The Children that Lived Through the Industrial Revolution

Child Labor in the Coal Industry, Image via Wikimedia Commons

The children of the Industrial Revolution at once hold all the opportunity of the future in their hands while also facing the terrors of poverty and reality of the present in the other. Perhaps when you imagine these children you see the typical sut faced child, a serious or scared look is plastered on their face and all at once you feel a deep sense of sympathy or wonderment. Their lives are unique to any other point in history and from a modern view we ask, how was this possible or how did they survive this challenging time?

Located within this page these questions are attended to; in order to understand the children of the Industrial Revolution one must understand their environments and what brought them into this group. It is also important to touch on how these children survived, and what was presented as challenges to them in terms of work, health, and simply living life within the means available to them. In addition to all of these topics there is yet one more important aspect when learning about the children of the Industrial Revolution and that would be who tried to help them, if anyone? What laws or regulations were put in place in favor of these children, or really anyone of the working class? All questions considered the time of the Industrial era brings on an entirely new experience of life as you will discover in the emphasis of children of this time displayed within this page.

Why did people move to the city? Why were they driven to work in the factories? Why were children employed at such young age?

During the Industrial Revolution, many families who were poor or lower middle class found themselves struggling to earn a living sufficient enough for their daily living expenses. They were forced to move to the growing industrial cities in order to make a living and a better life. Even though there was work available, the wages were extremely low, therefore many families were forced to seek supplemental work. These families were faced with hardships such as debt and one option they had was to have their children become employed in order to make enough money. Children with fathers who worked in domestic outwork or casual laborers started working sooner than those whose fathers worked as tradesmen, seamen or service workers because their work wages were dramatically affected thus resulting in the need of having everyone in the family work.1

Living Standards Of the Working Class

A slum area in Wetherby, West Yorkshire. Image via Wikimedia Commons

In the mid 1800’s nearly half of England’s population was located within the city of London, as reported by the British National Archives. Given this immense population density it comes as no surprise that the standards of living became quite questionable in it’s quality within this area and many areas like it. Growing up in industrial cities and towns would have been a unique experience by children of this time – for it was they who saw their world changing rapidly and perhaps dangerously.

As it has been explained why families moved into these cities and towns, the next question to attend to is what did they live through and did the standards promised to them by this new world really pay out in the same manner as their dreams?

Unfortunately, as one could guess from a modern standpoint, we know that the promises of a fabulous life under the industrial sector of the world was, at many times, a deceiving curtain behind which poverty engulfed many. First, one must take into account the fact that in many cases cities and towns had not been built in a way that would have been beneficial for such a large population. As factories began to spring up, some factory owners would construct housing for their employees, yet this housing was more for the benefit of the employer than the workers. Since this was the case, the flats and housing units were made quickly and with the cheapest quality. A section within the British Archives focusing on Victorian homes of the industrial age calls these establishments ‘back to back’ courts, for as the name reveals they would have been squished together, many times only having windows to the front street and nowhere else.2

These housing units were only constructed with three to four bedrooms even though families of this time were usually larger and it was common for more than one family to live in each unit. Proper sewage, in many areas, did not exist leaving it to be disposed of right down main roads for lack of other distribution. Due to this, as well as the close quarters in which people lived, these areas were extremely vulnerable to disease outbreaks such as cholera which severely infected the water.

Hidden Lives Revealed Case files
This is an image of the “typical working class family” and where they would live in Britain. Image via Hidden Lives Revealed

Better wages offered from factory work was not always the case even if it was the drawing in point for many families. In regard to diets of the working class during the industrial age, this too came below the living standard hope of many. With more than one family to a unit as well as the absence of proper stoves or fuel, Professor Anthony S. Wohl in his research on ‘What the Poor Ate’, explains that most families ate their meals cold or if possible heated by the fire. He also notes that the most typical diet across the board for urban working class families would have consisted of potatoes, bread, butter, beer and tea. In many studies done across the nation the upper middle class and representatives of government were truly shocked to see the absence of proper diet needs being fulfilled and Wohl reports that, “In Macclesfield 23% of the silk workers and in Coventry 17% of the laborers had never tasted meat”, and that it was mainly the upper portion of the working class who could regularly afford the qualities of meat for their meals.3

Historians and anthropologists have determined that living in the countryside during the Industrial Revolution actually led to a longer life expectancy for many reasons, sanitarily, dietarily and crime wise. No doubt children during this time period who were raised within the industrial sector of England and specifically London had a lot to prove, not only of their strength but of their tolerance to the environment around them. Poor nutrition and the fight against diseases would have been just two of the main complications in childhood to overcome in such an area.

Working Environments

A child laborer, Image via Wikimedia Commons

Children of the Industrial Revolution underwent an entirely new form of child labor which they potentially had not experienced in the past. Although for the most part child labor was not a new idea during this time period, it is especially exploited in areas such as mill and factory work during the industrial rise of Great Britain. As a reflection on the past, children were used for many common occupations such as coal mining, rat catching and chimney sweeping – just to name a few. According to Paxton Price within his research on Victorian child labor, children, as we see within mills and factories, work excruciatingly long hours, typically a ten to fourteen hour day.4 In professions such as coal mining and chimney sweeping, was at high risk both in the long term and the short term of injuries and health complications down the road.

In regard to the newly developing industrial sector of Britain, however, there’s a clear shift in the severity of child labor – to the point that even the government feels the need to get involved, as seen in a further section of this page. But what exactly separates industrial child labor from that of the child labor of the past? Both are clearly wrong, from a modern standpoint, but upon comparison of the age it comes to light that while all professions are indeed dangerous for children, the industrial sector held particularly high danger in regard to its machinery and demands.

Due to the fact that laws and regulations on safety had really never existed before this point in time it comes to no surprise that children were exploited for their age, size and gender within mill and factory work. The British National Archives explains that children were paid less compared to their adult counterparts and appeared to exercise more energy while on the job for longer periods of time due to their age – two major qualities which factory employers seem to have been drawn to. These qualities unfortunately work against the benefit of child workers in the sense that they were employed for long shifts as well as told to take on often dangerous jobs such as cleaning under machinery – in some cases even while machines were still running.

The Mental and Physical Health of The Children

Destitute children typical admissions to Dr Barnardo's Home in 1874
Destitute children typical admissions to Dr Barnardo’s Home in 1874

The children who were working in the cotton factories at this time were subjected to harsh conditions. These conditions led to a variety of health consequences, both mental and physical. Many of the children, who were examined by Dr. John Johnson Boutflower, appeared pale, slim, and exhibited respiration issues such as wheezing, hoarseness of voice and difficulty in breathing.5 Children were working up to fourteen hours a day, causing their growth to stunt due to the hard labor. Doctors noted that the results of these long working days for children could be seen by anyone through their tired eyes.

While being exploited, children underwent many types of abuse, which included alarming accident rates, low wages, inadequate food, and little to no breaks. George Edwards, a child who used to work as a farmboy, worked for a man who “never missed an opportunity to thrash me.”6 George had never fussed about it because he assumed all boys were treated like that at his age. The systematic abuse that occurred during the Industrial Revolution in Britain was much harder to prosecute than the act of removing children from the industrial life. Down the line, all of these situations led to serious trauma and further mental problems in the future as these children became adults.

The Industrial Revolution’s Effects on Upper and Middle Class Children

 An image of the masses and their children at The Great Exhibition of 1851. 14 June 1851, in Jeffrey Auerbach, The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display (New Haven: Yale U. Press, 1999), p. 153

An image of the masses and their children at The Great Exhibition of 1851. 14 June 1851, in Jeffrey Auerbach, The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display (New Haven: Yale U. Press, 1999), p. 153

The emergence of modern social classes came about from the Industrial Revolution. Children of the middle- and upper-class gained more opportunities due to their family’s social status while children in lower-class families were expected to help provide for their family. To keep up with the demand for products during the industrial revolution, children were put to work even though this proved to be dangerous and controversial. People of nobility, business owners, professionals, and bank owners all had enough money to keep their children safe and comfortable at home.7 This allowed their children to become educated through elite schools, through a governess, an educated nanny or in-home teacher.8 Unlike the children who had to work in factories and were unable to gain an education, the children in the upper- and middle-classes lived in healthier, safer conditions and seemed to have a brighter future through wealth and education.

