Child labour in 18th century England: evidence from the Foundling Hospital

by Alice Dolan (University of Hertfordshire)

Wellcome Images.Foundling Hospital: Captain Coram and several children, the latter carrying implements of work, a church and ships in the distance. Steel engraving by H. Setchell after W. Hogarth

Every few years a child labour scandal in the clothing industry hits the British press, invoking wide public condemnation. This reaction is a modern phenomenon: 250 years ago, child labour in textile production was commonplace, not worthy of a headline.

Attitudes changed in the nineteenth century, leading to the passing of the 1833 Factory Act and 1842 Mines Act. But before this change, child labour was believed to have positive benefits for children.

One notable example was the Foundling Hospital, a charitable institution that supported abandoned children and was a keen believer in the benefits of child labour. The Hospital sought to produce upright citizens that would be able to support themselves as adults.

A key aim of the Hospital was therefore to train children to be ‘industrious’ from a young age. One governor wrote that the Hospital aimed ‘to give [the Foundlings] an early Turn to Industry by giving them constant employment’. This ‘Turn’ would train the children into economic self-sufficiency, stopping them from relying on parish poor relief as adults.

The Foundling Hospital opened its doors in 1741. Parliament recognised the value of its work and funded the acceptance of all children presented to it aged 12 months or under over the period 1756-60. This ‘General Reception’ brought 14,934 children into the Hospital.

The London Hospital could not cope with these unprecedentedly high numbers and new branches were founded, including one in Ackworth, Yorkshire, which received 2,664 children in the period 1757-72. Ackworth closed because Parliament regretted its generosity and stopped funding the General Reception generation in 1771.

Thousands of children required thousands of uniforms and Ackworth chose to make as many garments as possible in-house. On-site production both trained children to be industrious and offered financial benefits for the Hospital. Work completed on-site was cheap and reliable, and there was greater quality control.

The Ackworth ‘manufactory’ produced woollen cloth. The children prepared the fibre for spinning, span it and wove the yarn into cloth that was worn by their peers at Ackworth and was sold to the London Hospital and externally. Some cloth manufacturing work was outsourced, particularly finishing processes that required a higher level of skill.

Few concessions were made for the age of the makers and the London branch criticised and sent orders back that were considered to be of insufficient quality or inappropriate size. These were primarily business rather than charitable transactions.

The skill division also applied in the making of clothing. Underwear, stockings and girls’ clothing were made in-house because it was less skilled work. Garments were produced in high volumes. From 1761 to 1770, 13,442 pieces of underwear (shirts and shifts) and 19,148 pairs of stockings were made by the children.

Tasks such as tailoring, and hat and shoe making required long apprenticeships to develop the necessary skill – this work was therefore outsourced. But external supply had its problems. It was difficult to source enough garments for the hundreds of children at the branch. Products were more expensive because labour was not free and the Hospital had little influence on suppliers’ timeframes.

A Foundling started work young, aged 4 or 5, and continued to work through their residence at the Hospital. Despite this, they were luckier than their peers in the workhouse who endured worse conditions.

Many parents chose to send their children to the Foundling Hospital to give them better life chances through the greater educational and apprenticeship opportunities offered. Putting the children to work, which seems cruel to us, was a key educational strategy to help them achieve economic independence in adulthood. Its financial and logistical benefits were welcome too.

Trading parliamentary votes for private gain: logrolling in the approval of new railways in 19th century Britain

by Rui Esteves and Gabriel Geisler Mesevage (University of Oxford)

ImageVaultHandler.aspx – Railways in early nineteenth century Britain

The possibility that politicians might act to further their private financial interests, as opposed to the general public interest, has led to the creation of conflict-of-interest rules in modern democracies. For example, the code of conduct of the British Parliament requires that MPs disclose private interests related to their public duties.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Parliament went further, and created a system for the approval of new major public works projects in which MPs with a conflict were barred from voting. But the effectiveness of these rules can be undermined if politicians agree to trade votes with their colleagues — a practice known as ‘logrolling’.

This research use a unique episode in the mid-nineteenth century to determine whether, and to what extent, British politicians traded their votes to further their private interests.

In the mid-1840s, hundreds of new railway companies petitioned the British Parliament for the right to build railway lines. It was Parliament’s responsibility to pick the railway lines they wanted to see built, and in this way shape the development of the modern British transport network.

Since many MPs were also investors in railroads, Parliament created a system of subcommittees, in which the applications of railways would be considered only by MPs without financial conflicts, and who did not represent a constituency that the railway was intending to service.

As a result of this system, MPs with vested interests could not vote for their preferred projects directly. But they could further their interests indirectly by trading their vote on another project with the vote of the MP overseeing the project in which they had an interest.

Drawing on methods from social network analysis, the study identifies all of the potential trades between MPs, and then test statistically for evidence of vote trading. The statistical evidence reveals significant collusion in the voting patterns of MPs who were deciding which railway lines to approve.

These findings reveal significant levels of vote-trading, with politicians coordinating their behaviour so as to ensure that the projects they preferred – which they were banned from influencing directly – were nonetheless approved by their colleagues. As much as a quarter of all of the approved projects were likely the result of this logrolling, and the economic costs of this behaviour were significant, leading to Britain creating a less efficient railway network.

This research highlights the importance of understanding politician’s private interests. Moreover, it illustrates how merely acknowledging conflicts of interest, and abstaining from voting when conflicted, may not resolve the problem of vested interests if politicians are able to collude. The findings shed light on a perennial problem; the methods developed to detect logrolling in this setting may prove useful for detecting vote-trading in other contexts.

