Children had worked alongside their parents on farms for generations. This tradition continued during the Industrial Revolution as children worked with their parents in factories and mills around Britain. Hours were long, labour was hard and pay was minimal, or non-existent. Factory owners utilised every source of employment they could.
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Children were sought after as they could be trained easily and paid a minimum wage. The Industrial Revolution resulted in the exploitation of children in many different industries.
Children were often forced to work in difficult conditions for long hours. They received little pay and were harshly disciplined. There were no restrictions on the age of workers or number of hours that could be worked. Exploitation, however, prompted reform and by the mid-19th century, the government took steps to reducing child labour.
Jobs for children in the Industrial Revolution
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The first jobs for children in the Industrial Revolution were in water-powered cotton mills. Factory owners approached poor families and orphanages and offered to house, feed and clothe children in exchange for labour. Trapped by economic circumstances, families handed over their children to work in the cotton mills.
Children were called apprentices in the cotton mills. Although children were housed, fed and clothed, they were forced to work six days a week, from six in the morning to seven at night.
Spinning required a warm and humid atmosphere. Steam engines contributed to the heat as cotton mills were poorly ventilated. Children were forced to work in these uncomfortable conditions.
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Machinery was not fenced off and children were exposed to the moving parts. This led to a large number of injuries in the cotton mills. Children could have their hands crushed by moving machines. If their hair became tangled in the machine, their scalps could be ripped off. Some children were killed instantly when they went to sleep and fell into their machine.
Cotton mills, and later factories, exercised a regime of strict discipline and harsh punishment.
By 1788, over two-thirds of workers in textile factories were children. Some factories employed children as young as five or six. Other factories worked children as many as 16 hours a day.
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As steam power was applied to factory machines, children were hired in greater numbers by factory owners. Children were the ideal employee as factory owners needed large numbers of workers for a very low cost. Factory owners preferred to employ children as they were obedient, easily trained and low cost and low maintenance. The poor treatment of children in cotton mills continued in the factories.
Children were used to carry out hazardous jobs. Children were ordered to move between machinery where adults could not fit, to fix broken machines. In match factories, children dipped matches into phosphorous. This chemical caused the children's teeth to rot later in life. Some died from the long-term effects of breathing phosphorous.
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Children were also employed in mining. Mining was a very dangerous occupation because there were no safety guidelines. There were often explosions and roofs caved in, trapping the miners. Cutting and moving coal was a job done by men, women and children.
Young children worked as 'trappers'. They operated trap doors with strings. As coal wagons approached, the trappers opened the trap door. This job was easy but children were forced to sit in a dark, cold hole while working. Older children carried coal down long mine shafts. Most children who worked in coalmines and iron mines died before the age of 25.
Child labour was used in almost every industry during the Industrial Revolution. Children worked in gas works, nail factories, construction sites, shipyards and chimney sweeping. The use of child labour in factories revealed a social problem. Families, trapped by poverty, were forced to send their children to work in poor conditions for equally poor pay. Although children were sent to work, their pay did little to resolve the poverty crisis in Britain's working class.
From the opening of the first cotton mills, there were attempts to stop the use of child labour. Notable public figures campaigned against child labour. The majority of legislation, however, was ineffective and did not stop child labour.
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In the Factory Act 1802 (UK), children were limited to working twelve-hour days. There were few positive results from this piece of legislation as children were still permitted to work in mining and other hazardous occupations.
In the Factory Act 1833 (UK), children under nine were not allowed to work. Children between the ages of nine and 13 were allowed to work only eight hours. Two hours of education were compulsory. The extent to which this legislation was successful is unknown. Four inspectors were appointed to patrol all of Britain's factories. This measure proved inefficient.
The Ten Hour Act 1847 (UK) limited women and children working in factories and textile mills to ten hour days. These ten hours would be worked between six in the morning and six in the evening.
Legislation focused only on the working hours of children, not the circumstances or industries in which children worked. This issue was address in 1842. The Mines Act 1842 (UK) made it illegal for women or boys under the age of 13 to work underground.
Legislation created the opportunity for child labour to be phased out. As working conditions generally improved and compulsory education was implemented, child labour decreased.