Child workers and industrial health in Britain 1780-1850

Peter Kirby, Child workers and industrial health in Britain 1780-1850 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2013. Pp. xi + 212. 8 tabs. 6 figs. ISBN 9781843838845 Pbk. £19.99)

Review by Alysa Levene (Oxford Brookes University)

Book by Peter Kirby

‘Child workers and industrial health in Britain 1780-1850’ is published by Boydell and Brewer. SAVE  25% when you order direct from the publisher – offer ends on the 18th July 2019. See below for details.


copertina kirby.png

The physical horrors endured by child workers in the early industrial workplace are well known to historians – or at least, we think they are. The regulations of the various Factory Acts and the testaments of sub-commissioners, doctors and factory workers to the parliamentary enquiries of the 1830s and 1840s are common reference points for those of us working or teaching in this area. However, over the last few years, several in-depth studies of child labour in industrial England have appeared which have started to challenge and nuance what we think we know. First, Katrina Honeyman, Child Workers in England, 1780-1820 (2007) suggested that apprentices to cotton mills were often better looked after than we have thought. Then, Jane Humphries, Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution (2010) set industrial work in a wider context of schooling and family life, as evidenced in over 600 working-class autobiographies. And now, Peter Kirby has added the first monograph study of occupational health among child workers in the first half of the nineteenth century¸ and has again, knocked down many of the key points we have been telling students for years.

The book is organised thematically, starting with an Introduction which sets out in detail the historical background to child labour in industry, and the sources we have for studying it. Here, Kirby points out the problems with the medical evidence collected for the parliamentary enquiries in the 1830s and 1840s; namely that many of the doctors concerned did not have first-hand experience of occupational health and so tended to attribute any health issues to working conditions rather than environmental ones. This leads him to place more emphasis on the writings of non-medical men, shifting the perspective away from doctors and children and towards health and conditions of work in the round. The main chapters consider child health in industrial cities generally; the key issues affecting the health of child industrial worker (deformities; ‘materials’ – see more below; and injuries); heights and ages, and how these were measured; and finally, corporal punishment and murder.

One of Kirby’s key conclusions is that it was environmental rather than working conditions which were responsible for most of the health problems experienced by child workers. He states that many began work in factories and mines already compromised by poor nutrition, environmental pollution and the impact of parental loss (which led to work at a young age), and that in fact, stunted and disabled children may have been preferentially admitted to the factory workforce because they were suited to the lighter tasks found there. To a certain degree this is convincing, and it is certainly instructive and worthwhile to draw attention to the relationship between the conditions of home life and working life so clearly. The discussion of environmental pollution and its impact on health is particularly detailed. However, it seems hard to believe either that so many children would have suffered from conditions like byssinosis, scoliosis or poliomyelitis as Kirby suggests, or that pre-existing disability could have been so widespread among child workers given the need to stand upright and bear a load in so many areas of work.

The discussion of ‘materials’ is another area where Kirby provides an impressive level of detail, and which advances our understanding of the realities of working life in mills. In particular, he draws attention to the pollutants which can be carried in raw cotton, and ties this to changes in supply during this period, for example, away from imports from the West Indies, and towards those from North America, which were less likely to be contaminated (this coincided with a fall in ‘mill fevers’). This is something which has not been much considered in previous work (although it was noted by contemporaries) and which has a bearing on both adult and child workers.

Kirby attempts to bring a similarly new perspective to the discussion of workplace violence, suggesting that corporal punishment was common only in specific circumstances (such as where safety or productivity demanded it, or where child workers were particularly vulnerable, like parish apprentices), and that it was in any case a more accepted part of daily life than it is now. These two points do not necessarily sit easily together; certainly the evidence of violence in the commissioners’ reports suggests that it was not condoned. He is more confident on the system of medical inspection, and provides a detailed discussion of its scale and potential pitfalls, particularly the difficulty of assessing children’s ages (vital for ensuring that factories and mines adhered to the changing laws on age at starting work). Ultimately this led to the development of standard charts for growth and dentition.

Overall, this is an excellent and comprehensive study of the occupational health of child workers in the most high-profile areas of the industrial sector. It makes a significant contribution to debates on child labour, and the impact of industry on health and daily life. Kirby paints a notably more optimistic picture of the industrial workplace than we are used to, certainly in times of the impact on health and stature of its youngest workers. He ends by calling for more work on other areas of the industrial workforce, and this would certainly be welcome. The book is an excellent introduction to the topic for students and researchers alike; it remains to be seen whether it sparks a new wave of debate over the ‘optimistic’ versus the ‘pessimistic’ schools of thought on the industrial revolution.


SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher using the offer code B125 online hereOffer ends 18th July 2019. Alternatively call Boydell’s distributor, Wiley, on 01243 843 291, and quote the same code. Any queries please email


Convict labour in modern American history

by Michael Poyker (UCLA)


Prison Gang in Birmingham, ca. 1870. Available at <;

The United States has the largest prison population in the world. More than half of the convicts are engaged in some form of convict labour, and inmates employed in prison industries convicts constituted 4.5% of total US manufacturing employment in 2005. They earn substantially below minimum wage, ranging from nothing to $4.90 per hour in state prisons. Such low labour costs may have effects on free labour.

Despite numerous examples of malevolent competition, no research has been done on the possible effects of how convict labour affects free labour. In addition, contemporary public policy research typically considers convict labour as purely beneficial for society (through rehabilitation of prisoners and alleviating budgetary expenses on corrections). Finally, US prisons are built in economically depressed counties under the assumption that they will provide jobs (such as guards or janitors) in the local labour market.

My research addresses the previously unstudied question of how convict labour affects local labour markets and firms that employ free labour by studying convict labour in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Data on contemporary convict labour output is not available, and as prisons are strategically located in economically depressed areas, it could confound the results. I use the historical context of when convict labour first appeared in 1870s.

First, very detailed data are available. Second, the rule of prison location was different – prisons were located in large urban areas (with higher wages) to save money on transport of prisoners. Third, the introduction of convict labour system was a nation-wide movement uncorrelated with the local economic conditions.

I have collected and digitalised archival data on US prisons and convict labour camps to construct county-level exposure to convict labour for the period 1886-1940. I find a significant negative effect of convict labour on wage growth and manufacturing employment, and a positive effect on patenting.

The magnitude of convict labour output was enormous: for each manufacturing worker with an average annual wage of $242, there were at least $18 per worker of prison-made goods. Regarding convict labour exposure comparing counties at the 25th and 75th percentile, the one more exposed to convict labour experienced 12.6% slower wage growth. In terms of counterfactuals, the introduction of convict labour in the 1870s accounts for 16% slower wage growth in the period 1880-1900 (when wage growth was 7.2%).

Competition with convict labour affected firms. Firms in affected industries couldn’t compete with prison-made goods in terms of labour costs. (The unit labour cost of prison labour was 4-50% of that of free labourers) Thus, they had to innovate-away in product-space or upgrade their technology to decrease costs or substitute labour with capital. I find that the introduction of convict labour accounts for 6% of the growth in patenting in affected industries.

I also shows the effects of convict labour on other economic outcomes. Convict labour gave police the incentives to arrest more people. Counties more exposed to convict labour had higher incarceration rates. There is also suggestive evidence that convict labour adversely affected intergenerational mobility in the long run.

Nowadays, as transport costs have decreased over time, competition with prison-made goods may spread farther from the prison. Thus, the overall effect of convict labour on contemporary manufacturing wages could be smaller around the prison but more substantial overall. Moreover, the number of convicts has soared from approximately 80, 000in 1920 to more than 2.5 million today.

Overall, these findings may be important for public policy research on convict labour since it may worsen local labour market outcomes, thus overshadowing any possible positive effects from rehabilitation or jobs provided by prisons. Finally, as the state is a beneficiary of the convict labour, welfare redistribution may be necessary to offset adverse effects on those affected by competition.


Population, welfare and economic change in Britain, 1290-1834

review by David Hitchcock (Canterbury Christ Church University)

book edited by Chris Briggs, P.M. Kitson & S. J. Thompson

‘Population, welfare and economic change in Britain, 1290-1834’ is published by Boydell and Brewer. SAVE  25% when you order direct from the publisher – offer ends on the 14th June 2019. See below for details.



