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Child Labor and the British Industrial Revolution, Part 2


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It has not been uncommon for historians, including many who lived and wrote in the 19th century, to report the travails of the apprentice children without ever realizing they were effectively indicting government, not the economic arrangement of free exchange we call capitalism. In 1857, Alfred Kydd published a two-volume work entitled The History of the Factory Movement . He speaks of “living bodies caught in the iron grip of machinery in rapid motion, and whirled in the air, bones crushed, and blood cast copiously on the floor, because of physical exhaustion.” Then, in a most revealing statement, in which he refers to the children’s “owners,” Kydd declares, “The factory apprentices have been sold (emphasis mine) by auction as ‘bankrupt’s effects.'”

A surgeon by the name of Philip Gaskell made extensive observations of the physical condition of the manufacturing population in the 1830s. He published his findings in 1836 in a book entitled Artisans and Machinery . The casual reader would miss the fact that, in his revelations of ghastly conditions for children, he was referring to the parish apprentices (children who were under the direct authority and supervision not of their parents in a free labor market, but of government officials):

“That glaring mismanagement existed in numberless instances there can be no doubt; and that these unprotected creatures, thus thrown entirely into the power of the manufacturer, were overworked, often badly fed, and worse treated. No wonder can be felt that these glaring mischiefs attracted observation, and finally, led to the passing of the Apprentice Bill, a bill intended to regulate these matters.”

The Apprentice Bill that Gaskell mentioned was passed in 1802, the first of the much-heralded factory legislation, the very one that Robert Hessen stresses was aimed at the abuse by the parish officials. (See “Child Labor and the British Industrial Revolution: Part 1,” Freedom Daily, September 1999.) It remains that capitalism is not a system of compulsion. The lack of physical force, in fact, is what distinguishes it from pre-capitalist, feudal times. When feudalism reigned, men, women, and children were indeed “sold” at auction, forced to work long hours at arduous manual labor, and compelled to toil under whatever conditions and for whatever compensation pleased their masters. This was the system of serfdom, and the deplorable system of parish apprenticeship was a remnant of Britain’s feudal past.

The emergence of capitalism was sparked by a desire of Englishmen to rid themselves of coercive economic arrangements. The free laborer increasingly supplanted the serf as capitalism blossomed. It is a gross and most unfortunate distortion of history for anyone to contend that capitalism or its industrialization was to blame for the agony of the apprentice children.

Though it is inaccurate to judge capitalism guilty of the sins of parish apprenticeship, it would also be inaccurate to assume that “free labour” children worked under ideal conditions in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. By today’s standards, their situation was clearly bad. Such capitalist achievements as air conditioning and high levels of productivity would, in time, substantially ameliorate it, however. The evidence in favor of capitalism is thus compellingly suggestive: From 1750 to 1850, when the population of Great Britain nearly tripled, the exclusive choice of those flocking to the country for jobs was to work for private capitalists.

A discussion of child labor in Britain would be incomplete without some reference to the famous Sadler Report. Written by a member of Parliament in 1832 and filled with stories of brutality, degradation, and oppression against factory workers of all ages and status, it became the bible for indignant reformers well into the 20th century. The Hammonds described it as “one of the main sources of our knowledge of the conditions of factory life at the time. Its pages bring before the reader in vivid form of dialogue the kind of life that was led by the victims of the new system.” (See “Child Labor and the British Industrial Revolution: Part 1,” Freedom Daily, September 1999.) Two other historians, B.L. Hutchins and A. Harrison, describe it in their book A History of Factory Legislation as “one of the most valuable collections of evidence on industrial conditions that we possess.”

W.H. Hutt, in his essay “The Factory System of the Early Nineteenth Century” reveals that bad as things were, they were never nearly as bad as the Sadler Report would have one believe. Sadler, it turns out, had been agitating for passage of the Ten Hours’ Bill and in doing so, he employed every cheap political trick in the book, including the falsification of evidence. The report was part of those tactics.

Hutt quotes R.H. Greg (author of The Factory Question [1837]), who accused Sadler of giving to the world “such a mass of ex-parte statements, and of gross falsehoods and calumnies as probably never before found their way into any public document.”

This view is shared by no less an anticapitalist than Friedrich Engels, partner of Karl Marx. In his book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, Engels says this of the Sadler Report:

“This is a very partisan document, which was drawn up entirely by enemies of the factory system for purely political purposes. Sadler was led astray by his passionate sympathies into making assertions of a most misleading and erroneous kind. He asked witnesses questions in such a way as to elicit answers which, although correct, nevertheless were stated in such a form as to give a wholly false impression.”

As already explained, the earliest factory legislation was an act of mercy for the enslaved apprentice children. Successive acts between 1819 and 1846, however, placed greater and greater restrictions on the employment of “free labour” children. Were they necessary to correct alleged “evils of industrialization”?

The evidence strongly suggests that whatever benefits the legislation may have produced by preventing children from going to work (or raising the cost of employing them) were marginal and were outweighed by the harm the laws actually caused. Gaskell admitted a short time after one of them had passed that it “caused multitudes of children to be dismissed, but it has only increased the evils it was intended to remedy, and must of necessity be repealed.”

Hutt believes that “in the case of children’s labor, the effects [of restrictive laws] went further than the mere loss of their work; they lost their training and, consequently, their skill as adults.”

Conditions of employment and sanitation were best, as the Factory Commission of 1833 documented, in the larger and newer factories. The owners of these larger establishments, which were more easily and frequently subject to visitation and scrutiny by inspectors, increasingly chose to dismiss children from employment rather than be subjected to elaborate, arbitrary, and ever-changing rules on how they might run a factory employing youths.

As Hutt points out, the result of legislative intervention was that these dismissed children, most of whom needed to work in order to survive, were forced to seek jobs in smaller, older, and more out-of-the-way places where sanitation, lighting, and safety were markedly inferior. Those who could not find new jobs were reduced to the status of their counterparts a hundred years before, that is, to irregular and grueling agricultural labor or worse – in the words of Mises – who “infested the country as vagabonds, beggars, tramps, robbers, and prostitutes.”

So it is that child labor was relieved of its worst attributes not by legislative fiat but by the progressive march of an ever more productive, capitalist system. Child labor was virtually eliminated when, for the first time in history, the productivity of parents in free labor markets rose to the point that it was no longer economically necessary for children to work in order to survive. The emancipators and benefactors of children were not legislators or factory inspectors but factory owners and financiers. Their efforts and investments in machinery led to a rise in real wages, to a growing abundance of goods at lower prices, and to an incomparable improvement in the general standard of living.

Of all the interpretations of industrial history, it would be difficult to find one more perverse than that which ascribes the suffering of children to capitalism and its Industrial Revolution. The popular critique of child labor in industrial Britain is unwarranted, misdirected propaganda. The Hammonds and others should have focused on the activities of government, not capitalists, as the source of the children’s plight. It is a confusion that has unnecessarily taken a heavy toll on the case for freedom and free markets. On this issue, it is long overdue for the friends of capitalism to take the ideological and historical offensive.

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    Lawrence W. Reed is President of The Foundation for Economic Education. Reed holds a B.A. degree in Economics from Grove City College (1975) and an M.A. degree in History from Slippery Rock State University (1978), both in Pennsylvania. He taught economics at Midland’s Northwood University from 1977 to 1984 and chaired the Department of Economics from 1982 to 1984. He has authored over 1,000 newspaper columns and articles, 200 radio commentaries, dozens of articles in magazines and journals in the U. S. and abroad, as well as five books. His articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, Baltimore Sun, Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, among many others. Mr. Reed was previously president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan (www. mackinac.org), and chairman of the board of trustees of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He also serves on the Board of Speakers of The Future of Freedom Foundation.