistants in domestic production (or what is also called the cottage industry) were in the best situation because they worked at home for their parents. Children who were helpers in the family business received training in a trade and their work directly increased the productivity of the family and hence the family’s income. Girls helped with dressmaking, hat making and button making while boys assisted with shoemaking, pottery making and horse shoeing. Although hours varied from trade to trade and family to family, children usually worked twelve hours per day with time out for meals and tea. These hours, moreover, were not regular over the year or consistent from day-to-day. The weather and family events affected the number of hours in a month children worked. This form of child labor was not viewed by society as cruel or abusive but was accepted as necessary for the survival of the family and development of the child.

Early Industrial Work

Once the first rural textile mills were built (1769) and child apprentices were hired as primary workers, the connotation of “child labor” began to change. Charles Dickens called these places of work the “dark satanic mills” and E. P. Thompson described them as “places of sexual license, foul language, cruelty, violent accidents, and alien manners” (1966, 307). Although long hours had been the custom for agricultural and domestic workers for generations, the factory system was criticized for strict discipline, harsh punishment, unhealthy working conditions, low wages, and inflexible work hours. The factory depersonalized the employer-employee relationship and was attacked for stripping the worker’s freedom, dignity and creativity. These child apprentices were paupers taken from orphanages and workhouses and were housed, clothed and fed but received no wages for their long day of work in the mill. A conservative estimate is that around 1784 one-third of the total workers in country mills were apprentices and that their numbers reached 80 to 90% in some individual mills (Collier, 1964). Despite the First Factory Act of 1802 (which attempted to improve the conditions of parish apprentices), several mill owners were in the same situation as Sir Robert Peel and Samuel Greg who solved their labor shortage by employing parish apprentices.

After the invention and adoption of Watt’s steam engine, mills no longer had to locate near water and rely on apprenticed orphans – hundreds of factory towns and villages developed in Lancashire, Manchester, Yorkshire and Cheshire. The factory owners began to hire children from poor and working-class families to work in these factories preparing and spinning cotton, flax, wool and silk.

The Child Labor Debate

What happened to children within these factory walls became a matter of intense social and political debate that continues today. Pessimists such as Alfred (1857), Engels (1926), Marx (1909), and Webb and Webb (1898) argued that children worked under deplorable conditions and were being exploited by the industrialists. A picture was painted of the “dark satanic mill” where children as young as five and six years old worked for twelve to sixteen hours a day, six days a week without recess for meals in hot, stuffy, poorly lit, overcrowded factories to earn as little as four shillings per week. Reformers called for child labor laws and after considerable debate, Parliament took action and set up a Royal Commission of Inquiry into children’s employment. Optimists, on the other hand, argued that the employment of children in these factories was beneficial to the child, family and country and that the conditions were no worse than they had been on farms, in cottages or up chimneys. Ure (1835) and Clapham (1926) argued that the work was easy for children and helped them make a necessary contribution to their family’s income. Many factory owners claimed that employing children was necessary for production to run smoothly and for their products to remain competitive. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, recommended child labor as a means of preventing youthful idleness and vice. Ivy Pinchbeck (1930) pointed out, moreover, that working hours and conditions had been as bad in the older domestic industries as they were in the industrial factories.

Factory Acts

Although the debate over whether children were exploited during the British Industrial Revolution continues today [see Nardinelli (1988) and Tuttle (1998)], Parliament passed several child labor laws after hearing the evidence collected. The three laws which most impacted the employment of children in the textile industry were the Cotton Factories Regulation Act of 1819 (which set the minimum working age at 9 and maximum working hours at 12), the Regulation of Child Labor Law of 1833 (which established paid inspectors to enforce the laws) and the Ten Hours Bill of 1847 (which limited working hours to 10 for children and women).

The Extent of Child Labor

The significance of child labor during the Industrial Revolution was attached to both the changes in the nature of child labor and the extent to which children were employed in the factories. Cunningham (1990) argues that the idleness of children was more a problem during the Industrial Revolution than the exploitation resulting from employment. He examines the Report on the Poor Laws in 1834 and finds that in parish after parish there was very little employment for children. In contrast, Cruickshank (1981), Hammond and Hammond (1937), Nardinelli (1990), Redford (1926), Rule (1981), and Tuttle (1999) claim that a large number of children were employed in the textile factories. These two seemingly contradictory claims can be reconciled because the labor market for child labor was not a national market. Instead, child labor was a regional phenomenon where a high incidence of child labor existed in the manufacturing districts while a low incidence of children were employed in rural and farming districts.

Since the first reliable British Census that inquired about children’s work was in 1841, it is impossible to compare the number of children employed on the farms and in cottage industry with the number of children employed in the factories during the heart of the British industrial revolution. It is possible, however, to get a sense of how many children were employed by the industries considered the “leaders” of the Industrial Revolution – textiles and coal mining. Although there is still not a consensus on the degree to which industrial manufacturers depended on child labor, research by several economic historians have uncovered several facts.

Estimates of Child Labor in Textiles

Using data from an early British Parliamentary Report (1819[HL.24]CX), Freuenberger, Mather and Nardinelli concluded that “children formed a substantial part of the labor force” in the textile mills (1984, 1087). They calculated that while only 4.5% of the cotton workers were under 10, 54.5% were under the age of 19 – confirmation that the employment of children and youths was pervasive in cotton textile factories (1984, 1087). Tuttle’s research using a later British Parliamentary Report (1834(167)XIX) shows this trend continued. She calculated that children under 13 comprised roughly 10 to 20 % of the work forces in the cotton, wool, flax, and silk mills in 1833. The employment of youths between the age of 13 and 18 was higher than for younger children, comprising roughly 23 to 57% of the work forces in cotton, wool, flax, and silk mills. Cruickshank also confirms that the contribution of children to textile work forces was significant. She showed that the growth of the factory system meant that from one-sixth to one-fifth of the total work force in the textile towns in 1833 were children under 14. There were 4,000 children in the mills of Manchester; 1,600 in Stockport; 1,500 in Bolton and 1,300 in Hyde (1981, 51).

The employment of children in textile factories continued to be high until mid-nineteenth century. According to the British Census, in 1841 the three most common occupations of boys were Agricultural Labourer, Domestic Servant and Cotton Manufacture with 196,640; 90,464 and 44,833 boys under 20 employed, respectively. Similarly for girls the three most common occupations include Cotton Manufacture. In 1841, 346,079 girls were Domestic Servants; 62,131 were employed in Cotton Manufacture and 22,174 were Dress-makers. By 1851 the three most common occupations for boys under 15 were Agricultural Labourer (82,259), Messenger (43,922) and Cotton Manufacture (33,228) and for girls it was Domestic Servant (58,933), Cotton Manufacture (37,058) and Indoor Farm Servant (12,809) (1852-53[1691-I]LXXXVIII, pt.1). It is clear from these findings that children made up a large portion of the work force in textile mills during the nineteenth century. Using returns from the Factory Inspectors, S. J. Chapman’s (1904) calculations reveal that the percentage of child operatives under 13 had a downward trend for the first half of the century from 13.4% in 1835 to 4.7% in 1838 to 5.8% in 1847 and 4.6% by 1850 and then rose again to 6.5% in 1856, 8.8% in 1867, 10.4% in 1869 and 9.6% in 1870 (1904, 112).

Estimates of Child Labor in Mining

Children and youth also comprised a relatively large proportion of the work forces in coal and metal mines in Britain. In 1842, the proportion of the work forces that were children and youth in coal and metal mines ranged from 19 to 40%. A larger proportion of the work forces of coal mines used child labor underground while more children were found on the surface of metal mines “dressing the ores” (a process of separating the ore from the dirt and rock). By 1842 one-third of the underground work force of coal mines was under the age of 18 and one-fourth of the work force of metal mines were children and youth (1842[380]XV). In 1851 children and youth (under 20) comprised 30% of the total population of coal miners in Great Britain. After the Mining Act of 1842 was passed which prohibited girls and women from working in mines, fewer children worked in mines. The Reports on Sessions 1847-48 and 1849 Mining Districts I (1847-48[993]XXVI and 1849[1109]XXII) and The Reports on Sessions 1850 and 1857-58 Mining Districts II (1850[1248]XXIII and 1857-58[2424]XXXII) contain statements from mining commissioners that the number of young children employed underground had diminished.

In 1838, Jenkin (1927) estimates that roughly 5,000 children were employed in the metal mines of Cornwall and by 1842 the returns from The First Report show as many as 5,378 children and youth worked in the mines. In 1838 Lemon collected data from 124 tin, copper and lead mines in Cornwall and found that 85% employed children. In the 105 mines that employed child labor, children comprised from as little as 2% to as much as 50% of the work force with a mean of 20% (Lemon, 1838). According to Jenkin the employment of children in copper and tin mines in Cornwall began to decline by 1870 (1927, 309).

Explanations for Child Labor

The Supply of Child Labor

Given the role of child labor in the British Industrial Revolution, many economic historians have tried to explain why child labor became so prevalent. A competitive model of the labor market for children has been used to examine the factors that influenced the demand for children by employers and the supply of children from families. The majority of scholars argue that it was the plentiful supply of children that increased employment in industrial work places turning child labor into a social problem. The most common explanation for the increase in supply is poverty – the family sent their children to work because they desperately needed the income. Another common explanation is that work was a traditional and customary component of ordinary people’s lives. Parents had worked when they were young and required their children to do the same. The prevailing view of childhood for the working-class was that children were considered “little adults” and were expected to contribute to the family’s income or enterprise. Other less commonly argued sources of an increase in the supply of child labor were that parents either sent their children to work because they were greedy and wanted more income to spend on themselves or that children wanted out of the house because their parents were emotionally and physically abusive. Whatever the reason for the increase in supply, scholars agree that since mandatory schooling laws were not passed until 1876, even well-intentioned parents had few alternatives.

The Demand for Child Labor

Other compelling explanations argue that it was demand, not supply, that increased the use of child labor during the Industrial Revolution. One explanation came from the industrialists and factory owners – children were a cheap source of labor that allowed them to stay competitive. Managers and overseers saw other advantages to hiring children and pointed out that children were ideal factory workers because they were obedient, submissive, likely to respond to punishment and unlikely to form unions. In addition, since the machines had reduced many procedures to simple one-step tasks, unskilled workers could replace skilled workers. Finally, a few scholars argue that the nimble fingers, small stature and suppleness of children were especially suited to the new machinery and work situations. They argue children had a comparative advantage with the machines that were small and built low to the ground as well as in the narrow underground tunnels of coal and metal mines. The Industrial Revolution, in this case, increased the demand for child labor by creating work situations where they could be very productive.

Influence of Child Labor Laws

Whether it was an increase in demand or an increase in supply, the argument that child labor laws were not considered much of a deterrent to employers or families is fairly convincing. Since fines were not large and enforcement was not strict, the implicit tax placed on the employer or family was quite low in comparison to the wages or profits the children generated [Nardinelli (1980)]. On the other hand, some scholars believe that the laws reduced the number of younger children working and reduced labor hours in general [Chapman (1904) and Plener (1873)].

Despite the laws there were still many children and youth employed in textiles and mining by mid-century. Booth calculated there were still 58,900 boys and 82,600 girls under 15 employed in textiles and dyeing in 1881. In mining the number did not show a steady decline during this period, but by 1881 there were 30,400 boys under 15 still employed and 500 girls under 15. See below.

Table 1: Child Employment, 1851-1881

Industry & Age Cohort1851186118711881
Males under 15
Females under 151,400500900500
Males 15-2050,10065,30074,90087,300
Females over 155,4004,9005,3005,700
Total under 15 as
% of work force
Textiles and Dyeing
Males under 15
Females under 15147,700115,700119,80082,600
Males 15-2092,60092,60090,50093,200
Females over 15780,900739,300729,700699,900
Total under 15 as
% of work force

Source: Booth (1886, 353-399).

Explanations for the Decline in Child Labor

There are many opinions regarding the reason(s) for the diminished role of child labor in these industries. Social historians believe it was the rise of the domestic ideology of the father as breadwinner and the mother as housewife, that was imbedded in the upper and middle classes and spread to the working-class. Economic historians argue it was the rise in the standard of living that accompanied the Industrial Revolution that allowed parents to keep their children home. Although mandatory schooling laws did not play a role because they were so late, other scholars argue that families started showing an interest in education and began sending their children to school voluntarily. Finally, others claim that it was the advances in technology and the new heavier and more complicated machinery, which required the strength of skilled adult males, that lead to the decline in child labor in Great Britain. Although child labor has become a fading memory for Britons, it still remains a social problem and political issue for developing countries today.


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Citation: Tuttle, Carolyn. “Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 14, 2001. URL

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