Why Did Child Labour Decline in Britain in the 19th and 20th Centuries?

Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries saw a decline in child labour and the introduction of compulsory schooling for children in Britain. I intend to discuss the relationship between these two processes and the impact they had on both adults and children’s lives. I will also discuss the changes in views of childhood that accompanied and followed these developments. Pre-industrial Britain saw many children engaged in various types of manual employment; in agriculture, the mills, factories, pits and domestic service.

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Ideas of childhood at that time meant children were viewed as key and able contributors to the family economy. Children could potentially earn and be contributing at least 40% of the household income. Child labour was viewed by families as a natural progression into the adult world, a rite of passage. Parents recognised the beginning of work as a marker for a child entering adulthood. In Book 2, Chapter 3, Reading B, p. 118, a working class mother when questioned about her reasons for putting her children to work answered simply, ‘he’s of an age to, why not? It was the norm at that time. The 19th and 20th centuries saw a change in the attitudes regarding child labour, unease was felt regarding the appropriateness of child labour and the harm it could bring to children, both physically and morally. In the early 19th century there were no specific regulations or laws protecting children to ensure minimum working hours and adequate working conditions. It was only when large numbers of children came to be employed in workplaces that questions were asked regarding the suitability of their employment.

In 1830 Michael Sadler voiced his concerns and headed a campaign in the House of Commons against child labour. He purported the view that child work was both physically and morally harmful and that it was shameful to have children work to keep their family financially afloat. He believed this was going against the natural order of things as parents should provide for their children and not the reverse. In 1832 The Royal Commission conducted an enquiry into child labour; its findings concluded that child labour was on the increase. In Book 2, Chapter 3, p. 6, J. H. Green, a surgeon at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London, one of the contributors to The Royal Commission Enquiry supported the view that children were not designed to work; he raised concerns regarding the physical development of children and how labour impeded on this. He conceded though that a family’s finances may depend on the income derived from children, so he suggested, there should be restrictions on the work children do, in order to afford them some sort of protection. Evidence too was gathered from some of the children engaged in child labour.

The enquiry heard from Sarah Gooder, an 8 year old girl who worked as a trapper in the pits, In Book 2, Chapter 3, p. 86, she discussed how she felt tired and afraid and discussed how she would much rather spend her time in school. As a result of the evidence gathered significant amendments were made to the Factory act, a law which was supposed to offer protection to children; employers for the first time could be inspected to guard against exploitation. This was the first effective piece of legislation regarding child labour. By the mid 19th century legislation had been put in place to protect child workers across the industry.

Britain though was not the only nation seeing changes in child labour, across the North countries such as Norway were radically changing their attitudes. This though did not mean that child labour ceased, rather it meant that children who needed to work to help the family economy were employed in less harmful jobs which were appropriate for their age such as messengers, servants etc. An education approach similar to the half time schooling system in Britain, where by children spent half their time at work and the other half at school was implemented.

School now became the major force of a child’s socialisation. In Book 2, Chapter 3, Reading A, p. 116, Schrumpf discussed how there was less room in children’s lives for work, as the emphasis had changed to school and leisure activities. At the same time as concern was being raised regarding the appropriateness of child labour so to was the debate regarding education. By the end of the 19th century concern began to focus on the training and skills young people needed to acquire in order to succeed in the labour market as adults.

Many of the children who were employed were offered no training or provided with skills that would benefit them as they reached adulthood. The government stood firm on enforcing legislation to protect child workers and simultaneously the half time schooling system was extensively promoted. The census compiled in 1871 by the Registrar General showed too that there were a vast amount of children who were registered as neither at school or at work. This raised concern and action was taken to provide control and structure for those ‘street children’.

Legislation was implemented and schooling was made compulsory for all children aged five to ten years in England and Wales and five to thirteen years in Scotland. Enforcing parents to send their children to school was not an easy process. It was met with some opposition and truancy was the second most common offence noted up until 1916. As attitudes regarding employing child labour were now becoming socially unacceptable both in Britain and internationally, education was becoming acceptable. Attendance officers were employed to act as a link for the school board.

Their job was to enlighten and inform parents of the benefits to their child that education would bring; they also served warnings on parents of the consequences they would face if they failed to send their children to school. Thomas Gautrey of the London School Board commented, ‘the school habit was being effectively cultured’, Book 2, Chapter 3, Reading C, p. 124, he believed the successful attendance numbers schools had been registering over a short space of time was a result of the good work the attendance officers had provided.

Parents had been convinced that schooling would provide their child with the basic necessities to equip them for adult life. Children’s experience of schooling was very much dependent on both their class and gender. State run schools and church run schools were attended in equal numbers. Separate curriculum was taught for girls and boys, with the emphasis for girls being on service and domestic chores. Secondary education was the preserve of mainly middleclass families as many working class families still depended on the income their children could generate.

As the law only stated that children were compelled to attend school until they were ten years old, that is what the parents went with. In Book 2, Chapter 4, p. 101 Jane Taverner offers her experiences of school in the 1920’s; she discusses the dependence her family had on her for financial input. Regardless of her ability and desire to enter into secondary education, it was never going to be realised as she was expected and depended upon to contribute to the family economy. School became the norm and formed part of a child’s day, with work taking a secondary position.

By the end of the 19th century around 95% of brides and grooms were able to sign the marriage register; this is in stark contrast to 1830’s when only two thirds of grooms and half of brides were able to sign. These figures show the significant rise in literacy levels for that era. Moral disputes regarding the value of children in both monetary and sentimental terms have been at the forefront of the debate on child labour. Britain and the USA saw advocates of child labour argue that it was not only good for both family finances and economic growth but it was also a form of social control, if children were busy they weren’t making trouble.

Those opposed to child labour had a different view; they saw child labour as exploitation by both the state and the family. These opposing views offer moral judgments on childhood, those supporting child labour that children need to be kept busy, can make an economic contribution, are able to work, so why not? Whilst those against felt that children need to be protected and enjoy the freedom which childhood should afford them. These ideas of childhood are still prevalent today and have strong links with both the Romantic and Puritan discourse of childhood.

Hugh Cunningham discusses in Audio 3 Band 3 how the sense of obligation on children to earn money for the family was not the same, adults were now earning more so a child’s wage was not depended upon as much as it had been in the past. The teenage consumer market of the 1950’s saw a change in the division of salaries, any money that was earned by child labour in the past was normally handed over to the mother or fathers who usually gave a token amount back to the child but now children began to keep a higher percentage of their wage for pin money.

Attitudes in working class families had changed, the emphasis had shifted from children working, abandoning education and making sacrifices for their families to the reverse; parents were now making financial sacrifices for their children and encouraging them to achieve academic success. Children were now viewed by their parents with more sentiment and were held in a special category, loved and protected, rather than used for financial gain, like the Japanese who rarely used child labour, children were now seen as the priority; as one mother discussed in Book 2, Chapter 4, p. 04, rather than the father being given the extra piece of meat at dinner time, it was now the children in the family who received it. During the course of the 19th and 20th centuries ideas have changed regarding when childhood ends. Children saw the workplace as a marker for defining their place in society, Book 2, Chapter 3, p. 104, details a conversation in the early 1800’s with a young watercress seller who was questioned on how she spent her earnings, she explained that she saved her money for clothes and not sweets as she was not a child, she was older than eight.

This supported a widely held view at that time that childhood ended when work began, so in turn the later a child entered the workplace the longer childhood would last. The introduction of compulsory schooling acted as an indicator for western society as to when childhood ends, children are seen as being children as long as they are at school, but the moment they enter the marketplace they are considered by society to be grown up and young adults.

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