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The Industrial Revolution and Child Labor in England: 1800-1850

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The Industrial Revolution and Child Labor in England: 1800-1850


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Modernity did not achieve its goals of a society without fear and want. There are many ways to measure this, child labor is just one of them. This paper is an analysis of the causes, movements and the ideas leading to the passage of the Factory Acts in England starting in 1802. It concludes with an analysis of the enforcement and success of the acts.

            The Industrial Revolution, and the Scientific Revolution that preceded it promised the world many things.

Francis Bacon and his followers in the Royal and Lunar Societies in England believed that a time of peace and plenty were at hand. That finally, mankind can be free from want, and receive high quality products at minimal cost.

            Instead, the industrializing world, led by England, got filthy cities, low life expectancy, proletarianization and, worst of all, the scourge of mass, child labor. This latter is the subject of this paper, and more specifically, the role of the Factory Acts, beginning in 1833 in Great Britain, in attempting to alter the situation.

The basic argument here is that the factory acts were part of a mass movement to change the way factories, especially in textiles, did business. These were relatively well enforced and placed great burdens upon the affected industries. This paper, then, will be an analysis of these acts and British society in the first half of the 19th century.


            Britain in the early part of the 19th century was dominated by the economic and semi-moral theory of laissez-faire. This theory of economics and the role of the state there in developed from two differing but related branches: natural rights theory and utilitarianism. In England, the latter was dominant through the agencies of Adam Smith and David Hume, and to a lesser extent, JS Mill.

            The natural rights theory that served capitalism developed through John Locke, and posited that all human beings are born free, and their freedom naturally has a tendency to developing their economic position: the building and collecting of property. Hence, these free men would create a state that has one purpose: to enforce contracts among and between property owners. Since this is the nature of the state, there can be no limitations on the question of property, since it is the very “pursuit of happiness” that human beings were made for. This was Locke’s definition of freedom. However, the question of natural rights took a new turn when the industrial revolution took off, long after Locke’s time, and apparently, the rights of children were violated through their forced labor in the newly found factories in English cities. It was the economic system itself that forced children to work.

            As far as the utilitarians were concerned, natural rights did not exist. The language of rights was, at bottom, language about pleasure and usefulness. The development of the theory of the market, made explicit by Adam Smith (1776 and 1904), was based not on rights, but on the maximization of production and the service to society. Capitalism in his mind was a question of social utility, not of natural rights, in that if producers are working for the market, expressed through demand in the form of prices, consumers would receive what they wanted, and how they wanted it, or else another producer that could do it better would take over. The question of labor only came up sporadically, because the main question concerned the nature of the market as a social institution. Individuals as such were not totally relevant, they were aggregately expressed through prices. Hence, the freer a market, the closer the relations between consumer and producer would grow. In other words, producers would only turn a profit insofar as they satisfied the market. Consumers would presumably buy from those producers who put out the best product at the lowers prince, and hence, the system was based on competition, that would naturally suppress prices and increase quality in the drive for market share.

            In both of these cases, the role of the state was minimal. Both Locke and Smith, in their own way, as well as their followers, behaved as social scientists: they conceived of individuals and societies as data, individuals with specific modes of behavior that can be quantified and analyzed. Hence, the system of economies should be formulated to fit the data of human behavior. Like the physical sciences, both schools of thought viewed their systems (in this case, social systems) as self regulating. Because of this, the role of the state was minimal, and excessive interference of the state in the economy could only do harm to what was essentially a self-regulating system (cf. MacPhereson (1962) for a substantial summary of these and related arguments, as well as Sorenson (1952)).


            By the 1820s in Great Britain, these views came under strain. At the time that Locke and Smith wrote, in the 17th and 18th centuries respectively, the industrial revolution was not really going at full steam. The affects of the factory system was not in existence in Locke’s time, and barely developing in Smith’s. Generations after Smith, however, saw the development of huge urban factory systems and radical changes in the economic structure. Social theorists, politicians and ordinary folks began to see the dark side to Laissez Faire economics, and the Factory acts, beginning in 1833, were the first of a series of attempts to begin altering the system in the interests of young workers.

            While there was minimal enforcement of these acts prior to 1833, there was a factory act of 1802 that demanded the cleaning and washing of factories every year (Redgrave, 1895, viii). In fact, Redgrave, the chief of the factory inspectors in the latter part of the 19th century, writes that the very debates over these acts concerned the “preservation of the heath and morals” of the young workers involved. (Redgrave, viii) These factory acts were designed to do several things: first, to maintain clean factories that were safe to work in, limit the number of hours that women and children could world, and lastly, to educate child workers (Redgrave, 1895, v)

            The basic arguments for the Factory Acts throughout the first half of the 19th century were the following:

            a) that child labor was inherently immoral, in that the health of the young workers was regularly imperiled by the nature of this work. This was the argument promoted by the Church of England, who was a major player in the passage f the first few packages of reforms.

            b) that young people needed to be educated, since an industrial economy needed literate labor.

            c) that the morals and world view of the children employed in the factories was being warped by this hard and grueling labor for so long. (Nardinelli, 1980).

            The basic arguments against the acts derived from the capitalist theories outlined briefly above, and are summarized in Cunningham (1912)

            a) that the market will eventually solve the problem of child labor

            b) that government intervention will do more harm than good by driving up wages;

            c) that too many workers will be idle, and lastly,

            d) that both trade and profits will suffer as a result. (Also cf. Walker, 1941)

            Ultimately, the English parliament passed the factory acts over the heads of the classical economists that opposed these in the “name of economic science.” (Sorenson, 1952, 248).

            The Factory Acts can be understood as an outgrowth of the idealism introduced by Queen Victoria and the era that bears her name (Mandeler, 1984, 83). Young aristocrats seeking to develop a reaction to the middle-class capitalism of the era hit on the idealism of the Young England movement to attack the problem of the factories. Many of these young aristocrats of both Tory and Whig parties sought the limitation of capitalism in the interest of the agrarian tradition, long the source of resistance to industrialization. At the same time, the labor movement of John Doherty (an Irishman) dovetailed with the interests both of the aristocracy and the liberal nationalist Young Englanders to create a mass movement against factory abuses, or even against industrialism in general (Mandler, 1984, 89). At the same time, it seemed odd that the crusade against African slavery that was becoming so important in England should itself ignore child labor, which, in its conditions and hours, mirrored slavery in many respects. Hence, the dovetailing of many interests and movements developed into a mass upsurge of protest against filthy cities, factory conditions and child labor more specifically. The Victorian era was an era of reform, and the laissez faire conservatism of Peel and his allies was under attack (Mandeler, 90-91).


            The Factory Acts in the first half of the 19th century, amounting to six bundles of lawa sn regulations up until 1850, were well enforced and led to a substantial decrease in child labor. According to Nardinelli (1980), the percentage of children being employed in all English factories in the 1830s was about 15%. But by the 1840s, this had basically halved to roughly 7.8% (Nardinelli, 1980, 741)

            The most important of these bundles was the most famous, the Factory Acts of 1833. These did several things. Specifically, they reduced the working day for most children to 9 hours a day, including 2 hours of schooling. Children under 9 could not longer be employed.

            By way of contrast, the French acts of 1837, modeled on the English legislation, held that all children needed to be educated, but mandated 4, rather than 2 hours. Children from 8-12 could only work an 8 hour day, and children from 12-16 could work a 12 hour day (Koepke, 1988, 647). According to Koepke, industrialization was hampering the development of literacy in the cities and industrial suburbs to the point where rural literacy was higher than the urban (Koepke, 652). Since the hampering of literacy became a public issue that harmed the economic well-being of the state, the French government imitated the English in this respect. Koepke holds that the French regulations were not as well enforced as the English (Koepke, 647)

            The Russians under Tsar Alexander III in the 1880s also imitated the English acts, but since Russian capital was largely foreign owned, it was easier to enforce. Child labor was banned, and older children who worked needed to be educated (Johnson, 2000). The Russian labor laws were later in time because Russian industrialization came later, and from a different route. Since Russia was an autocracy, the monarch could regulate factories at whim, outside of normal channels of debate and could safely ignore the protests of factory owners.