This edited volume emerged from a 2011 Cambridge conference held in honour of Richard Smith, and collects expanded versions of eleven papers presented to honour Smith’s scholarly contributions, not least his long tenure at the helm of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. In the introduction, the editors assert that the book is fundamentally about ‘the historical contexts of demographic decisions broadly defined: decisions about marriage, migration, household formation, retirement, child-bearing, work, and saving’ (p. 2). In practice however the eleven contributors speak to a necessarily narrower range of scholarly concerns. The bulk of the chapters revolve around either demographic reconstruction, in the classic Cambridge Group style, and mainly by using English evidence, or around systemic quantification of poor relief mechanisms such as workhouses and outdoor relief (Boulton), legislation (Thompson), relief to the aged (Williams), or Almshouses (Goose and Yates). E.A. Wrigley and R.W. Hoyle offer a summative and speculative chapter respectively which bookend the volume. Wrigley’s opening chapter reprises the now classic Hajnal essay on European marriage patterns in light of new evidence and offers a survey of the present state of scholarship on the divergent demographies of early modern North-West versus South-East Europe. Wrigley remains broadly convinced of the efficacy of the ‘North-Western marriage pattern’ thesis (p. 26). Hoyle returns to Alan Macfarlane’s once-controversial contention that the peculiarly individualistic distribution of English property rights meant that long-term single family ownership of the same set of landed estates was limited (p. 308), and he pronounces Macfarlane’s argument largely true for land ownership, and his final chapter then elaborates on the implications of English individualism for other types of economic activity, namely trade and agriculture.

The collection has a five-chapter section devoted to poor relief. Several of these chapters seem to offer addendums to work already in print and there is a distinct focus on locality, for instance, Samantha Williams’ work on support for the elderly in Bedfordshire, and her production of ‘pauper biographies’, can be found in full in her book-length study of Campton parish (p. 130). Julie Marfany adds Catalonian data to the debate over regional differences in European poor relief. Jeremy Boulton interrogates the intriguing unanswered question of the long-term resilience of outdoor relief after the advent of the 1723 workhouse test (p. 153); he does so using the voluminous records of St Martins-in-the-fields with which he and others have been working since at least 2004. These chapters demonstrate the value of substantive, and in the case of Boulton, decade-long engagements with discrete sets of microhistorical material. I question the rather pat neatness of the ‘decision tree’ graph of poor relief decisions offered by Boulton (p. 184) but still consider it a useful summarizing schema. I am less convinced by S.J. Thompson’s keyword-based quantification of poor relief statutes, in a chapter ostensibly about Malthusian theories of population and their relationship to Corporations of the Poor (p. 192). Some of these keywords seem rather under-represented in the findings, for example vagrancy and settlement statutes modified or created very different judicial powers from local acts that created Corporations, but this quite important qualitative distinction seems lost here. Certain very useful regional findings do emerge, but they sit uncomfortably beside a discussion of population and poor relief in Suffolk; I think the chapter would work well solely as a discussion of one subject or the other.

The chapters which offer demographic reconstructions and then analyses of these datasets comprise the second main group of material in the volume. Bruce Campbell and Lorraine Barry’s use of GIS produces an impressive new map of the geographical distribution of the population of the three kingdoms in 1290 (p. 65) using ecclesiastical taxatio records from 1291. However, the ensuing discussion of demography in the nineteenth century seems to stretch the chapter beyond the boundaries of its admittedly excellent medieval datasets (p. 69). Though speaking as a layman, I am sceptical that demographers can estimate the 1290 population of Scotland from 1801 census records, particularly given the noted absence of early modern parochial records to use for regression, though I understand the usefulness of the speculative exercise (p. 52). Rebecca Oakes’ chapter reconstructs the effects of place of origin on the mortality rates of late medieval monks in Winchester, Oxford and Westminster monastic communities. The findings map broadly onto the current historiography of mortality for the period, though I would have liked to see rather more on the impact of broader qualitative conditions such as climate and urban development, two critical influences on the profile of pre-modern plague epidemics. Tracy Dennison’s chapter on the institutional contexts of Russian serfdom proved interesting reading though it seemed disconnected from the volume’s wider and mainly English project.

To conclude, this volume’s main contributions can be divided in two: first, a wide range of impressive (and impressively visualized) datasets that speak to the ‘choices and constraints’ (p. 2) of economic life between 1290 and 1834, and second, a set accessible of reassessments of quite dense historiographical debates. E.A. Wrigley’s chapter in particular stands out as useful in this regard. Despite some small caveats, I found the scholarship rigorous and engaging, though we can hardly expect less of the group which reconstructed the historical population of England and Wales.



SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher using the offer code B125 online hereOffer ends 14th June 2019. Discount applies to print and eBook editions. Alternatively call Boydell’s distributor, Wiley, on 01243 843 291, and quote the same code. Any queries please email


Note: this post appeared as a book review article in the Review. We have obtained the necessary permissions.


Upward mobility of Nazi party members during the Third Reich

by Matthias Blum and Alan de Bromhead (Queen’s Management School at Queen’s University Belfast)

This paper was presented at the EHS Annual Conference 2019 in Belfast.



Gathering of high-ranking Nazi officials in Berlin. Left to right: Georg von Detten, Heinrich Sahm, August Wilhelm of Prussia, Hermann Goering, Julius Lippert, Karl Ernst and Artur Görlitzer. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Members of Nazi organisations climbed higher up the social ladder than non-members in the 1930s and 1940s. This was not due to Nazis being awarded higher-status jobs, but instead to already upwardly mobile individuals being attracted to the movement.

We examined a unique dataset of approximately 10,000 World War II German soldiers that contains detailed information on social background, such as occupation and education, as well as other characteristics like religion, criminal record and military service. The dataset also identifie membership of different Nazi organisations, such as the NSDAP, the SA, the SS and the Hitler Youth.

Comparing the social backgrounds of Nazi members and non-members reveal that Nazis were more likely to come from high-status backgrounds and had higher levels of education. Indeed, the odds of being a member of the Nazi party were almost twice as high for someone from a higher-status background than a low-status one. We also confirm a common finding that Catholics were less like to be Nazi members.

When looking at social mobility between generations, Nazi members advance further than non-members. But this appears to be driven by ‘upwardly mobile’ people – those that showed social mobility early on in their lives – subsequently joining the Nazis. This suggests that ‘ambitious’ or ‘driven’ individuals may have been attracted to the Nazi movement.

Although it is impossible to uncover exactly what motivated people to join the Nazis, our findings suggest that many educated and ambitious individuals from the higher end of the social scale were attracted to the movement. Interestingly, this seems to be the case not just for those who joined after the Nazi party came to power in 1933, but also to members who joined when the party was on the fringes of the Weimar political system in the 1920s.

Our study not only helps us to understand how the Nazi party emerged and came to power in the years before World War II, but also gives us an insight into how extremist organisations form and attract members more generally. It reminds us that we need to think beyond pure ideology when it comes to motivations for joining extremist groups and look at economic and social factors too.


For more information on the preliminary findings of the study, please visit:

Economic exploitation: a comparative case study of the cost of human smuggling

by Alicia Kidd (Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull)

This paper was presented at the EHS Annual Conference 2019 in Belfast.


Border crossing at Gibraltar. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

The terms human smuggling and human trafficking are often confused and used interchangeably. While there is a terminological distinction between the two, it is possible for the lines to be blurred when an individual’s relationship with a smuggler becomes exploitative. My study, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference, uses information gathered from face-to-face interviews to argue that individuals’ economic circumstances play a role in blurring those lines.

My research considers two qualitative case studies of individuals who hired agents to assist them in illegitimately escaping their home countries in the hope of reaching safer living conditions abroad. Both respondents were confronted with dangerous situations in which they faced limited options of either staying in their home countries where they were at risk of death or unfair arrest, or finding a way to escape.

Both chose the latter, but there was no possibility of leaving their countries legally without attracting the attention of the authorities looking for each of them. This led both respondents to employ the assistance of smugglers to assist them out of their home countries.

The respondents were from significantly different backgrounds and their economic standing influenced the path that lay ahead for them. The first had a relatively wealthy upbringing, had received a good education and was working in a lucrative job.

He was able to pay a smuggler upfront to assist him in leaving the country to avoid the death penalty he was facing. This was a simple financial exchange in which he paid a set fee in return for a service. His relationship with the smuggler ended after he had crossed the border out of his home country.

The second respondent’s experience was quite different. She was from a poor background and did not have the money to pay the smuggler prior to travel. Instead, she agreed with the agent that, in return for safely removing her from the country, she would work for him on arrival to pay off her debt. But while an agreement had been made that this would be care work, after arriving in the UK she was locked in a basement and sexually exploited as a means to pay off her debt.

My research uses these two case studies to explore the hugely diverse outcomes of an exchange with a smuggler. By assessing the divergent economic positions of the two individuals, the research addresses how the difference between a payment and a debt can lead to the difference between safety and extreme exploitation.

