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Childhood and Child Labour in Industrial England: Diversity and Agency, 1750-1914

Editor(s):Goose , Nigel
Honeyman, Katrina
Reviewer(s):Heywood, Colin

Published by EH.Net (July 2014)

Nigel Goose and Katrina Honeyman, editors, Childhood and Child Labour in Industrial England: Diversity and Agency, 1750-1914. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2013. xii + 358 pp. $135 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-4094-1114-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Colin Heywood, Department of History, University of Nottingham.

The editors set out their stall for this book very clearly in their introduction. Their aim is to move on from the emphasis on exploitation and victimhood in the study of childhood during the Industrial Revolution period in England, so evident among earlier generations of historians. In its place, they take a leaf from recent developments in childhood studies in the social sciences and adopt as their two overarching themes agency and diversity. It is hard to disagree with their assertion that the history of industrial child labor in particular is ripe for a new look. The distinctly misérabiliste and emotive depiction of exploitation in the factories and mines, well established in the popular imagination, captures a dimension to the topic, but now looks a very partial view. By contrast, the desire to treat children as actors in the own right is much in vogue, and the diversity of childhood experiences is now evident as historical research in the area has flourished.

It should be said that finding evidence of children negotiating their own path in life is not always easy, given that they were so often at the mercy of adults. Some of the authors here acknowledge this, and indeed there is plenty of exploitation and victimhood on display, among chimney sweeps, pauper apprentices, and inmates of the workhouse, for example (for a full list of the essays, see below). And one sympathizes with the editors when they note the limits to what can be achieved in one book. The original focus on child labor in industry means that “diversity” is largely confined to the urban working classes, though this does give the book a certain coherence. Besides the varied experiences of work, in small workshops as well as factories, we have interesting material on the childhood dimension to political protest, sexuality, poor relief, human rights, clothing and (perhaps inevitably) schooling. What might have appeared beside them with more space are other new areas of interest such as delinquency, health, environment, and leisure. Following in the footsteps of many childhood historians before them, there is much emphasis in this collection on the role of the state and other institutions. The editors’ justification is persuasive, for as well as leaving extensive collections of records in the archives, institutions were coming to feature prominently in the lives of children during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Kathryn Gleadle provides a fine example of children actively engaged in political protest with her study of their mobilization in the industrial north to support the Ten Hours Movement in 1833. She brings out the “complexities” involved in ascribing agency to children in politics, with the suspicion that their addresses to the authorities were written by adults (p. 223). She usefully notes the temptation to romanticize the idea of children’s agency, but also concludes that many young people were politicized during the 1830s by participation in protest movements (p. 229). Two other authors, Niels van Manen and Peter Kirby, draw attention respectively to the efforts made by poor law authorities and children’s employment commissioners to consult young people on matters that concerned them — an outstanding feature of English as opposed to continental administration. At the other extreme, Sarah Toulalan is keen to demonstrate that the young were often denied agency in their sexual activity, for example, when they married during their early teens but were kept apart by their parents.

The theme of diversity is most directly confronted in Nigel Goose’s contribution on the varied experiences of children in the labor market in Hertfordshire. He documents the “stark contrast between parishes with relatively high employment levels and those with virtually none at all” (p. 163), and the broad range of occupations involving young people within the county. He concludes that Victorian England produced varieties of childhood to a degree never seen before or since (p. 176). Otherwise, the essays look beyond the workshops to children in apprenticeships, workhouses, residential care, and elementary schools. There are some interesting challenges to received opinion. Katrina Honeyman, for example, argues that some of the pauper apprentices employed in the early textile mills were privileged in various ways in comparison with “free” children. (Sadly, Professor Honeyman died before this book appeared.) Jane Humphries uses working-class autobiographies to reveal the “lifelines” provided by education in the workhouses for brighter children.

All of the essays in the collection are solidly rooted in both secondary and primary sources, and are written in an approachable prose style. It is a pity that there are no illustrations, notably for Clare Rose’s study of photographs taken in Barnardo’s homes. Doubtless this is a book that will be sipped rather than swallowed whole by most historians, but it is a worthwhile addition to its field.

The essays:
1. Nigel Goose and Katrina Honeyman, Introduction
2. Sarah Toulalan, Child Sexual Abuse in Late Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century London: Rape, Sexual Assault and the Denial of Agency
3. Alysa Levene, Charity Apprenticeship and Social Capital in Eighteenth-Century England
4. Katrina Honeyman, Compulsion, Compassion and Consent: Parish Apprenticeship in Early-Nineteenth-Century England
5. Niels van Manen, Agency and Reform: The Regulation of Chimney Sweep Apprentices, 1770-1840
6. Jane Humphries, Care and Cruelty in the Warehouse: Children’s Experiences of Residential Poor Relief in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century England
7. Peter Kirby, Victorian Social Investigation and the Children’s Employment Commission, 1840-1842
8. Nigel Goose, Child Employment Prospects in Nineteenth-Century Hertfordshire in Perspective: Varieties of Childhood?
9. Kathryn Gleadle, ‘We Will Have It': Children and Protest in the Ten Hours Movement
10. Colin Creighton, Changing Conceptualizations of Children’s Rights in Early Industrial Britain
11. Nicola Sheldon, ‘Something in the Place of Home': Children in Institutional Care, 1850-1918
12. Susannah Wright, Moral Instruction, Urban Poverty and English Elementary Schools in the Late Nineteenth Century
13. Clare Rose, Working Lads in Late-Victorian London

Colin Heywood is Professor Emeritus of Modern French History at the University of Nottingham. He is currently writing a history of childhood and youth in modern Europe.

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Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII