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The Decline of Child Labour in Britain

Updated on February 19, 2019
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Claire studied autism, childhood and psychology at The Open University and has 20 years experience caring for children with special needs.


At one time the practice of sending children out to work was a normal part of everyday life. Children worked in various jobs but unlike today when teenagers may take on small jobs to earn their own money, the money earnt was used to supplement parental income and contribute to supporting the family. The majority of people saw no harm in children working in this way and many thought that it was good for children as it kept them busy and out of trouble.

In the 1800s concern began to grow that work may not good for children and that they would gain more benefits from other activities and in particular attending school. Over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries views on children, childhood, work and school changed dramatically. Many legal acts were put in place that aimed to protect children from work related harm and set out what schooling they should receive.

Young children working in a cranberry bog in 1939.
Young children working in a cranberry bog in 1939. | Source

Child Labour in Britian

At this time children worked in a range of jobs dependant on their age and what was available in the local area. Children from poor families often started work as soon as they were deemed able and there was work available. This age varied and in some rural areas where work for children was scarcer, children would start work later than in town and cities. Even considering this most children would be working by the ages of 10-11 years old. There were no laws to protect children while they worked or that governed when they could start work, how many hours they could work or the type of jobs they could do. Only when a child was considered old enough to leave home was there any legislation to protect them in work.

As industrialisation continued children began to perform many different types of labour including factory and mine work. As more and more new factories and mines were created the demand for workers rose and it often fell to children to complete simple though often unpleasant or dangerous tasks. Children would often start work as piecers, standing at spinning machines and repairing any breaks in the thread or as scavengers whose job was to crawl beneath machinery and clear out dust, dirt and anything that became trapped there. If working in mines children were often tasked with carrying picks, picking out coals and minding trap doors and ventilation shafts. In rural areas jobs for children differed to those in towns and cities and would include tasks such as bird scaring, driving horses or sowing crops. Other jobs that were often given to children included running errands or as chimney sweeps.

In some areas it could be difficult to find employment for children but some employers took the view that it was easier to employ children as there were no laws to say how they should be treated or how much they should be paid, unlike with adult employees. This could result in a shortage of jobs for adults and could mean that children would be working to support their family while their parents stayed at home unemployed.

Many adults at the time held the view that sending children to work was a beneficial experience for them and helped to keep them from boredom and getting themselves into trouble. Although small, the extra income created was beneficial to families and in particular families were one or both parents had trouble finding work.

However, over time concern grew about whether employment was in fact appropriate or good for children and people increasing began to believe that the physical, mental and moral tolls were too high for it to be allowed to continue.

Children working a mill in 1909.
Children working a mill in 1909. | Source

The Introduction of The Factory and Mines Acts

During the 1800s, Parliamentary speaker, Michael Sadler campaigned for improvements in working conditions and against children working long, hard hours in factories. Although he lost his seat in the House of Commons in 1832 his research and reports shocked the public and lead to increased pressure on parliament to protect children. The first effective piece of legislation to do so was the Factory Act and was introduced in 1833.

The Factory Act introduced several restrictions on the employment of children including children working at night and the banned the employment of any child under nine years old. This age limit was later increase to eleven in 1891. The Factory Act limited the hours children were allowed to work in a day based on their age and stated that nine to thirteen year olds should work no more than ten hours a day while the limit for children aged between thirteen and eighteen was set at twelve hours. Another element of The Factory Act was that it brought in compulsory schooling for all children who worked in factories.

The Mines and Collieries Act 1842, commonly known as The Mines Act 1842 placed similar restrictions on employers using children to work in mines. It banned all boys under ten and all females from working underground. As with The Factory Act further legislation was introduced in 1850 and 1860 adding increased regulations on mine safety, improved working conditions and increased the age limit for boys working underground to twelve.

Although children continued to work and contribute to the family income, there was an increased focus on schooling and this was seen as a far more beneficial and important way for children to spend their days. Legislation in the form of The Education Act was passed and meant that children spent more of their time in school and less at work. In 1880 it became compulsory for all children aged between five and ten to attend school and in 1944 the Education Act also made secondary school compulsory for all children. The age that children were allowed to leave education was set at fourteen in 1918, fifteenth in 1944 and finally settled at sixteen in 1973. From September 2015 all young people are required to stay in some form of education or training until they are eighteen. This can include many options such as school six forms, A-Levels, vocational qualifications or apprenticeships.

