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

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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. 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.86, 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...
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