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Child Workers and Industrial Health in Britain, 1780-1850

Author(s):Kirby, Peter
Reviewer(s):Tuttle, Carolyn

Published by EH.Net (February 2014)

Peter Kirby, Child Workers and Industrial Health in Britain, 1780-1850.  Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK:  Boydell Press, 2013. xi + 212 pp.  $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-84383-884-5.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Carolyn Tuttle, Department of Economics, Lake Forest College.

This book significantly contributes to the child labor literature in discerning the health of the children who worked in British factories and mines from 1780 to 1850.  Although the debate over the exploitation of children during the British Industrial Revolution continues to rage on between the Optimists and the Pessimists, this is the first extensive examination into the occupational health of early industrial children.  The main contribution of this book is in producing a “comprehensive overview of the factors bearing upon the health and industrial working conditions of children in the context of the major occupational and epidemiological transitions of the Industrial Revolution” (p. 35).  Peter Kirby argues that the health of the industrial child was fairly good, was not worsened by their work or working conditions but rather that “the child workers who staffed the mills and factories of the Industrial Revolution were at no greater risk of poor health than those in other occupations” (p. 161).  The book presents several types of evidence, some more compelling than others.  Considerable archival work on child work-related injuries, children’s heights, child muscular and skeletal development and childhood diseases challenges the existing view that children’s health declined once they had worked in the textile mills or coal mines for an extended period of time.  In addition, this research challenges the evidence which led to the prevailing image of the skinny, crooked, bruised factory child.  He casts doubt on the representativeness of Sadler’s Report, the representativeness of two well-known child laborers – Robert Blincoe (the parish apprentice) and William Dodd (the factory cripple) – and the conclusions drawn from the observations of contemporary factory operatives and medical men.

Chapters 1 and 2 rightly put the issue of the health of child laborers into the broader context of growing industrial cities and the emergence of a poor working class.  By identifying the externalities of industrial growth, such as the air pollution caused by the smoke of coal-burning factories, the potential source(s) of children’s poor health is highlighted.  In addition, the detrimental impact of poor nutrition of both the expectant and then nursing mother explains lower birth weights, weaker immune systems and lower heights of children from poor families.  These arguments are convincing as children from poor families, regardless of their occupation, would tend to be smaller and sicklier.  Kirby concludes that “infectious diseases were ubiquitous amongst children and it is likely that many young people commenced their working lives carrying physical impairments conferred by disease in early childhood.  This almost certainly led medical commentators to confuse broader epidemiological effects such as deformity and short stature with the influence of the workplace” (p. 60).

Although some medical doctors may have been misinformed or misled, it is unlikely they all were. Throughout the book Kirby dismisses the observations and examinations of the “medical men” reporting to Parliament by claiming they were not qualified to identify occupational aliments, and therefore erroneously attributed all the diseases and deformities of children to their work and not to their general living conditions.  He argues that many were not trained in occupational health, many had no experience with industrial workplaces, and that the majority of Sadler’s medical witnesses never visited a mill or factory.  Rather than provide a more nuanced assessment of their extensive commentary, Kirby dismisses all of their testimony and concludes that “the evidence of early nineteenth-century medical men is therefore a highly unreliable basis for a serious inquiry into the health of industrial children” (p. 34).

As a result, the main weakness of this book is that the evidence put forth ignores medical commentary at the time and instead uses recent research in occupational medicine and health studies of children working in developing countries.  Although this approach is useful due to the similarities of child labor past and present, it must be placed into context.  There are considerable differences in the technology (or lack thereof), tasks performed, and working conditions of child laborers today that significantly impact their occupational health.  Kirby instead cites a mill surgeon, a lecturer to the Leeds Mechanics’ Institute and a member of the Provincial Medical and Surgical Association as reliable “experts” on occupational health; all three found no link between standing for long periods of time and knock-knees and skeletal distortions (p. 64).  Kirby assumes, moreover, that the tasks children performed in the factories were light, the least laborious of all indoor work.  He concludes that this may explain why many children who worked in the mills were disabled, “There is considerable evidence that slender or disabled children were positively selected to work in factories” (p. 77).  This opinion is not supported by the organizational charts of factories in 1833 where children were listed not just as helpers doing light work (“piecers,” “doffers,” and “cleaners”) but were also performing adult tasks (specifically spinners, winders, combers, carders and weavers).  Kirby’s assessment on page 77 also contradicts an earlier statement he made that “the health of children and adolescents was therefore crucial to the formation of contracts with employers and masters would not normally accept a child with an obvious illness or disability” (p. 58).  Kirby’s arguments about how factory conditions affected or didn’t affect child workers are more confusing than convincing.

Chapter 3 has a very interesting and important discussion on the difficulties of establishing a child’s age and therefore enforcing the age requirements set in the Factory Act of 1833 (which prohibited children under age 9 from working).  Age certificates were not valid or reliable until 1846. Early factory legislation made parents primarily responsible for confirming the ages of their working children.  Parents were known to lie in order to insure their children would get hired.  The Factory Act of 1833 shifted the responsibility to the employers, but since children did not have birth certificates, who would verify their age?  The Factory Commission recommended the appointment of certifying surgeons to confirm a child’s age and hence eligibility for work.  Although this system was an improvement, this research identifies the new problems that arose.  How does one determine the age of a child? Kirby has a thorough discussion of the problems with using height and the reasons officials turned to examining the stages of child dentition.

Compelling evidence is offered in Table 4 and Figure 4 illustrating that there was little difference in the height of the factory and non-factory children who attended Sunday school in Manchester and Stockport.  Kirby concludes that the factors stunting their growth occurred before they began working in the factory. “The effect of factory occupation upon the health and growth of working children therefore appears to have been negligible” (p. 115).  One exception is coal mining, where the occupation did contribute to their smaller stature (and larger chests), as Kirby documents carefully in Tables 5, 6 and 7. He astutely argues that children in the mines, due to their hours of work underground had a complete deficiency of ultraviolet light which was thought to have contributed to slow and abnormal bone growth (p. 120).

Chapter 4 discusses an extremely important topic on the ill treatment of working children but does not make a cohesive argument.  The conclusion that “the beating of child factory workers was extremely rare” (p. 150) is based on no new evidence and stands in contrast to Nardinelli’s (1982) findings that systematic corporal punishment occurred in many factories and mines.  Instead of examining the testimony of child laborers and overseers, Kirby makes the claim that life in Industrial Britain was far from peaceful – a working-class child was exposed to either violence at home, at school or at work.  Physical discipline was customary at school and at work and abuse or domestic violence at home was not uncommon.  Thus, rather than deny that corporal punishment occurred (which was his initial position), Kirby admits it did exist but argues it was justifiable – “where corporal punishment was practiced in any systematic manner in industrial situations, it tended to be generally moderate and connected in highly complex ways with the needs of production or the maintenance of workplace safety” (p. 149).

Kirby concludes in Chapter 5 that the “often simplistic stereotype of the health-impaired and abused industrial child can no longer be sustained” (p. 151).  The poor health of child laborers was caused by “a wide range of exogenous factors such as the urban disease environment, social class, household poverty, pre-existing disability or orphanage, and such influences almost certainly proved more harmful to their health and welfare than discrete workplace factors” (p. 151).  This research is thought-provoking and should encourage economic history scholars to delve into the other Factory Inspector Reports (besides Sadler’s 1833 Report) and the 1842 Mining Report for evidence on workplace accidents, the use of corporal punishment, and childhood diseases.  I believe the book has broad appeal and should be of interest to economic historians and social historians, as well as psychologists and sociologists.  It is well written and superbly documented and is accessible to students at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

Carolyn Tuttle is the Betty Jane Schultz Hollender Professor of Economics at Lake Forest College.  Recent publications include “Child Labor: A Revival of the Pessimist View” in Research in Economic History and a book entitled Mexican Women in American Factories: Free Trade and Exploitation on the Border (2012) by University of Texas Press.  She is currently working on an article with Simone Wegge of CSI-CUNY entitled “The Role of Child Labor in Industrialization.”  She can be reached at

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Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century