Child Labor and the British Industrial Revolution

(This essay was written in 1976 but its thesis is as important today as ever, and especially during the holiday season when the conventional view of child labor in early industrial England finds its way into our hearts and homes through Charles Dickens's classic "A Christmas Carol.")

Everyone agrees that in the 100 years between 1750 and 1850 there took place in Great Britain profound economic changes.  This was the age of the Industrial Revolution, complete with a cascade of technical innovations, a vast increase in industrial production, a renaissance of world trade, and rapid growth of urban populations.

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Where historians and other observers clash is in the interpretation of these great changes.  Were they "good" or "bad"?  Did they represent improvement to the citizens, or did these events set them back?  Perhaps no other issue within this realm has generated more intellectual heat than the one concerning the labor of children.  The enemies of freedom—of capitalism—have successfully cast this matter as an irrefutable indictment of the capitalist system as it was emerging in nineteenth-century Britain.

The many reports of poor working conditions and long hours of difficult toil make harrowing reading, to be sure.  William Cooke Taylor wrote at the time about contemporary reformers who, witnessing children at work in factories, thought to themselves, "How much more delightful would have been the gambol of the free limbs on the hillside; the sight of the green mead with its spangles of buttercups and daisies; the song of the bird and the humming of the bee." (1)

Of those historians who have interpreted child labor in industrial Britain as a crime of capitalism, none have been more prominent than J. L. and Barbara Hammond.  Their many works, including Lord Shaftesbury, The Village Labourer, The Town  Labourer, and The Skilled Labourer, have been widely promoted as "authoritative" on the issue.

The Hammonds divided the factory children into two classes: "Parish apprentice children" and "free labour children."  It is a distinction of enormous significance, though one the authors themselves failed utterly to appreciate.  Once having made the distinction, the Hammonds proceeded to treat the two classes as though no distinction between them existed at all.  A deluge of false and misleading conclusions about capitalism and child labor has poured forth for years as a consequence.

Opportunity or Oppression?

"Free labour" children were those who lived at home but worked during the days in factories at the insistence of their parents or guardians.  British historian E. P. Thompson, though generally critical of the factory system, nonetheless quite properly conceded that "it is perfectly true that the parents not only needed their children's earnings, but expected them to work." (2)  Professor Ludwig von Mises, the great Austrian economist, put it well when he noted that the generally deplorable conditions extant for centuries before the Industrial Revolution, and the low levels of productivity which created them, caused families to embrace the new opportunities the factories represented:

It is a distortion of facts to say that the factories carried off the housewives from the nurseries and the kitchen and the children from their play.  These women had nothing to cook with and to feed their children.  These children were destitute and starving.  Their only refuge was the factory.  It saved them, in the strict sense of the term, from death by starvation. (3)

Private factory owners could not forcibly subjugate "free labour" children; they could not compel them to work in conditions their parents found unacceptable.  The mass exodus from the socialist Continent to increasingly capitalist, industrial Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century strongly suggests that people did indeed find the industrial order an attractive alternative.  And no credible evidence exists which argues that parents in these early capitalist days were any less caring of their offspring than those of pre-capitalist times.

The situation, however, was much different for "parish apprentice" children, and close examination reveals that it was these children on whom the critics were focusing when they spoke of the "evils" of capitalism's Industrial Revolution.  These youngsters, it turns out, were under the direct authority and supervision not of their parents in a free labor market, but of government officials.  Most were orphans; a few were victims of negligent parents or parents whose health or lack of skills kept them from earning sufficient income to care for a family.  All were in the custody of ""parish authorities." As the Hammonds themselves wrote,

. . . the first mills were placed on streams, and the necessary labour was provided by the importation of cartloads of pauper children from the workhouses of the big towns. London was an important source, for since the passing of Hanway's Act in 1767 the child population in the workhouse had enormously increased, and the parish authorities were anxious to find relief from the burden of their maintenance . . . .  To the parish authorities, encumbered with great masses of unwanted children, the new cotton mills in Lancashire, Derby, and Notts were a godsend. (4)

The Hammonds proceed to report the horrors of these mills with descriptions like these: "crowded with overworked children," "hotbeds of putrid fever," "monotonous toil in a hell of human cruelty," and so forth.   Page after page of the Hammonds' writings—as well as those of many other anticapitalist historians—deal in this manner with the condition of these parish apprentices.  Though consigned to the control of a government authority, these children are routinely held up as victims of the "capitalist order."

Author Robert Hessen is one observer who has taken note of this historiographical mischief and has urged others to acknowledge the error.   The parish apprentice children, he writes, "were sent into virtual slavery by a government body; they were deserted or orphaned pauper children who were legally under the custody of the poor-law officials in the parish, and who were bound by these officials into long terms of unpaid apprenticeship in return for bare subsistence." (5)   Indeed, Hessen points out, the first Act in Britain which applied to factory children was passed to protect these very parish apprentices, not "free labour" children.

The Role of the State

It has not been uncommon for historians, including many who lived and wrote in the nineteenth 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 that "The factory apprentices have been sold (emphasis mine) by auction as `bankrupt's effects.'" (6)

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 a book in 1836 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:

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. (7)

The Apprentice Bill that Gaskell mentioned was passed in 1802, the first of the much-heralded factory legislation, the very one Hessen stresses was aimed at the abuse by the parish officials.  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 labor 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 virtually 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 twentieth 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." (8)   Two other historians, B. L. Hutchins and A. Harrison, describe it as "one of the most valuable collections of evidence on industrial conditions that we possess." (9)

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. (10)  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 probably never before found their way into any public document." (11)

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. (12)

As already explained, the first of the 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 labor children.  Were they necessary to correct alleged "evils of industrializaton"?

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." (13)

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." (14)

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.  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. (15)   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—"infested the country as vagabonds, beggars, tramps, robbers, and prostitutes." (16)

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.


1.  William Cooke Taylor, The Factory System (London, 1844), pp. 23-24.

2.  E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Random House, 1964), p. 339.

3.  Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1949), p. 615.

4.  J. L. and Barbara Hammond, The Town Labourer (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1967), p. 145.

5.  Robert Hessen, "The Effects of the Industrial Revolution on Women and Children," In Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: New American Library, 1967), p. 112.

6.  Alfred Kydd, The History of the Factory Movement (New York: Burt Franklin, n.d.), pp. 21-22.

7.  Philip Gaskell, Artisans and Machinery (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1968), p. 141.

8.  J. L. and Barbara Hammond, Lord Shaftesbury (London: Constable, 1933), p. 16.

9.  B. L. Hutchins and A. Harrison, A History of Factory Legislation (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1966), p. 34.

10.  W. H. Hutt, "The Factory System of the Early Nineteenth Century," in F. A. Hayek, Capitalism and the Historians (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954), p. 1.

11.  Ibid.

12.  Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1958), p. 192.

13.  Gaskell, p. 67.

14.  Hutt, p. 182.

15.  Hessen, p. 112.

16.  Mises, p. 614.

"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."