Childhood and Child Labour in Industrial England: Diversity and Agency, 1750-1914 – reviewed by Sophie Newman

‘Childhood and Child Labour in Industrial England: Diversity and Agency, 1750-1914’ by Nigel Goose and Katrina Honeyman (Ashgate, 2013).

CCLThis edited volume was developed by Nigel Goose and Katrina Honeyman as a means of questioning the more antiquated views of the industrial child labourers as helpless victims, and ‘to see children as participants – even protaganists – in the process of historical change’ (p.8), and within their own lives.

Childhood is principally associated with a perceived vulnerability — an ideal that has spanned cultures both geographically and temporally. This is perhaps why childhood in the Industrial Revolution of the 1819th centuries has gained such fervent attention in historical study. Stories of notorious child exploitation in factories, and the trials and tribulations of this young industrial workforce are widespread in earlier historical literature. These have led to our prevailing image of the defenceless ‘infant slaves’ of the time. However, the authors of this book express the concern that ‘narrow lines of evidence’ have often been heavily utilised in past research.

This book includes numerous contributions related to childhood and child labour from a range of primary resources and research fields. Sarah Toulalan (history of the body), Alysa Levene (history), Katrina Honeyman (social and economic history), Niels van Manen (economics), Jane Humphries (economic history), Peter Kirby (social history), Nigel Goose (social and economic history), Kathryn Gleadle (modern history), Colin Creighton (sociology and anthropology), Nicola Sheldon (history in education), Susannah Wright (education studies), and Clare Rose (history of fashion, textiles and childhood) have all provided informative chapters to this edition, each assessing (or reassessing) key topics in the lives of the child labourers of this time. This book builds on the existing works of Jane Humphries, Peter Kirby, and Alysa Levene (see below for references to these publications) to provide a more balanced and thorough overview of childhood in industrial England.

In an attempt to approach childhood directly through the eyes of the children themselves, Goose and Honeyman describe two sub-themes which feature prominently in the title of the book, and throughout the text: Agency and Diversity. Through these themes the contributions effectively, and convincingly, identify autonomous behaviour within historical documentation. Agency refers to evidence of children as participants in their surroundings and experiences. It may be recognised by accounts of children exerting their own influence or making informed decisions regarding their lives and futures.  Evidence for agency is first introduced in chapter 2. Toulalan examines documentation from trials held at the Old Bailey between 1694-1797 to demonstrate the extent to which the voices of children were heard in cases of child sexual abuse. This emotive subject reveals ideas concerning age of consent and when children were considered old enough to be aware of the consequences of their actions, and consequently deals with the denial of agency. Other chapters highlight examples of children governing their lives, such as Honeyman’s research into parish apprenticeship in the early 19th century (chapter 4). Through the analysis of correspondence between masters and parish officials, she identifies instances where parish apprentices were able to reject work bindings, or actively absconded when they were unhappy with their placements. Van Manen reveals similar evidence of agency in the workplace in his appraisal of the legislation regarding the regulation of chimney sweep apprentices in 1834 and 1840 (chapter 5). Concern for the needs of the children involved was expressed in parish meetings and magistrates’ hearings, and the children themselves were often consulted in matters of disputes. Legislation also afforded sweeps the right to end bindings, and to decide where they worked.

In chapter 9, Gleadle provides a powerful image of agency through her discussion of the Ten Hours Movement. Here, the capability of children to contribute to public debate regarding their working hours and conditions is vividly expressed in the descriptions of the protests of 1833.  The increasing demand for the instatement of the Ten Hours Bill (initially proposed in 1832, but not passed until 1847 under the Factories Act) led to the gathering of “thousands of children” to face factory commissioners and appeal for shorter working hours. Colin Creighton (chapter 10) also reveals the influence that young members of the working class could exert on the legislation surrounding working hours and conditions in his discussion of changing children’s rights. Rose presents a novel approach to the study of agency through the analysis of entry photographs from Dr Barnado’s Homes. Through this medium she attempts to access concepts of identity via clothing within the images of the child labourers themselves (chapter 13). The use of visual sources such as these adds another valuable dimension to the study childhood and the progression to maturity during this time, however this could perhaps have been enriched through the addition of example photographs from the study.

Evidence of diversity allows insight into the range of experiences of childhood in this time period, and the opportunities afforded to child labourers. In chapter 3, Levene examines documentation from three charities (the London Foundling Hospital, the Marine Society, and Christ’s Hospital) that existed to provide assistance and employment opportunities to pauper children. She emphasises the multitude of placement types available. Manufacturing was not the sole fate for these children; agriculture and domestic service were also common positions. Humphries considers the diverse range of individual childhood experiences through autobiographies of the orphaned and abandoned placed within workhouses and poorhouses (chapter 6). Her contribution paints an interesting contrast of those who looked favourably back on the opportunity for an escape from life on the streets, and accounts of the often poor and callous conditions of the institutions themselves. Related to this, the development of care systems available to ‘pauper children’, the different entry points into these systems, and the backgrounds of the children that required this assistance are explored by Sheldon (chapter 11).

Wright discusses diversity in the education available to children of low status urban backgrounds in chapter 12. There was great concern over the moral degradation of children of the urban poor, however efforts to provide moral education often varied in availability. This chapter provides a thought-provoking glimpse into the stigma that was often attached to urban children in the eyes of the upper classes, demonstrating the marked social inequality that existed within society. Kirby identifies the diversity of experiences faced by children within one industry: coal mining (chapter 7). He highlights the diversity of employment opportunities and methodologies that may have occurred within and between districts. This is a point further emphasised by Goose in his investigation of children’s employment opportunities within Hertfordshire (chapter 8). Using local census data he detects variations in employment type across localities and regions. A predominance of factory work was not necessarily the norm, depending on the area of either the country or county in question. He concludes with strong recommendations of the use of data relating to the local and county levels to gain a more accurate reading of the ‘varieties of childhood’ (pg. 174) available across the country.

This well-written book successfully accesses the experiences of child labourers via a range of clearly conveyed topics and previously underutilised or overlooked historical resources. It allows for a comprehensive outlook on the childhood experience of the labouring population between 1750-1914 and effectively evaluates the autonomy afforded to and exercised by these children, thus characterising them as active participants in the economic and social transitions of the time. There were undoubtedly an overwhelming number of cases of child exploitation during the Industrial Revolution, and there is much evidence for neglect presented within this book. However, the essential message is that this was not necessarily the experience for all.

Bringing children and childhood to the forefront in academic study is a movement that has spanned research fields in recent years, bringing new opportunities for an interdisciplinary approach to our own work. It is certainly an exciting time for childhood research, and this neutral and unbiased book makes an excellent contribution and essential read for researchers into this field such as social and economic historians, sociologists, and even bioarchaeologists such as myself!

Reviewed by Sophie Newman, a PhD Candidate in Bioarchaeology at Durham University. Sophie is currently researching the effects of industrialisation on child health in England during the Industrial Revolution. Her study particularly focuses on detecting disruption to growth within the skeleton due to environmental and nutritional constraints.


Humphries, J. 2010. Childhood and child labour in the British industrial revolution. Cambridge University Press.

Kirby, P. 2003. Child labour in Britain, 1750-1870. Palgrave Macmillan.

Kirby, P. 2013. Child Workers and Industrial Health, 1780-1850. Boydell Press.

Levene, A. 2007. Childcare, health and mortality at the London Foundling Hospital, 1741-1800: ‘left to the mercy of the world’. Manchester University Press.

Levene, A. 2012. The childhood of the poor: welfare in eighteenth-century London. Palgrave Macmillan.


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