Laws & Critics

During the Industrial Revolution a vast majority of the working children were subject to very long work hours under harsh and dangerous conditions. It was only so long before there was parliamentary interference in order to avoid situations like that of Hannah Brown:

“I began work at the mill in Bradford when I was nine years old……we began at six in the morning and worked until nine at night. When business was brisk, we began at five and worked until ten in the evening.” Hannah Brown, interviewed in 1832. 9

The first act established was the “Cotton Factories Regulation Act”. This act was established in 1819, it had several purposes all of which have to do with children’s rights. This act made it illegal for children under the age of nine to work, and it also limited children between the age of nine and sixteen to only twelve hours of work every day. It also established that children were not allowed to work at night. There was no effective means of enforcing this act, but it laid the guidelines and foundation for future parliamentary intervention with work conditions and employment.10

Unfortunately, this bill was rarely ever enforced. In addition, there was the ongoing problem of the harsh factory conditions, education, and abuse from the people who overlooked the workers. Therefore, Parliament made a bill with a large set of rules later known as “The Regulation of Child Labor Law”, which was passed in 1833. This law had many different rules to be followed, which were actually enforced. The first rule was that children below the age of nine could no longer be employed in textile manufacturing factories (not including silk mills). The second rule was that children below eighteen were not allowed to work during night time. The third rule was that children between the ages of nine and thirteen could not work more than eight hours in a day, and would also receive a one-hour lunch break. They could also only be employed if a they had a “schoolmaster’s certificate”, which was a document that proved that they had at least two hours of education that day. The fourth rule prohibited children between the ages of fourteen and eighteen from working for more than 12 hours in a day, and when they worked twelve hours they were to receive a one-hour lunch break. This act also allowed for routine inspections of factories which set up a Factory Inspectorate to carry out inspections, with the right to demand entry into the factories and the authority to act as a magistrate. Meaning that they had the power to enforce rules and regulations. Last but not least, mill owners and their close relatives were no longer debarred from hearing cases brought under previous Acts, but were unlikely to be effectively supervised by their colleagues on the local bench or be zealous in supervising other mill owners. These laws were generally enforced, and certainly tried to helped prevent situations like the following:

“Woodward and other overlookers used to beat me with pieces of thick leather straps made supple by oil, and having an iron buckle at the end, drew blood almost every time it was applied.”– John Brown quoted in the “Lion” newspaper in 1828. 11

Following the release of laws, many factories started to use different tactics to keep their children awake or in line:

“When I was seven years old I went to work at Mr Marshall’s factory at Shrewsbury. If a child became sleepy, the overlooker touches the child on the shoulder and says “come here”. In the corner of the room there is an iron cistern filled with water. He takes the boy by the legs and dips him in the cistern, and then sends him back to work.” – Jonathan Downe interviewed in June 1832. 12

Later on, another bill was released in 1847 called “The Ten Hours Bill”. This act was made to ensure that women and children only worked up to ten hours a day in factories. This changed the maximum scheduled work hours to ten on each weekday, with Saturdays being eight hours, and no work on Sundays. In total, this limited the work time per week to 63 hours. This Act was a major turning point for all factory workers between the ages of thirteen and eighteen because it gave them a solid work schedule, as well as more do-able work hours.



1. Jane Humphries, “Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution.” Business Source Complete. Accessed April 02, 2016.

2. British National Archives, “Victorian Homes; Was There Much Difference Between Rich and Poor Homes?.” Accessed April 3, 2016.

3. Anthony S Wohl, “Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain” Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983.

4. Paxton Price, “Victorian Child Labor and the Conditions They Worked In”

5. Gould, Nathan, comp. Information concerning the State of Children Employed in Cotton Factories. Manchester, 1818.

6. Ibid.

7. “Effects of the Industrial Revolution.” Modern World History: Interactive Textbook.

8. Chet S Chutik, “Historical Interpretations of the Industrial Revolution in Britain.” Breaking the Old School Ties: Liberal Education, The Industrial Revolution, and Public Schools. 2000.

9. Truman, C N. “Children in the Industrial Revolution.” 2015.

10. Cutick, Chet S. “Historical Interpretations of the Industrial Revolution in Britain.” Breaking the Old School Ties: Liberal Education, The Industrial Revolution, and Public Schools. 2000.

11.  Ibid.

12. Ibid