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Why did child labour decline in Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?

Updated on January 31, 2013


Children working used to be a normal part of everyday life. Children worked in various ways, not for their own gain like today, but to supplement their parents income and contribute to supporting their families. The majority of people saw no harm in children working like this and many thought that it was in fact good for children as it kept them busy and out of trouble.

In the 1800s more and more people began to feel concerned that perhaps work wasn't right for children after all and that their time would be better spent on other things, in particular in school. Over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries views on children, childhood, work and school changed dramatically and many legal acts where put in place to protect children from possible work related harm and in relation to what schooling they should receive.

Pre - industrialised Britain

In pre - industrialised Britain children, dependant on their age and jobs available locally worked to help support their families. Their were no laws to protect children while working or govern when they could start work, how much they could work or what jobs they were allowed to 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. So many children were employed in factories that it lead to a shortage of jobs for adults and in many families the children would be working and their income was all that supported the family while their parents remained at home, unemployed because there were not enough jobs to go round. 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 as there were for adults.
Many adults held the view that sending children to work was actually good for them as it filled their days and stopped them from being bored and possibly getting themselves into trouble doing things they shouldn't be. However, concern grew among people about whether this was true and if it was appropriate or good for children to be living in this way and that the physical, mental and moral tolls were too high for it to be allowed to continue.


The Inroduction of The Factory Act

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

The Factory Act prohibited children working at night and stopped anyone under nine working at all. The age that children were allowed to start work later rose further in 1891 to eleven. The Factory Act limited the hours children were allowed to work in a day to ten hours for nine to thirteen year olds and twelve hours for thirteen to eighteen year olds. The Factory Act also introduced compulsory schooling for all children working in factories.

Although children continued to work and contribute to the family income, schooling began to be seen as more important than in had been in previous years. Over the following years the Factory Act and the introduction of the Education Act meant that slowly children spent more of their time at school and less at work. In 1880 it became compulsory for all children aged between five and ten to attend school. In 1944 the Education Act also made secondary school compulsory for all children and school leaving age rose further to fourteen in 1918, fifteenth in 1944 and finally settled at sixteen in 1973.

Changing Family Values

In the 1950's adult male wages began rising meaning that they were more able to support the family by themselves. Women with older children began to start seeking work outside the home as well so if children were working it meant they were able to keep more or possibly all of their earnings for themselves.

Because the adults were earning more and able to fully provide for their families less children were working and if they did they worked a lot less than in previous years. As time went on it became clear that there had been a shift in family values and what was 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. 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 less at home as well, if at all and began to be given pocket money in return for chores done around the house. Children where given money by their parents rather than having to earn it and more importance was put on education and children were encouraged to do well at school much more than had be normal up until now.

A classroom in Berlin
A classroom in Berlin | Source

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. 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. But even then there were limits on the age of children allowed to do these jobs and also how long they were allowed to them so working would not interfere with their schooling. Many people held the view that childhood ended when someone left school and started work so further consequence of these changes was that childhood was prolonged.

Public secondary schools became popular with the upper and upper – middle classes. Many were boarding schools which also taught children a degree of self sufficiency and independence. Often these children carried onto university at Oxford or Cambridge and so remained in schooling longer than the children of working class parents. Public school pupils remained at school until they were eighteen and generally left with the ideal that childhood should be lengthy. In the early twentieth century the idea of adolescence emerged, describing those aged between fourteen and twenty five years old. During this time it was believe that it was even more important that children received proper guidance than in childhood and it was thought best that was given in schools. 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 prevent them from entering the adult world before they were seen to be fully capable. Children remaining in school for longer and attending the various youth groups extended the time seen as childhood and in a way provided a transition between childhood and adulthood.

Informative Video on Child Labour


It seems that various things contributed to the decline of child labour in Britain. Although it was not it's original intention the introduction of the Factory Act began the decline, changing what jobs and hours children were allowed to work and making it harder or less profitable to employ children ratherthan adults.

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 to make sacrifices to give their children things and opportunities. The need for children to work also became less common as fathers wages increased and it became more acceptable for mothers to work outside 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 maybe harmful to children 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 but also that now more children have access to schooling and that schooling is of better quality and longer meaning that they can learn more and gain better qualifications to help them find work in adulthood. Less children working also mean there were more jobs open for adults to take, improving family incomes. Though there may also be some truth in the theory that work was better than idleness as now children do not work and have a lot of free time to themselves it seems that they are more likely to get themselves into trouble or become involved in crime and unhealthy activities such as taking drugs. On the other hand this may have nothing to do with the lack of work children do but rather other influences in family life and society in general.

Boy Scouts


© 2012 Claire


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