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The Decline of Child Labour in Britain

Updated on March 27, 2020
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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.


Although less common now and illegal in some countries, in past times sending children to work was a normal part of everyday life. Children worked in various jobs such as in coal mines or as matchstick dippers and chimney sweeps. They worked outside throughout the year, for example as street cleaners and hawkers selling items such as flowers and lace. Unlike today when teenagers take on small jobs to earn their own money, children in the past were not able to keep the money they earn. Instead, their wages were used to supplement parental income and contribute towards supporting the family.

The majority of people saw no harm in sending children out to work and many thought that it was good for them 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 their time would be better spend on other activities such as education. As this concern grew the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw views on children, childhood, work and education change dramatically. More and more people came to believe that work was unsuitable of children and that they should be protected from this aspect of life. Many legal acts were put in place aimed at protecting children from work-related harm or to provide guidelines on the education they should receive instead of going to work.

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

Child Labour in Britian

Children were employed in a range of jobs dependant on their age and what was available in the local area. Children from poor families often started work at a younger age than those whose parents were better off or had higher-paying jobs. The age that children began to work varied and was often dictated by the availability of suitable work. In some rural areas, work for children was harder to find and so they would often start work later than those living in towns and cities. The majority of children would have started working by the ages of 10-11 years old. There were no laws in place to govern what age children could start working, what jobs they could do or how many hours they were allowed to work a day. In addition to this, there were also no laws to keep children safe while at work and many worked in very poor or dangerous conditions. 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 working in factories and mines. As increasing numbers of factories and mines were created the demand for workers rose and led to many children working on simple though often unpleasant or dangerous tasks. In factories, children commonly worked as piecers, standing at spinning machines repairing any threads that broke or as scavengers whose job it was to crawl beneath machinery and clear out dust, dirt and other materials that became trapped there. In the coal mines, children were often tasked with carrying picks, picking out coals and minding trap doors and ventilation shafts. In rural areas, the jobs assigned to children differed to those in towns and cities. Many were employed by farmers to carry out tasks such as scaring birds away from crops, driving horses or sowing seeds. Other jobs commonly given to children included running errands or working with chimney sweeps. Unfortunately, due to the lack of legislation around children working some employers took the view that it was easier and cheaper to employ children rather than adhere to adult employment laws. 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 was beneficial to families and in particular, families were one or both parents had trouble finding work or were poorly paid. However, over time concern grew about whether employment was, in fact, appropriate or good for children and people increasingly 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 this was the Factory Act and was introduced in 1833.

The Factory Act introduced several restrictions on the employment of children including prohibiting children working at night completely banning the employment of any child under nine years old. This age limit was later increased 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 introduced 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 that added increased regulations on mine safety, improved working conditions and increased the age limit for boys working underground to twelve.

The Education Act is Introduced

Although children continued to work and contribute to the family income, there was an increasing focus on schooling. Over time people began to believe that education was far more beneficial for children and therefore was a more important way for them to spend their time. Legislation in the form of The Education Act was passed ruling that children were to spend 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. This remained the same until September 2015, when it became required for all young people to stay in some form of education or training until they are eighteen. After leaving secondary school at sixteen young people may choose to continue their education through A-levels, BTECs and other formal qualifications or can begin vocational qualifications, apprenticeships and other training opportunities.

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 attending school the permitted jobs and hours that could be worked were regulated. There were also strict limits in place regarding the ages children were allowed to start work. Some jobs, such as paper rounds were considered children’s work and generally reserved for them. New laws emphasised that being employed must not interfere with a child’s education as this was viewed of greater importance their 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 for children to receive 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 were formed to help provide what was seen as appropriate 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 help to provide a transition between childhood and the full independence of 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

Changing Family Values

In the 1950s the wages paid to male adult workers rose meaning that they were more able to support their family by themselves. Women with older children also began to start seeking work outside the home further adding to their income As the adults of a household were now generally earning more and able to fully provide for their families, fewer 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 or necessary. Whereas in previous years children had been expected to contribute and even make sacrifices for the family, more and more parents were 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 gain rather than out of need.

Gradually, 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. Increasingly, 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.

Modern teenagers have a lot more freedom than in the past.
Modern teenagers have a lot more freedom than in the past. | 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 decreased as father’s wages increased and it became more acceptable for mothers to work outside of the home. People became more aware and concerned that work may be harmful to children’s health and well-being. Society, in general, moved 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.

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 they receive is of better quality and over a longer time. This hopefully means 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 from 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. Unfortunately, it is hard to judge whether being in employment would have prevented this and perhaps young people having their own money to spend could escalate the issue. Many teenagers and children today face difficult and complex issues either within their families or in wider social groups, some of which did not exist or were less common in the past. Many factors have changed within family life, educational settings and society, in general, that may be contributing to this issue and it would be unfair to assume that being employed would solve this issue.

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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