Book Review: Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution
Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution
Cambridge University Press 452pp £60
ISBN 978 0 521 84756 8
In exploring child labour Jane Humphries throws fresh light on the family and the world of work in the century from 1750. She builds on the efforts of David Vincent and John Burnett in studying sizeable numbers of working-class autobiographies. Whereas David Vincent drew on 142 memoirs in his excellent study, Bread, Knowledge and Freedom (Europa, 1981), Humphries draws on 617. She uses these sources for their wealth of qualitative information, as well as cautiously extracting quantative information. In doing so she applies approaches derived from development economics and other social science concepts. If this approach sounds forbidding to potential readers, they can be reassured that this book is both scholarly and fascinating to read.
By using so many autobiographies Jane Humphries largely avoids the obvious objection that she is relying on unreliable sources. While a few of those writing exercised selective memories, the great bulk of these memoirs are very likely to be reliable about their authors’ early lives. Nevertheless there are instances of working-class figures obscuring their early years. For instance, Arthur Henderson (1863-1935), a Labour Party leader and foreign secretary, either did not know of his background or provided misleading information concerning his birth outside of wedlock. Memories of past working-class lives can also offer cautions to the academic historian. I was taken aback when showing my father a birth certificate of an ancestor who was a miner, which had his mark, not a signature. When I expressed surprise that he was illiterate, my father said he was not, but in those days miners on day-shifts sometimes got a friend to register a new-born baby by making a mark, thereby avoiding the loss of pay. Similar aspects of past working lives are recovered by use of such sources as autobiographies, matters which otherwise would pass by anyone relying too heavily on quantitative sources.
Humphries casts fresh light on such issues as whether the age of child employment dropped in the broad Industrial Revolution period of 1790-1850. Her information suggests that the median age at which children started work was 12 or near 12 both before 1790 and after 1850, but dropped to 10 in between these dates. She also explores various possible determinants of why and at what age children took up employment. The presence or lack of a father was one very important factor, with the death or departure of the father making older children’s earnings especially important. Low earnings, either through lack of skill, bad habits or a more general drop in earning levels, such as in handloom weaving, could push children towards adding to the family income sooner. Industrialisation sometimes increased opportunities. In textiles, for example, mechanisation enabled children to work machinery that no longer needed adult strength. The greater demand for coal created a need for increased supplies of labour in mining. Sons followed fathers or brothers into the mines, initially opening and closing doors for ventilation before progressing steadily to hewing at the coalface.
There is much on the survival strategies of families. Even families with members earning often had only one reasonable meal a day and others were always hungry, surviving on root vegetables. Undernourished children often died young. One autobiography recalls a doomed brother asking if he will be hungry in heaven. In an age of high infant mortality Humphries recounts mothers grieving long over children who died young. One especially poignant account is of an elderly dying woman who began moving her hands in the way of a handloom weaver. When the minister present asked her why she was doing it, she said that her bright boy who died 54 years earlier was holding the other end of the thread from her. She was weaving herself towards him.
This is a large and important book. Humane and shrewd, it recaptures the often severe social conditions experienced by our ancestors and engages with many social issues related to childhood, including schooling and apprenticeships. It deserves to become not only a classic study of childhood but also of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. As Humphries herself notes, it has been a long time coming, but for the reader it has been well worth the wait.
Chris Wrigley is the author of AJP Taylor: Radical Historian of Europe
(IB Tauris, 2006).
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology