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'Child labour in the British industrial revolution'
by Jane Humphries | 24 Jun 10
A new book vividly depicts the hardships faced by children during the classic era of industrialisation in Britain (1790-1850). Childhood and child labour in the British industrial revolution, by Jane Humphries, Professor of Economic History at Oxford University, is based on the recollections of more than 600 working men of the 18th and 19th centuries and documents the upsurge of child labour during this period.
Its images of suffering, stoicism and occasional childish pleasures weave a human narrative into this significant period in economic history. One theme is the endless hunger suffered by many poor children and the incentive that food provided. ‘Childhood was one long empty belly,’ says Professor Humphries. In one autobiography a child recalled his older brother asking just before he died, ‘if there would be plenty to eat in heaven’; another recollected enjoying eating rats that he had roasted after trapping them in a barn!
The memoirs implicate mechanisation and the division of labour in the increase in child labour. They also resonate with current concerns about ‘Broken Britain’ with fatherlessness apparently common in a high mortality and often bellicose 18th century. Families were large and children often had many brothers and sisters. Older children were then thrust into the role of breadwinner, supporting mothers who struggled to hold families together. Professor Humphries argues that the arrival of the nuclear family, detached from wider kin, and the increased dependence on men and male wages were ‘premature’ developments, resulting in pressure on the Old Poor Law and a reinforced need for welfare provision.
Books asked Professor Humphries about her research.
Where did you find these autobiographies and how long did it take to sift through them all?
Some of the autobiographies are published and record the lives of men who acquired some kind of fame; others are in manuscript and have survived in archives and local record offices, often having been preserved within families for several generations. While published autobiographies often record upward mobility, this is not always the case; men sought to document spiritual as well as material journeys, and ways of life that were becoming lost and forgotten. It took many years to track down these materials but I was helped by work done in the 1970s and 80s by John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall, ground-breaking scholars of working-class autobiography. My methodology is very different from the literary approach of these pioneers. I use both quantitative and qualitative evidence from the memoirs to try and reconstruct experience, while remaining mindful of the pitfalls involved in treating autobiography as a factual account of life.
Were you looking at diary accounts? Were they difficult to decipher given reading and writing was not widely taught, particularly given many children were working?
Some of the autobiographies do take the form of diaries and several are hand-written though sometimes accompanied by print transcription. Some manuscripts were difficult to decipher but others are written in beautiful copperplate. It is clear, even from published autobiographies that many authors had little formal education. The autobiographers were not a random sample, but rather selected by their ability to write. On the other hand, literacy was not rare in 18th century Britain, with 55-65 per cent of men at least able to sign their name. Many autobiographers learned to read and write in adulthood, seizing opportunities to study afforded by periods of illness or unemployment and taking advantage of night schools, adult education and Sunday schools. Others never learned to read and write at all but told their stories to friends or family members.
What other sources did you use for the research for this book?
It was important to ensure the credibility of the autobiographies, not the accuracy of the recall of dates and places but the “general truth” (as the autobiographers themselves termed it) and representativeness of the accounts. Consequently I checked evidence from the accounts against other sources such as parish records, the census and wage books.
What particular themes emerge from these accounts and were you surprised by any of your findings?
The rise in child participation rates in the late 1700s and early 1800s was associated with younger working. In the cohorts which lived through this period, the sons of miners, factory workers, outworkers, casual workers and soldiers, all on average, started work below age 10. The frequency of such very young working was surprising.
While the families of the autobiographers were by and large demographically representative, they became fatherless at higher rates than expected. This finding can be interpreted as meaning boys reported as dead fathers who had gone missing, added to which is the not insignificant number of ‘deceased’ fathers who deserted their children and wives before or after marriage. Lone mothers massively outnumbered lone fathers and families that were ‘fatherless’ made up around a third of all families.
Another surprise was the division of labour between mothers and fathers which structured relationships within families. Early breadwinning fathers became distant figures away from home for long hours; ‘providing’ fulfilled their responsibilities. In the home, and in the lives of children, mothers reigned supreme.
Evidence on children’s earnings while scattered and varied suggests they were paid according to age and physical competence. By the time they were in their early teens, most boys were out-earning their mothers. Families therefore behaved rationally when children worked and mothers stayed at home. Hunger and the need to provide food for the family emerges as the primary motivator of children’s efforts.
You recently received funding to look at women’s accounts from the same period? How is that project developing?
I am currently searching for autobiographies by women from the period and studying their differences and similarities in comparison with the men’s accounts. There are many fewer memoirs by working women. Perhaps women did not consider their lives of such importance or perhaps they had less time to write or confidence in their literary skills. Nonetheless, some truly remarkable accounts by women have survived and while it appears that there are strong similarities in experience across the genders (for example, in the need to contribute early to family subsistence and in the sense of duty and loyalty to their families of origin), there are also striking differences. One dramatic finding is that although men rarely reported fearing sexual abuse as children girls and women frequently felt threatened and often reported assault or even rape.
Childhood and child labour in the British industrial revolution is published by Cambridge University Press.