Holding Brexiteers to account

by Adrian Williamson, University of Cambridge

Margaret Thatcher and Ted Heat campaigning during the 1975 Common Market Referendum, when conservative leaders took a rather different approach to Europe. Source:

The House of Commons has voted overwhelmingly to trigger Article 50, on the explicit basis that this process will be irrevocable and that, at the end of the negotiations, Parliament will have a choice between a hard Brexit (leaving the Single Market and the EEA) and an ultra-hard Brexit (WTO terms, if available).

It follows that arguments about whether the UK should remain in the EU, or should stay in all but name (the so called Norwegian option) are now otiose. What role can economic historians play as the terms of exit unfold? I think that there is an important role for scholars in seeking to analyse the promises of the Brexiteers and how feasible these appear in the light of previous experience.

Thus far, the economic debate over Brexit has been conducted on a very general basis. Remainers have argued that leaving the EU spells disaster, whereas Leavers have dismissed such concerns and promised a golden economic future. But what exactly will this future consist of? Doing the best one can, the Brexit proposition must surely be that the rate of economic growth per capita will be significantly higher in the future than it would have been if the UK had retained its EU membership. Since, at the same time, there was to be a massive and permanent reduction in EU and non-EU immigration (from c.330,000 p.a. net immigration to ‘tens of thousands’), it is per capita improvements that will have to be achieved.

The path to this goal will, it is said, be clear once the UK leaves. In particular:

  • the UK will be able to make its own trade deals and become a great global trading nation;
  • the UK can develop a less restrictive regulatory framework than that imposed by the EU;
  • industries such as manufacturing, fisheries and agriculture will revive once the country is no longer ‘tethered to the corpse’ of the EU;
  • the post-referendum devaluation will provide a boost for exporters.

In relation to each of these claims, there is plenty of helpful evidence from economic history. After all, the UK was the first nation to embrace a global trading role. As Keynes pointed out in a famous passage, in 1914:

The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages…

 Yet, despite this background, and despite the economically advantageous legacies of Empire, the UK spent the period between 1961 and 1973 making increasingly desperate attempts to join a (then much smaller) Common Market. British policymakers were initially dismissive of the European Community. Exports to the Six were thought less important than trade with the Commonwealth. Britain’s initial response was to establish EFTA as a rival free trade area. However, it soon became apparent that this arrangement was lopsided: Britain was part of a free trade area with a population of 89m (including its own 51m), but stood outside the EEC’s tariff walls and population of 170m. Will the 2020s be different from the 1960s? In any event, ‘free trade’ is an elusive concept. As John Biffen, a Tory Trade Minister in the Thatcher government (and no friend of the EU), acknowledged, free trade has never existed ‘outside a textbook’.

As regards to decoupling from EU regulations, the UK was, of course, completely free to devise its own regulatory framework prior to accession to the EU in 1973. Nonetheless, in this period, much of the current labour market structure, such as protection against unfair dismissal and redundancy, was enacted. EU regulations, such as the Social Chapter, have complemented, not undermined, this domestic framework. In any event, does the evidence suggest that a mature economy, such as the UK, will be able to establish a more rapid rate of growth with a looser regulatory framework? The obvious comparisons in this respect are the developed North American and Japanese economies. The data suggests that the UK has performed extremely well within the EU framework.


Table: GDP per capita (current US $, source: World Bank




Cumulative increase






















Of course, much higher rates of growth have recently been achieved in developing economies such as China and India. But it cannot seriously be argued that an economy like the UK, which underwent an industrial revolution in the eighteenth century, can achieve rates of progress comparable to economies that are industrialising now. The whole course of economic history shows that mature economies have much slower rates of growth and that the increases achieved by the USA and the UK over the last few decades are close to optimum performance.

The maturity of the UK economy is also germane to arguments suggesting that it will be possible to revive industries that have suffered long term decline, such as manufacturing, agriculture and fisheries. After all, one consequence of the UK’s early start in manufacturing is that primary industries declined first and most rapidly here. Economic historians have been pointing out since the 1950s that in advanced economies the working population inevitably drifts from agriculture to manufacturing and then from manufacturing to services. In 1973, the American sociologist Daniel Bell greeted the arrival of the post-industrial society. He pointed out that the American economy was the first in the world in which more than 60% of the population were engaged in services, and that this trend was deepening in the USA and elsewhere. Brexit is scarcely likely to reverse these very long-term developments.

The British economy has also had considerable past experience of enforced devaluation (for example in 1931, 1949 and 1967). Research following the 1967 devaluation suggested that a falling pound gave only a temporary fillip to the trade balance, whilst delivering a permanent increase in inflation. Over the same period the West German economy performed extremely strongly, despite a constantly appreciating currency.

Finally, one may question whether the UK can achieve an economic miracle whilst, at the same time, pursuing a very restrictive approach to immigration. Successful economies tend to be extremely open to outsiders, who are both a cause and a consequence of growth. After all, in the pre-1914 golden age to which Keynes referred, there were no controls at all, and the British businessman ‘could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality…and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters…and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference’. Our putative partners in trade deals are not likely to be offering such access and, if they do, they will want substantial concessions in return.

Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future prosperity. Historic failure does not preclude future success. And sections of British public opinion have, it appears, ‘had enough of experts’. Even so, economic historians can hold up to scrutiny some of the more extravagant claims of the Brexiteers.


From VOX – British wellbeing 1780-1850: Measuring the impact of industrialisation on wages, health, inequality, and working time

by Daniel Gallardo Albarrán, appeared on 22nd May 2016