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Child Workers in England, 1780-1820: Parish Apprentices and the Making of the Early Industrial Labour Force

Author(s):Honeyman, Katrina
Reviewer(s):Sharpe, Pamela

Published by EH.NET (October 2008)

Katrina Honeyman, Child Workers in England, 1780-1820: Parish Apprentices and the Making of the Early Industrial Labour Force. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007. xiii + 340 pp. $100/?60 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-7546-6272-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Pamela Sharpe, School of History and Classics, University of Tasmania,

Child laborers are the iconic figures of the evils of Industrial Revolution. The purpose of this book ? by one of economic history?s most seasoned practitioners ? is to unveil the real story. Despite the broad main title, the subjects of the book are not all child workers but those children who went to work in mills and factories under schemes developed by their local parishes. Effectively this was an extension of the pauper apprenticeship scheme that, by 1780, when Honeyman?s story starts, had been operating for well over two hundred years. It had placed many tens of thousands of English children into the homes of their more wealthy counterparts where they were given some training (although often we cannot be sure what this amounted to beyond the menial aspects of husbandry or housewifery), promised some clothing and given a roof over their heads until their indentures expired.

Honeyman subjects the evidence about the first generation of child factory workers to extremely detailed examination. It becomes clear that the placing of these children involved negotiation on both sides ? both by the parish officials and overseers and by the employers. Some traveled large distances, from London parishes or southern rural places that were feeling the burden of overpopulation to the industrializing north, but there was a more numerically significant movement of children over short distances. Factory owners ? some setting up in areas with access to water power or other necessary natural resources ? could expect to assemble a small band of local children from within a few miles of their mills and factories. In this way, Honeyman convincingly argues, child labor was a ?vital kick start? to enterprises that otherwise would not have ever gotten off the ground.

On detailed examination the children?s jobs ? and these were rarely children under seven ? were less menial and perhaps less arduous than has been thought. After some initial training, children became independent workers responsible for their own machines and with the dexterity to piece together threads. In the same way that modern children take to technology more rapidly than their parents, it can be suggested (though this is not a point that Honeyman dwells on) that children?s adaptability ? with no need to ?unlearn? old methods of production ? must have been an enormous advantage. Employers specified whether they preferred boys or girls or would take either. Honeyman argues that they developed a gendered work identity in this way. These children certainly received some training in how to fit into the new environment of the factory as a useful worker. There were markedly different experiences of exploitation. While some children ran away, others stayed on as mill workers beyond the time of the expiry of their indentures.

An area that has not to this reviewer?s knowledge been systematically explored previously is the extent to which the settlement parishes of the factory children were involved in the placement. Honeyman devises a range of measures to show how parish officials had communicated with or visited the mills or factories before placing children and remained in contact with their employers when the children were working there. A wealthy London parish, St James?s, Piccadilly was very early to send children to northern industrialists and remained involved in the schemes for the years to follow. As a result, the historian can turn up a paper trail, not unlike that generated by a contemporary fostering or adoption arrangement. An area that Honeyman does not investigate is the settlement implications of the placements. Presumably many of the children took on new settlements in their new workplaces. For many, the negotiations between parish official and industrialist meant their transition from ploughboy to mule spinner or from female servant to drawer or rover.

This is a meticulously researched and very balanced investigation. It is the work of a very experienced economic historian. It is Katrina Honeyman?s seventh book. She is Professor of Economic and Social History at the University of Leeds and has worked in both the History department and Business School in Leeds. Her reputation has been built on her work in gender history, in the history of textiles and clothing and in producing clear and accessible textbooks about the process of industrialization.

The overall findings of this book are more optimistic than many other accounts of child labor in factories. It is probable that the paternalistic concerns of some southern parishes and institutions such as the Foundling Hospital made a material difference to the lives of these children that was lost a generation later. By the 1840s children were employed in mines and factories in free market situations that were widely investigated in Parliamentary commissions. By then the types of sweated labor that emanated from partial mechanization of productive processes took full effect. And, following the Poor Law Act of 1834, there were no poor law officials to monitor the progress of their young charges. Factory work was no longer novel and interesting and the cheap and adaptable aspects of child labor had become its distinguishing advantage.

Pamela Sharpe is Professor of History in the School of History and Classics, at the University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia. She was previously a Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia and Lecturer in Social and Economic History at the University of Bristol. She is currently editing a book about living arrangements of the poor in long eighteenth century England (to be published by Palgrave in 2009) and compiling a study of an outback mining community.

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