            Two pieces of work stand out on the corpus of the Factory Acts, that of Nardinelli (1985) and Marcel (1972). Both deal with the question of the enforcement of the Factory Acts in a system whereby the interests of capital controlled parliament. Both authors engage in an substantial analysis of the data and come to the following conclusions:

            a) the Factory acts in the Great Britain in the first half of he 19th century were rigorously enforced;

            b) that substantial burdens on the industries involved were imposed by these enforcements, and that the market was interfered with regularly by the inspectorate;

            c) from 1933 on, there was “remarkable rate of success” in terms of the inspectorate’s drive to eliminate or alleviate child labor (Nardinelli, 1985, 133), and

            d) stiff penalties were handed out regularly by the inspectorate.

            Several issues arise. First, marcel makes clear that thee was a substantial distinction between the penalties handed out for those in the water powered plants versus the steam powered plants (Marcel, 1972, 401). This is interesting for several reasons. First, it might suggest that the capital might have had an interest in harming the poorer, water powered plants. They had less resources at their disposal. The steam powered plants were, on the whole, larger and wealthier than the water powered plants, and hence, could fight back if necessary. Hence, it might be theorized that the water powered plants were targeted for their relative weakness.


            By way of conclusion, several lessons can be drawn. First, the Factory acts were a complex set of ideas that derived from many sources. The Victorian era was one of reform, where the promises of capitalism, science and modernity were questioned by many people in diverse movements from the socialists to traditionalists in the Church of England.

            The Factory Acts only were a scratch of the surface. The problem, as the Young England movement, noted, was a moral problem. The Young Englanders, a medievalist and agrarian reaction to industrialization and applied science, have been neglected in the literature in this field, yet their roles were important. The tremendous attraction of Young England to a substantial portion of the aristocracy anxious to find a new role in society has been understudied, and yet, this movement helped redefine the English mission in the Victorian era (Kegel, 1961, 693). Personal relations were championed over impersonal contracts, and the life of the agrarian traditionalist positively contrasted to the squalid city. These man made substantial points, and cannot be dismissed as “romantic reactionaries.” For these men, the system was failing in the idea that science could not make men happy, that happiness is not “utility” but in truly personal and traditional relations and community that science has destroyed in the name of the new god of “progress.” (Kegel, 1961, 697).

            The fact is that both medievalism and socialism gained ground in this era, as the promises of modernity increasingly were seen as hollow. The factory acts were just the beginning, but they made substantial progress. The problem was they did not go deep enough, the problems of modernity are not amenable to be solved by legislation.


MacPhereson, CB. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Oxford, 1962.

Johnson, Matthew Raphael. The Third Rome: Holy Russia, Tsarism and Orthodoxy. FEL, 2000.

Redgrave, Alexander. The Factory Acts. Shaw and Sons, 1895 (this is a primary source, since               Mr. Redgrave was the chief of the English factory inspectorate in the 1870s.)

Nardinelli, Clark. “The Successful Prosecution of the Factory Acts: A Suggested Explanation. Economic History Review 38 (1985) 428-430.

_____. “Child Labor and the factory Acts.” Journal of Economic History 40. (1980) 739-755.

Walker, Kenneth. “The Classical Economists and the Factory Acts.” Journal of Economic          History 1, (1947) 168-177

Sorenson, Lloyd. “Some Classical Economists, Laissez Faire and the Factory Acts.” Journal of Economic History 12 (1952) 247-262

Cunningham, William. The Growth of English Commerce and Industry in Modern Times Part II:          Laissez Faire. Cambridge University Press, 1912.

Koepke, Robert Louis. “Educating Child Laborers in France” The Enquette of 1837” French     Historican Studies 15 (1988) 646-672

Kegel, Charles. “Lord John Manners and the Young England Movement: Romanticism in Politics.” Western Political Quarterly 14. (1961) 691-697.

Marcel, Howard. “Factory regulation: A Reinterpretation of the Early English Experience.”       Journal of Law and Economics 20. (1972) 379-402

Mandeler, Peter. “Cain and Abel: Two Aristocrats and the Early Victorian Factory Acts.” The   Historical Journal 27 (1984) 83-109

Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Wealth of Nations. The Library of Economics and Liberty, (Scan of the 1904 edition from econlib.org)


Cite this The Industrial Revolution and Child Labor in England: 1800-1850

The Industrial Revolution and Child Labor in England: 1800-1850. (2016, Oct 19). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/the-industrial-revolution-and-child-labor-in-england-1800-1850/

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