Child Labour, Industrial Risk and Legislation in the Early-nineteenth Century British Textiles and Coalmining Industries

By Peter Kirby

This article seeks to understand why attention focused so strongly on child labour around the 1830s. It examines the impact of labour safety issues on government action regarding child labour, and analyses to what degree historiography, by disproportionally emphasising parliamentary campaigns and the work of “major reformers”, has tended to obscure the substantial “demand-side” impact on child labour. Yet reforms involving child labourers in the 1830s and 1840s were mainly a reflection of major changes in production methods, serving the interests of the largest and most powerful industrialists and mine owners. These laws revealed questions about the emergence of new workplace-related risks. Legislation aimed at protecting children from occupational risks took on an extraordinary magnitude at the time when the usefulness of child labour in major industrial complexes began to decline irreversibly.

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