EH.net is owned and operated by the Economic History Association with the support of other sponsoring organizations.
Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution
Published by EH.NET (January 2011)
Jane Humphries, Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. xiii + 439 pp. $99 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-521-84756-8.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Carolyn Tuttle, Department of Economics and Business, Lake Forest College.
Jane Humphries of All Souls College at Oxford University masterfully provides a unique look into childhood and child labor during the British Industrial Revolution that has, up until this point, been largely neglected in the literature. Promoting the view that Britain experienced a “child-intensive industrial revolution” (p. 207) she places child labor into the private and social worlds of family and community. Humphries sets out to provide some concrete answers to three areas of debate within the literature -- the timing, causes and consequences of child labor. Her contribution to the first area of controversy, the trends in children’s employment over time, is the weakest. Whether or not child labor did rise during the Industrial Revolution, as she claims, cannot be gleaned from a collection of individuals at various points in time. The level of child employment over time is more accurately discerned from employers’ records in Factory and Mining Reports. She does, however, make a significant contribution to the other two areas of continuing debate. In fact, her findings are seminal and will become a reference for scholars in decades to come. Identifying the causes of child labor, which has significant implications for developing countries today, has been the subject of considerable research. Scholars have adequately developed the demand-side argument but have only been able to model the supply-side, lacking evidence on family behavior. Her insights into the decision-making process of families fill this void and seriously challenge the demand-induced argument. With death at their doorstep, parents often had no choice but to send their children to work. And finally, the vivid memories of childhood contained in the autobiographies reveal the physical and psychological consequences of child labor. The bravery, stoicism and tenacity displayed by the children as they left home to work is both inspiring and disheartening.
This book represents original research that integrates the approaches of historians, economists and sociologists to explain children’s roles in their family, their community and the economy. Humphries applies this interdisciplinary approach to over 600 autobiographies written by working men of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Humphries is meticulous in finding and revealing a unique perspective on child labor, “a view from below” as she calls it (p. 15). This type of evidence, however, is considered by some scholars an unconventional and controversial source of information. While it is arguably one of the greatest strengths of this research, others will see it as its greatest weakness. Acutely aware of the problems of using autobiographies for data, she convincingly defends their accuracy, relevance and applicability in representing the lives of poor and working-class children during the British Industrial Revolution (Chapter 2). As she argues, it is a “gold mine of information on pressures to work, links between family and the labour market, the nature of first jobs, remuneration, apprenticeship and schooling” (p. 6). Although she admits it is not a random sample, it is also not an unbiased sample because it only represents the lives of literate men. The absence of girls’ experiences and women’s perspectives may taint her later discussion on women’s role in the family (Chapter 3 and 5) and economy (Chapter 4).
With the information she gleans from pouring over the autobiographies, she supports certain “truths” in the existing literature and refutes (and revises) others. Humphries’ research lends considerable support to four claims for which there is general consensus. First, working-class parents sent their children off to work because they were poor and needed the wages of their children to survive (Chapters 3 and 7). The relationship between children and their parents was altruistic at best and benign at worst (Chapter 5). The majority of parents were not abusive or alcoholic but simply poor. Although the reasons for this poverty varied from family to family, the reality of not having enough food on the table did not. Secondly, the wages children earned were not trivial and made a significant contribution to the family purse (Chapters 7 and 8). Teenagers were often “second breadwinners” earning as much as adults. Third, the occupational distribution of children did change during the Industrial Revolution (Chapter 8). Although most children were still employed in agriculture, the number of children working in factories was significant and increased during the first part of the nineteenth century (Chapter 8). And finally, there was no discernable growth in formal schooling of the working class during this period of industrialization (Chapter 10). Although many children delighted in opportunities to learn to read, the fact that “school loomed large in the memories of childhood” (p. 310) may be over-exaggerated in this sample of literate autobiographers. School enrollment and attendance was low for working-class children. The few who did go to school skipped during harvest season and left as soon as they were old enough to find a job. Overall, reality fits the model, the supply of child labor increased because children played an extremely crucial role in family survival during the Industrial Revolution.
Equally as important, several of Humphries’ conclusions challenge well established views in the literature on the family. In their place she creates an entirely different version and possibly reveals new “truths.” Three in particular deserve mention, two offer insights into the causes of child labor (supply) and the other, the consequences. The unconventional model of the household that Humphries proposes in this book is both provocative and compelling. Her research calls into question a longstanding belief of most scholars about the family structure before and during the Industrial Revolution. Humphries argues that the male breadwinner model better describes working-class families during this period than Tilly and Scott’s “family economy” and DeVries’ “industrious” household. She found that families were largely dependent on father’s earnings, women were less likely to work and children were the “secondary earners in the typical working-class family” (p. 85). In her sample fewer than half of married women with husbands present were economically active (p. 95). This finding challenges much of the existing literature that there was an increase in the labor force participation of women during industrialization. Another surprising conclusion of her research is the high proportion of families that were fatherless or motherless. Although the traditional family was the most prevalent among the autobiographers, single-headed households were not uncommon. She found that children exposed to this “breadwinner frailty” were more likely to end up in precarious situations (workhouses, apprenticeships or factories). The struggles of family survival did not, as the conventional view claims, lead to physical abuse of the most vulnerable members of the family. Humphries finds that working-class childhood “was one long empty belly” (p. 97) and “abuse was distinguished from just chastisement” (p. 134). Recollected work experiences, moreover, reveal that the physical and emotional damage from working was considerably less than implied by the Factory Commission Reports in 1831-32. Children experienced the most violence, not in the home or even in the factory, but in private (dame) schools. Dame schools were unpleasant places of learning. Teachers were incompetent and often physically abusive. Children vividly recalled the thrashings by the holly-stick, ebony ruler and cane they received from the school master.
The strength of the book and its greatest contribution to the literature on child labor is in the presentation and discussion of the qualitative evidence and not the analysis of the quantitative data. Humphries is extremely effective at revealing the factual and emotional “richness of the words” from the personal accounts and not as effective in providing a statistical analysis of her sample (which was her original intention). Her attempt to assemble and analyze quantitative data from the large sample of autobiographies is laudable and the tables on the wages of boys (Table 8.4) and fathers (Table 4.4) across occupations and time are extremely useful. But the regressions seem to force cliometrics onto the autobiographical information and the results are often not statistically significant. Although knowing the effects of apprenticeships and schooling on occupational outcomes would have an immeasurable impact on the literature, understanding the factors that determined children’s fate is equally enlightening.
Jane Humphries’ book provides an experiential account of childhood during the British Industrial Revolution that is meticulously researched and creatively represented. She opens the “black box” of family life and reveals the nature of children’s relationship to parents and siblings, school teachers, masters of apprentices and overseers at factories. Readers interested in family dynamics, childhood, child labor and education will find the words Humphries chooses captivating and the story the working-class men tell fascinating. Although some may not appreciate the theoretical and econometric tools used to analyze the life histories, everyone will be captivated by the voices of the children.
Carolyn Tuttle is the author of Hard at Work in Factories and Mines: The Economics of Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution (1999). She has contributed chapters to a recent series on A Cultural History of Childhood and Family (2010) and Child Labour’s Global Past (2011). firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright (c) 2011 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (email@example.com). Published by EH.Net (January 2011). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview.