5.3. Children’s Employment


Health and Morals of Apprentices Act 1802

Limited working hours for apprentice children in textile mills to 12 hours a day excluding breaks, and prohibited night work for them. But the owners did not apply it to “free” children.

Cotton Mills and Factories Act 1819 (only applied to cotton industry)

No children under 9 to be employed in factories; children 9 to 16 to be employed not more than 12 hrs. per day, plus ½ hr. breakfast, 1 hr. lunch.

Mills and Factories Act 1833 (“Althorp’s Act”)

Children under 9 could not be employed in textile manufacture (only in silk mills), children under 18 could not work at night (8.30 pm – 5.30 am), children aged 9 to 13 could not work more than 8 hrs. per day plus 1 hr. lunch break, young persons 14 to 18 could not work more than 12 hrs. plus 1 hr. lunch.

Provided for routine official inspections; employers had to have an age certificate for the children. The children should have two hours schooling per day.

Labour in Factories Act 1844 (“Graham’s Factory Act”)

Children 9 to 13 could only work 6 ½ hrs. plus 1 hr. lunch, women and young people could only work 12 hrs. + 1 ½ hrs. meals, women could not work in the night. Children’s work to be only in the morning, or only in the afternoon; the other half of the day to be free for education and recreation (“half-timers”).

Ages and health of children to be certified by doctors.

Accidental deaths to be notified to a surgeon, and investigated.

The workers must take their meals together, and not in the workplace.

All moving parts of machinery to be securely fenced, children and women not to clean moving machinery.

Factories Act 1847 (“Fielden’s Act”, “Ten Hours Act”)

Women and young people (under 18) could only work 10 hours each weekday and 8 hours on Saturdays. In general, this meant that the men would not work more than 10 hours, because they needed the auxiliary functions of the women and children


The grave problems that the children experienced in the cotton industry (and, in some cases, even worse in the flax, worsted, and silk industries) were the bad treatment and excessive hours of work, and the fact that they were being employed at early ages. These problems existed from 1780 to 1833. By 1833, when the minimum age for working in textile factorieswas set at 9 years old, less than 1 % of the workers were children under 9. This had been decreasing informally since the 1819 Act. 

The idea of employing children, and often very small children, started from the factories that were established in the foothills of the Pennines, where there was a supply of fast-running water from the rivers, which was used to power the water mills. These were in parts of the country away from the towns, and thus it was difficult to find workers. One solution was to “import” a number of families to the place, and build a small “village”. The women and children worked in the spinning functions in the mill, and the men worked in their cottages in the village, weaving. The other solution was to “import” orphans, or other children in care of a local authority, from towns in Lancashire and adjoining counties, and from London. In this phase, probably 50 % of the workers were children under 15, and half of these were the orphans, generally called “apprentices” (Redford, 1926, pp. 23-27).The occupation of the children at this time was to be a “scavenger” (pick up the small pieces of cotton, that had fallen from the machine), or a “piecer” (join parts of thread in the machine, which had broken), or to generally assist the girl or woman with the spinning machine.

When the steam engine was applied to the spinning machines, it was not necessary to have the mills near the rivers, but they could now be in the towns. The men were not required, except for some of the heavier machines, the women in general were in charge of the machines, the small children continued as “scavengers” and “piecers”, and the children from 10 to 15 years old carried out the “support functions”, like changing the bobbins, inserting the cotton in the machines, and carrying the yarn from one machine to another.

The first reason for using a large proportion of children was that they were small and nimble, and could carry out the tasks of scavenger and piecer. Another, not unimportant, motive was that they cost less than one quarter of the wages of an adult man (although obviously they could not do the heavy work). The third reason had to do with the adult men: a great number of these did not want to work in a factory, and be subject to discipline and exact working hours; also, the mill owners did not want to have the men, because they would have a lot of trouble and insubordination from them. 

In Manchester and the immediate neighbourhood, 24,000 persons were employed in cotton factories in 1819, of which five-twelfths were under 16 years of age. 

“The employment of young children in any labour is wrong. The term of physical growth ought not to be a term of physical exertion. Light and varied motions should be the only effort,- motions excited by the will, not by the task-master,- the run and leap of a bouyant and unshackled spirit. How different the scene in a manufacturing district! No man of humanity can reflect without distress on the state of thousands of children, many from six to seven years of age, roused from their beds at an early hour, hurried to the mills, and kept there, with the interval of only 40 minutes, till a late hour at night; kept, moreover, in an atmosphere impure, not only as the air of a town, not only as defective in ventilation, but as loaded also with noxious dust. Health! cleanliness! mental improvement! How are they regarded? Recreation is out of the question. There is scarcely time for meals. The very period of sleep, so necessary for the young, is too often abridged. Nay, children are sometimes worked even in the night.”

(Thackrah, 1832, p. 80)

“In the Report of the Manchester Board of Health, published in 1805, the committee remark that, “They have still to lament the untimely and protracted labour of the children employed in some of the mills, which tends to diminish future expectations, as to the general sum of life and industry, by impairing the strength, and destroying the vital stamina of the rising generation; at the same time that, in too many instances, it gives encouragement to idleness, extravagance, and profligacy in the parents, who, perverting the order of nature, subsist by the oppression of their offspring.” This evil has since been remedied by a law, which applies, however, only to the cotton-mills.”

(Thackrah, 1832, p. 80, footnote)

The employment of children in such large numbers, was due to the need of the parents for income additional to their own wages, to the requirement of the local authorities that adults put their children to work before they could receive Poor Law payments (rather like the Means Test in the 1930’s), to the ease of the work which they did, i.e. it was not useful or possible for adult men to carry out these processes, and obviously of the interest of the mill owners in paying low wages to the children. 

Many of the families who sent their children to the mills really were in need in the money. These were poor families with only the father working, and for low wages, and possibly not finding work every week. 

In one large spinning establishment, at least 17 families were supported exclusively by the wages of the children. These children were aged from 9 to 15 years old, generally there were 3 in each family working, the total size of the family from 5 to 11 persons, and the total income per family was 12 to 20 shillings.

(Table in: Factories Inquiry Commission, Supplementary Report Part 1, 1833, p. 280) 

Mr. Marshall, M. P., and owner of the largest flax mill in the country, told the Parliamentary Committee, how he came to increase the minimum age for contracting children for his mills: 

“…. The circumstances which occasioned our employment of two sets in the day, of young hands between the age of nine and eleven, are these: our attention was drawn to the subject of legislating on the ages of children in factories in 1830. On the consideration that we then gave to the subject, we thought that nine years old was too young to admit children into the mill to work full time. In January, 1831, we ordered that no children under ten years old should be admitted into the mill; and on the 1st January 1832, we again raised the limit to eleven years old. During the year 1832, our head overlookers frequently mentioned to us that the parents were much dissatisfied with this restriction on the labour of their children; many of them, whose entire families were working with us then, and had been doing so for many years, complained, and stated that they would not keep them unemployed, but would take their young children (under eleven years old) to work elsewhere, though they should do so reluctantly. We at once acknowledged the correctness of their complaint, and saw that we were causing considerable inconvenience to them by our restrictions.” The solution was to give the employment to the children of nine and ten years old, for half a day (i.e. work in two relays), and the other half day would be spent in the company’s school.

(Quoted in: Wing, The Evils of the Factory System, 1837, p. 349)   

There were often cases of a widow with a very low own income, and who desperately needed the children to go out to work: 

“…. Then there was another matter which ought to be considered. There were many cases where widows were left with large families, and he did not see how it would be possible for them to get along if their children were not allowed to work until they were 11 years of age, while, on the other hand, if they were allowed to begin at 8 or 9, and to work half a day and go to school the other half, they would be contributing towards their support, and be protected from the evils they were at present subject to.”

(Children’s Employment Commission, First Report, 1862, The Pottery Manufacture, Mr. F. Bishop, manufacturer, p. xliv)

(The tension between poverty and hunger in the family on the one hand, and the rights of the child to not work at too young an age on the other hand, still exist in some very poor countries, such as Bolivia: see nbcnews, “Bolivia wrestles with protecting child workers as young as 10, Jan. 26, 2018”.)

Following is an interesting conversation with the man responsible for Poor Law payments in Manchester:

“Did you ever know the Cotton Industry in a more flourishing state than it is now?” “No, I cannot say that I did.”

“As Overseer of the place you require the children to work, do you not?” “Certainly we do.”

“And you consider that the more wages that they can obtain for their work the better?” “Of course it must reduce the Town’s pay.”

“You do not take into your calculation the injury their health would receive?” “I cannot say that was ever a matter of calculation; they were always required to find full employment for their children as early as possible, to relieve the payment of the town.”

“And to relieve the Town as much as they could, by working the children as much as they could?” “Certainly.”

“You have said that children are employed in the Factories, which children were not fit for more laborious employments?” “Certainly.”

“Do you not mean by the term laborious employments, such employments as require strength?” “Certainly.”


“The children look pale, do not they?” “They do in general.”


“Supposing a family having children of an age such as to have been accustomed to be sent to the Cotton Factories were to decline sending their children, should you not stop their pay?” “I believe we should.”

“You have told me before, that so far as you can, you are anxious that the children should be employed?” “Certainly.”

(Observations as to the ages of persons employed, …. 1819, evidence of William Welsby, assistant Overseer of the township of Manchester, pp. 70-72)

There is an idea often presented in books on the period, to the tone that “yes, it is true that the children in the first years of the Industrial Revolution were worked very hard, and for very long hours, were badly fed, and were physically punished. But this happened in nearly the same magnitude in the previous generation, with their families, working on the farm or helping with the work on the loom. But these facts were not publicised.” The comparison is not valid. The children on the farm did not work 12 hours a day, they did not work all this time without a minute’s rest, they were not forced to get up at five o’clock in the morning to walk to their place of work, and they were given sufficient food. We have a description of the suffering of some children, presented by factory workers in Warrington in 1819.

“The principal Cotton Mills in this Town & neighbourhood work from half past five in the morning till half past Eight at night so that the poor Children are called out of Bed at 5 in the Morning and it is nine at night when they get Home Some of them being under Six many under Eight years of age We feel exquisitely for these in Winter time Coming out of the warm Bed Cloathed in Rags or half naked through the Cold frost & snow winds & Rain many of them barefoot into the Hot Room were no Air is permitted to enter that can be prevented as it is Injurious in the Manufacturing especially in the Spinning of Cotton We could mention Several Instances of both Males & females now in our Employ above 16 years of age who are not four foot high and whose pallid looks and emaciated frame would almost affect the callous Heart of the arrogant Mr. Philips ….”

(quoted in Paterson, 1995, pp. 152-153)

(The transcription is exact)

The men who wrote this epistle would have been children in 1790 to 1800, and would have had a normal upbringing with their parents. If this had not been the case, they would not have been so hurt by what they were seeing.

We have three evidences which were given many years later, by people who had seen scenes of this sort; since they were published after all the political and social movements had subsided, we may assume that they were written without any political interest.

“Since the passing of the Factory Act [1833] the change in the condition of factory operatives is wonderful.  Previously, cripples among them were very common, and the mortality great, arising from the excessive hours of labour. What also now contributes to their health is the necessity for the factory children appearing at School cleanly.” 

(James, 1857, p. 549 footnote)

“In some large factories, from one-fourth to one-fifth of the children were either crippled or otherwise deformed, or permanently injured by excessive toil, sometimes by brutal abuse. The younger children seldom held out more than three or four years without serious illness, often ending in death.”

(Robert Dale Owen, son of Robert Owen, Threading my Way, Carlton, New York, 1874, p. 126; referring to visits to mills about 1815)

“The other is the old, the often-repeated, and as often-refuted, argument that the work is light. Light! Why, no doubt, much of it is light, if measured by the endurance of some three or four minutes. But what say you, my Lords, to a continuity of toil, in a standing posture, in a poisonous atmosphere, during 13 hours, with 15 minutes of rest? Why, the stoutest man in England, were he made, in such a condition of things, to do nothing during the whole of that time but be erect on his feet and stick pins in a pincushion, would sink under the burden. What say you, then, of children – children of the tenderest years? Why, they become stunted, crippled, deformed, useless. I speak what I know – I state what I have seen. When I visited Bradford, in Yorkshire, in 1838, being desirous to see the condition of the children – for I knew that they were employed at very early ages in the worsted business …. I asked for a collection of cripples and deformities. In a short time more than 80 were gathered in a large courtyard. They were mere samples of the entire mass. I assert without exaggeration that no power of language could describe the varieties, and I may say, the cruelties, in all these degradations of the human form. They stood or squatted before me in all the shapes of the letters of the alphabet. This was the effect of prolonged toil on the tender frames of children at early ages. When I visited Bradford, under the limitation of hours some years afterwards, I called for a similar exhibition of cripples; but, God be praised! there was not one to be found in that vast city. Yet the work of these poor sufferers had been light, if measured by minutes, but terrific when measured by hours.” 

(Earl of Shaftesbury, Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates. 3rd Series, CCXLV (4 April 1879), Earl of Shaftesbury, pp. 355-56)

The paragraphs above which list all the bad experiences, are generalizations. The worst factories were the small ones, and some that were outside the towns. All the points mentioned were demonstrated to the Parliamentary Commissioners and in the House of Commons. There were however a certain number of owners of mills, who did not allow beatings or gross language, worked hours not above 12 for the children, gave nutritive meals, and even paid for visits to the doctor. There is no academic investigation, as to how many factory owners were “good”, and how many were “bad”; neither for Lancashire, nor for Yorkshire.

But there is a report from a local magistrate to the House of Lords Committee, referring to 29 cotton mills in the region of Bolton, visited in 1819. This shows us that out of 29 mills, in 12 cases the children were dirty, clothed in rags, puny and sickly, and “no human beings can be more wretched”. But in 17 cases, the children were healthy, well clothed, happy, clean, with instruction, and in some mills they attended divine service on Sundays.

The strange point here is that it was possible that the children would work 12 to 15 hours a day, and they could still be happy, clean, healthy, and well clothed.

(House of Lords, Reasons in Favour of Sir Robert Peel’s Bill, 1819, pp. 42-43)

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