Fighting The Scourge of Child Labour

Children lining up for work outside a factory in the late nineteenth century
Children lining up for work outside a factory in the late nineteenth century

by Ray Setterfield


August 29, 1833 — The United Kingdom’s historic first Factory Act became law on this day – and it was much needed.

Women and children faced a gruelling workload and positively inhuman conditions, especially in the textile industry, as thousands of factories were built across the country to meet the burgeoning demands of the Industrial Revolution.

Apart from having to work incredibly long hours – often through the night – workers had to use dangerous machinery that could, and frequently did, cause serious injuries. And if an injured person caused production delays he or she would be severely punished.

That applied in some cases even after the tired victim had been heavily fined or even, in the case of a child, beaten for arriving late for work.

Without any regulations to protect them, very young children would be forced to work extremely long and dangerous hours often because their impoverished parents needed money to feed the family.

Word began to spread about the appalling conditions in Britain’s factories and campaigns for improvement sprung up, leading to the 1833 legislation. It was opposed by Tory Members of Parliament and, of course, by the factory owners, who feared that any change might slow production and cut profits.

By today’s standards the reforms were modest and in any case applied only to the textile industry. The principal provisions of the Act declared that:

* Children under the age of nine must not be employed in textile factories.

* Children between the ages of nine and thirteen must not work more than eight hours and must be provided with an hour lunch break.

* Children between the ages of nine and thirteen could only be employed provided they also had two hours of education each day.

* Children under eighteen years of age must not work after 8:30pm and before 5:30am.

* Children between the ages of fourteen and eighteen must not work more than twelve hours a day and they must also be given an hour lunch break.

No rules were put in place to protect adult male workers, and only four factory inspectors were appointed to enforce the law across the whole country!

A Factory Inspector’s report around this time sheds light on some of the conditions. He wrote:

“I took the evidence from the mouths of the boys themselves. They stated to me that they commenced working on Friday morning, the 27th of May last, at 6am and that, with the exception of meal breaks and one hour at midnight extra, they did not cease working till Saturday evening, having been two days and a night thus engaged.

“Believing the case scarcely possible, I asked every boy the same questions, and from each received the same answers.”

Examples of subsequent court records show that in 1862 John Jones, who ran a factory in Wales, faced a fine of £1 for “employing three young persons and one female after 6pm.”

Another Welsh factory owner, Samuel Harris, was accused in the same year of “employing two young persons and two children after 2pm on a Saturday.” The charges were dropped when he paid £1.14 shillings costs.

A new Factory Act in 1844 decreed that children aged eight to 13 years could work six and a half-hours a day. Night work for women was banned.

In 1847 it was ruled that women and children under 18 years of age could not work more than ten hours a day.

Then the 1901 Factory Act raised the minimum age for workers to 12 and ruled that this would apply everywhere, not just the textile industry.

Despite the limitations of the 1833 Act, it did at least create the beginnings of a much-needed system of government control and offered, as one historian put it, “the first recognition that the common labourer needed state protection from the full might of unbridled capitalism.”

Published: August 22, 2020


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