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.


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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.


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