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Child Labor and the British Industrial Revolution, Part 1

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Everyone agrees that in the 100 years between 1750 and 1850 there took place in Great Britain profound economic changes. It was the age of the Industrial Revolution, complete with a cascade of technical innovations, a vast increase in industrial production, a renaissance of world trade, and a rapid growth of urban populations.

Where historians and other observers clash is in the interpretation of these great changes. Were they “good” or “bad”? Did they represent improvement to the citizens, or did those events set them back? Perhaps no other issue within this realm has generated more intellectual heat than the one concerning the labor of children. The enemies of freedom — of capitalism — have successfully cast this matter as an irrefutable indictment of the capitalist system as it was emerging in 19th-century Britain.

The many reports of poor working conditions and long hours of difficult toil make harrowing reading, to be sure. In his book The Factory System (1844), William Cooke Taylor wrote at the time about contemporary reformers who, witnessing children at work in factories, thought to themselves, “How much more delightful would have been the gambol of the free limbs on the hillside; the sight of the green mead with its spangles of buttercups and daisies; the song of the bird and the humming of the bee.”

Of those historians who have interpreted child labor in industrial Britain as a crime of capitalism, none have been more prominent than J.L. and Barbara Hammond. Their many works, including Lord Shaftesbury, The Village Labourer, The Town Labourer, and The Skilled Labourer , have been widely promoted as “authoritative” on the issue.

The Hammonds divided the factory children into two classes: “Parish apprentice children” and “free labour children.” It is a distinction of enormous significance, though one the authors themselves failed utterly to appreciate. Once having made the distinction, the Hammonds proceeded to treat the two classes as though no distinction between them existed at all. A deluge of false and misleading conclusions about capitalism and child labor has poured forth for years as a consequence.

“Free labour” children were those who lived at home but worked during the days in factories at the insistence of their parents or guardians. British historian E.P. Thompson, though generally critical of the factory system, nonetheless quite properly conceded in his book The Making of the English Working Class (1964) that “it is perfectly true that the parents not only needed their children’s earnings, but expected them to work.” Ludwig von Mises, the great Austrian economist, put it well in his treatise Human Action when he noted that the generally deplorable conditions extant for centuries before the Industrial Revolution and the low levels of productivity which created them caused families to embrace the new opportunities the factories represented:

It is a distortion of facts to say that the factories carried off the housewives from the nurseries and the kitchen and the children from their play. These women had nothing to cook with and to feed their children. These children were destitute and starving. Their only refuge was the factory. It saved them, in the strict sense of the term, from death by starvation.

Private factory owners could not forcibly subjugate “free labour” children; they could not compel them to work in conditions their parents found unacceptable. The mass exodus from the socialist continent to increasingly capitalist, industrial Britain in the first half of the 19th century strongly suggests that people did indeed find the industrial order an attractive alternative. And no credible evidence exists that argues that parents in the early capitalist days were any less caring of their offspring than those of pre-capitalist times.

The situation, however, was much different for “parish apprentice” children, and close examination reveals that it was these children on whom the critics were focusing when they spoke of the “evils” of capitalism’s Industrial Revolution. These youngsters, it turns out, were under the direct authority and supervision not of their parents in a free labor market, but of government officials. Most were orphans; a few were victims of negligent parents or parents whose health or lack of skills kept them from earning sufficient income to care for a family. All were in the custody of “parish authorities.” As the Hammonds wrote in The Town Labourer ,

[The] first mills were placed on streams, and the necessary labour was provided by the importation of cartloads of pauper children from the workhouses of the big towns. London was an important source, for since the passing of Hanway’s Act in 1767 the child population in the workhouse had enormously increased, and the parish authorities were anxious to find relief from the burden of their maintenance. To the parish authorities, encumbered with great masses of unwanted children, the new cotton mills in Lancashire, Derby, and Notts were a godsend.

The Hammonds proceed to report the horrors of those mills with descriptions like these: “crowded with overworked children,” “hotbeds of putrid fever,” “monotonous toil in a hell of human cruelty,” and so forth. Page after page of the Hammonds’ writings — as well as those of many other anticapitalist historians — deal in this manner with the condition of the parish apprentices. Though consigned to the control of a government authority, these children are routinely held up as victims of the “capitalist order.”

In his essay “The Effects of the Industrial Revolution on Women and Children,” which was published in Ayn Rand’s Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, author Robert Hessen took note of this historiographical mischief and urged others to acknowledge the error. The parish apprentice children, he writes,

“had been sent into virtual slavery by the parish authorities, a government body: they were deserted or orphaned pauper children who were legally under the custody of the poor-law officials in the parish, and who were bound by these officials into long terms of unpaid apprenticeship in return for a bare subsistence.”

Indeed, Hessen points out, the first Act in Britain that applied to factory children was passed to protect these very parish apprentices, not “free labour” children.

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    Lawrence W. Reed is President of The Foundation for Economic Education. Reed holds a B.A. degree in Economics from Grove City College (1975) and an M.A. degree in History from Slippery Rock State University (1978), both in Pennsylvania. He taught economics at Midland’s Northwood University from 1977 to 1984 and chaired the Department of Economics from 1982 to 1984. He has authored over 1,000 newspaper columns and articles, 200 radio commentaries, dozens of articles in magazines and journals in the U. S. and abroad, as well as five books. His articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, Baltimore Sun, Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, among many others. Mr. Reed was previously president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan (www. mackinac.org), and chairman of the board of trustees of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He also serves on the Board of Speakers of The Future of Freedom Foundation.