Anthropometric history and the measurement of wellbeing

Bernard Harris (University of Strathclyde)

This paper was presented at the EHS Annual Conference 2019 in Belfast.


Variations in human stature, 1887. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Interest in the history of human height, and other anthropometric indicators, has increased dramatically over the last four decades. Most of the earliest studies were based on measurements obtained from living subjects but increasing use has also been made of skeletal evidence (see for example, Steckel et al, 2019).

The development of the field reflects James Tanner’s conception of height as a ‘mirror of the condition of society’. The growth of children, he wrote, ‘is a wonderfully good gauge of living conditions and the relative prosperity of different groups in a population’ as well as an effective form of health screening (Tanner, 1987).

The use of height as a measure of human welfare can be traced back at least as far as the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1829, the French physician, Louis-René Villermé, argued that ‘human height becomes greater and growth more rapid… as a country is richer…. The circumstances which accompany poverty delay the age at which complete stature is reached and stunt adult height’ (Tanner, 1981).

During the 1980s and 1990s, Roderick Floud (1984), John Komlos (1987) and Richard Steckel (1992) all highlighted the value of height as a measure of human ‘wellbeing’. For Steckel, ‘average height is also conceptually consistent with [Amartya] Sen’s framework of functionings and capabilities though, of course, height registers primarily conditions of health during the growing years as opposed to one’s status with regard to commodities more generally’.

My paper at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference revisits some of these arguments to ask whether studies of height still provide a general guide to the wellbeing of past societies. It starts by looking at the background to the development of the field before considering some possible challenges.

These include debates over the reliability of historical height data, the nature of human growth and the proximate determinants of variations in human stature. The paper also explores the extent to which these variations can also be associated with indicators of future wellbeing.



Floud, R (1984) ‘Measuring the transformation of the European economies: income, health and welfare’, CEPR Discussion Paper No. 33.

Komlos, J (1987) ‘The height and weight of West Point cadets: dietary change in antebellum America’, Journal of Economic History 47: 897-927.

Steckel, RH (1992) ‘Stature and living standards in the United States’, in R Gallman and J Wallis (eds) American economic growth before the Civil War, University of Chicago Press.

Steckel, RH, CS Larsen, CA Roberts and J Baten (eds) (2019) The backbone of Europe: health, diet, work and violence over two millennia, Cambridge University Press.

Tanner, J (1981) A history of the study of human growth, Cambridge University Press.

Tanner, J (1987), ‘Growth as a mirror of the condition of society: secular trends and class distinctions’, Pediatrics International 29: 96-103.

The trafficking of children: exploitation, sexual slavery and the League of Nations

by Elizabeth A. Faulkner (University of Hull) and Cathal Rogers (Staffordshire University)

This paper was presented at the EHS Annual Conference 2019 in Belfast.


Child trafficking graffiti on brick. Available at Pexels.

The trafficking of children receives extensive media coverage today, with endless tales of exploited and enslaved children. But these reports are not isolated.

For example in 1923, the League of Nations Advisory Committee on the Traffic in Women and Children heard that ‘The White slave traffic assumed large proportions; young girls – and even young boys – swelled the personnel of the over-numerous houses of ill-fame’.[1] The purpose of our study is to identify whether fears of the sexual enslavement of children during the era were legitimate or the product of a ‘moral panic’.

The issue of human trafficking is a relatively new area of international law, but the issue has appeared on numerous occasions as an issue of grave moral concern at the international level for over a century. In 1921, the League of Nations passed the International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women and Children.

This Convention marked a notable departure from the overtly racialised focus of previous attempts to address this issue of human trafficking namely, the 1904 and 1910 White Slave Traffic Conventions.[2]

Our study investigates the trafficking and exploitation of children between 1922 and 1929 through an examination of the archives of the League of Nations, Geneva. The inquiry sought to uncover recorded cases of child trafficking through focusing on the Summary of Annual Reports submitted to the Traffic in Women and Children Committee.

In terms of references to ‘trafficking’, from the 324 responses (1922-1929) considered by this inquiry, only 11 references to trafficking were identified. As a percentage, that is just 3.3% of responses.

Our research seeks to understand the exploitation of children during the 1920s, beyond ‘trafficking for immoral purposes’. Identifying the types of exploitation that children experienced globally, whether for commercial or economic gain, sexual gratification or adoption.

The aim of the research is to challenge and enrich our understanding of morals, race and the exploitation of children in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, through deconstructing fears of the sexual enslavement of children.

The inquiry seeks to readdress the racial bias of previous examinations of the human trafficking of the era and to expand our knowledge of trafficked and or exploited children in the legacy of the ‘White Slavery Conventions’.



[1] De Reding De Bibberegg, Delegate of the International Red Cross Committee and the International Red Cross Committee and the International ‘Save the Children’ Fund in Greece. League of Nations, Advisory Committee on the Traffic in Women and Children, Minutes if the Second Session, Geneva March 22nd – 27th 1923 at 65

[2] The ‘White Slavery Conventions’ namely the International Agreement for the Suppression of White Slave Traffic 1904, the International Convention for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic 1910, the International Convention for the Suppression of Traffic in Women and Children 1921 and the International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women of Full Age 1933

Initial determinants of Mexican mass migration

by David Escamilla-Guerrero (London School of Economics)

This paper was presented at the EHS Annual Conference 2019 in Belfast.


John Tallis and John Rapkin’s 1851 Map of Mexico, Texas, and Upper California. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

We are living in a time of globalisation backlash characterised by a reduction of economic and political cooperation across borders. The renaissance of economic protectionism has manifested in increasing barriers against immigration in both the United States and Europe. Furthermore, the public perception of why people migrate seems to be increasingly influenced by nationalist prejudices rather than empirical evidence.

Using novel historical micro data, my research addresses the initial determinants of the Mexico-US migration, the most intense and persistent of the twentieth century. The main lessons to take are two-fold:

  • First, the push and pull factors influencing migration vary across regions of sending countries.
  • Second, we have focused our attention on wage differentials between countries as main determinant, overlooking the role of structural differences within sending countries.

The core data of the research come from manifests that recorded individual border crossings. These documents are known as Mexican Border Crossing Records and were used by American authorities to collect information about immigrants. The sample used in this research consists of 10,895 immigrants that crossed the border through eight ports of entrance from July 1906 to December 1908.

The results reveal that differences in the Mexico-US relative wage did not explain the migration flow. But differences in living standards and population size across Mexican municipalities mattered. On average, locations with low living standards and large populations represented a source of frictions in the Mexican labour market, pushing labourers to migrate.

In addition, the estimates show that the flow was consistently driven by the social capital formation in the destination – that is, immigrant networks. Just as found for recent periods, migrating to a county with a large Mexican community increased the net benefits of migration.

Therefore, for more than one hundred years, immigrant networks have represented a self-perpetuating social asset that provides information and assistance, which reduces the costs and risks of migrating.

The regional results reveal that there were two migration models at the time:

  • In the border region, distance costs and labour market potentials in the United States influenced the decision to migrate.
  • In contrast, migration from the Mexican central plateau was completely determined by immigrant networks and labour market pressures in Mexico.

Since 2010, Mexican migration to the United States has come to a standstill, although the salary gap remains at levels like those of the early twentieth century. Hence, the persistence of immigrant networks as the main driver of the Mexico-US migration raises the question of whether the convergence of real wages between home and host countries would be an effective mechanism to reduce or control migration.

An integral migration policy must consider the different incentives behind the decision to migrate as well as their evolution through time and across space. Only then, will we maximise the benefits of labour migration and minimise the problems derived from it.

Deindustrialisation in ‘troubled’ Belfast: evidence of the links between factory closures and sectarianism – and lessons from the community response

by Christopher Lawson (University of California, Berkeley)

This paper was presented at the EHS Annual Conference 2019 in Belfast.


The Shankill road, Belfast during the troubles. Available at Wikimedia Commons. 

My new research provides fresh insights into the relationship between industrial decline and sectarian conflict in late twentieth century Belfast, and increases our understanding of how communities respond to the loss of their economic base.

The poverty and deprivation that continues to afflict much of West Belfast is usually understood as a direct result of the sectarian ‘Troubles’ of the 1960s to 1990s, when ‘ancient’ ethnic and religious hatreds erupted and brought economic misery as investment fled.

But industrial decline actually predated the ‘Troubles’, and was a cause rather than an effect of sectarian tension. The linen industry, on which West Belfast had been built, shed tens of thousands of jobs in the 20 years following the Second World War, leading to some of the highest unemployment rates in the entire UK by the mid-1960s.

I argue that it was the social consequences of the collapse of the linen industry that made West Belfast neighbourhoods like the Shankill and the Falls such centres of conflict in the following decades. West Belfast communities were caught in a downward spiral, where unemployment and urban decay was exploited by those seeking to promote sectarian resentment, leading to violence, which in turn made the economic conditions even worse.

In addition to showing how deindustrialisation helped spur the ‘Troubles’ in West Belfast, my research also shows how new community organisations sprang up to fill the gap left by government and lead the effort to adapt to post-industrial world.

I focus particularly on the creation of the Shankill Community Council and Ardoyne People’s Assembly, on either side of the sectarian divide in West Belfast. These organisations are usually seen as outgrowths of the Troubles, focused on defending their communities from sectarian violence, but my research shows that their primary focus was actually on re-development and reversing economic decline.

These organisations recognised that the linen industry would not be returning, and instead focused on education, daycare, skills retraining and transport linkages. In communities where more than 70% of adolescents left school without any qualifications whatsoever, improved education was essential if young people were to build meaningful lives and resist the temptation to join sectarian paramilitaries.

The emphasis on quality daycare was part of a larger effort to reduce the barriers preventing women from entering the workforce as equals to men, as community leaders recognised that the idea of the ‘male breadwinner’ was a thing of the past.

Although the progress of these organisations was slow, their efforts helped to begin the process of economic and social recovery, and they set the agenda for government support in the post-Good Friday Agreement era. The Shankill Women’s Centre, an outgrowth of the Shankill Community Council, would receive significant government support from New Labour and from the new Northern Ireland Assembly, and it continues to provide subsidised daycare in the neighbourhood.

With deindustrialisation widely recognised as a contributing factor in the UK’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump, it is important that we understand the serious social and cultural consequences that such dramatic economic dislocation can have.

My research helps to provide a better understanding of the role of deindustrialisation in the outbreak of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, but also shows how bottom-up social action can make a genuine difference in the process of recovery. In this way, it provides lessons that can be applied to struggling post-industrial communities across the Western world.

Unequal pay in Victorian Britain

by Chris Minns (LSE) and Emma Griffin (UEA)


Thames embankment, London, England. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Women made a vital contribution to the labour force in Victorian Britain. Census evidence suggests that close to 40% of women in Britain were employed in the second half of the nineteenth century, which is roughly twice the rate found for the United States at the same time. This implies that the labour market earnings of women made a substantial contribution to the fortunes of many working-class households. 

But how did the industrial economy of mid-Victorian Britain treat women who sought work? It is well-known that women experienced large-scale occupational segregation with women excluded entirely from many professions and industries. Less well known, however, is how the pay of women evolved after 1850, particularly in relation to their male counterparts.  

In a new study, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference, we draw on the reports of wages and salaries paid between the 1850 and 1890 prepared by the Board of Trade. In total these sources contain over 9,000 wage quotations for male workers in industry, and well over 1,000 similar quotations for female workers. 

We use this information to compute the gender pay gap in Britain between 1850 and 1800, and to examine the structure of the disadvantages experienced by women at this time.  

Overall, we find that between 1850 and 1890, women in British industry had earnings a little more that 40% of male earnings in industry. The gender pay gap closes by only a few percentage points over the period we study, and it would appear that it is at least as large in the second half of the nineteenth century as what others have found for the first part of the Industrial Revolution between 1780 and 1850. 

While part of the explanation for the large pay gap is the exclusion of women from the best paid industries and trades, our preliminary work suggests that differences in the composition of employment between men and women can only account for a small fraction of the gender gap. 

When comparing matched wage quotations for men and women in the same location, industry, occupation and year, the gender pay gap is only modestly smaller, at 51%. Consistent with this finding, we do not find evidence of substantial gender pay gap differences between regions or industries that were major employers of women. 

What are the main implications of these findings? 

First, it appears that the dynamics of gender pay in late nineteenth century Britain were strikingly different than in the United States. The gender pay gap in UK industry at the end of the nineteenth century was about 15 percentage points larger than in American manufacturing, which saw a more noticeable narrowing over the century. These transatlantic differences in the relative price of women’s labour may have implications for the patterns of industrial development seen in Britain versus the United States. 

Second, the fairly uniform gender pay gap across British industry, despite notable differences in skill and strength requirements between occupations speaks to a pattern of broad-based labour market segmentation that worked to suppress women’s wages well before the spread of internal labour markets that and long-term contracts thought to formalise different pay structures for men and women.