Changing Family Values

In the 1950's the wages paid to male adult workers began rising meaning that they were more able to support their family by themselves. Women with older children began to start seeking work outside the home as well adding to the income brought home each month. As the adults of a household were now generally earning more and able to fully provide for their families, less children needed to find jobs and if they did they worked a lot less than in previous years. In many cases this meant that if children were employed they were able to keep more or possibly all of their earnings to spend on their own interests and hobbies. As time went on it became clear that there had been a shift in family values and what was viewed as being important.

Whereas in previous years children had been expected to contribute and even make sacrifices for the family, more and more parents where now aiming to give the best of everything to their children. Many parents wanted to give their children the things and opportunities they felt they never had. Children weren't expected to work and if they did it was for their own gain rather than out of need.

Children helped out less at home as well, if at all and began to be given pocket money in return for chores done around the house rather than these being an expected part of everyday life. Increasing children were given money by their parents to spend as they chose and more importance was put on education with children being encouraged to work hard and do well at school.

The lengthening of School Years

As the view that education was of primary importance grew, school leaving ages rose. People hoped that this meant children would leave school better prepared for adulthood and the world of work. If children continued or started work while still at school it would be for much fewer hours and the jobs they were allowed do were limited. Some jobs, such as paper rounds were considered children’s work and reserved for them. There were strict limits in place regarding the ages children were allowed to start work and also on how many hours a week they could work. It was emphasised that being employed must not interfere with a child’s education further that this was viewed of greater importance to a child’s life. Many people held the view that childhood ended when someone left school and started work so a further consequence of these changes was that the period generally regarded as childhood was prolonged.

Public secondary schools became popular with the upper and upper – middle classes and many of these were boarding schools which also taught children a degree of self-sufficiency and independence. Often these children carried onto university and so remained in schooling longer than the children of working class parents.

In the early twentieth century the idea of adolescence emerged, describing those aged between fourteen and twenty five years old. It was believed that it was vitally important that children received proper guidance during this time and that this should be provided through schooling. Various youth groups and movements, such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides where introduced into society to help provide what was seen as suitable guidance for young people and to prepare them for the adult world. The concept of adolescence, children remaining in school longer and attending various youth groups contributed to extending the time viewed as childhood and in a way provided a transition between childhood and adulthood.

Children all over the world are still forced to work with no protection or regulation.
Children all over the world are still forced to work with no protection or regulation. | Source

It seems that various things contributed to the decline of child labour in Britain. Although it was not its original intention the introduction of The Factory Act began the decline through changing the jobs and hours children were allowed to work. It also made it harder or less profitable to employ children rather than adults meaning that it became easier for adults to find work again.

Attitudes towards children and their needs began to change and schooling slowly became the norm rather than work. People became more focused on what was best for children rather than the family as a whole and parents became willing and more able to make sacrifices to give their children a balanced life and opportunities. The need for children to work became less common as fathers wages increased and it became more acceptable for mothers to work outside of the home. Society in general moved more toward a romantic view of childhood, wanting them to have a fun and carefree time before having to join the adult world of work and responsibility. People became more aware and concerned that work may be harmful to children’s health and well-being.

The decline of child labour has improved children's lives in that they now do not have to work long, hard hours possibly doing dangerous work. It also means that more children have access to schooling and that the education that they receive is of better quality and over a longer time, meaning that they can learn more and gain better qualifications to help them find work in adulthood. However it may be that there was some truth in the idea that work prevented children getting into trouble and kept them from being bored and unproductive. In modern times there does appear to be an increase in young people and even children who are becoming involved in crime and unhealthy activities such as taking drugs. However it is hard to judge whether being in employment would have prevented this and perhaps young people having their own money to spend could in fact escalate the issue. There are many factors that have changed within family life, education settings and society in general that may be contributing to this issue and would be unfair to assume that being employed would suddenly fix the many difficult and complex issues that many teenagers and children face today, some of which did not exist or were less common in the past.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Claire


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