Children & Legislation

Thomas Horsfall was dedicated to fixing the inequalities he saw around him and improving the lives of the lower class people of Britain.  This included the lives of children, especially those who were affected by child labor.  In Great Britain in 1833, nearly half of the work force in the textile industry was under the age of sixteen, and until the late eighteenth century, it was thought that children should be productive for both economic and moral reasons, with the argument being that idle children was labor lost to society (Honeyman, Child Workers in England, 4).  In the early to mid 1800s, working children spent six days a week and nearly thirteen hours a day in the factory, working for eleven or twelve of those hours with two short breaks for breakfast, dinner, and tea (Tuttle, Hard Work in Factories and Mines, 76).  They performed mostly secondary tasks, including picking up waste cotton, running errands, and generally assisting older workers.  Not only were young children forced to work long hours with little pay, working in factories or mills also deprived them of a proper childhood and a decent education filled with nature, art, and beauty, all of which Horsfall believed was very important for the future of society and should be accessible to all children, regardless of class.  These questions lay at the heart of a long public debate raised by the fact of child labor, and answered slowly through legislation and systems of enforcement.  


The continued use of children as a form of labor during the Industrial Revolution led to people like Horsfall advocating for change in the system of child labor.  Factory reformers called not for the abolition of child labor, but for the regulation of it, as they believed that families could not afford to give up the wages of children over the age of nine. In addition, many artists and authors expressed their views on child labor through their work.  As a result, many pieces of legislation were passed in the mid-to-late nineteenth century to combat the changing nature of child labor and to ensure accessibility to education for all children.  The following documents, legislation, and works of literature are from before Horsfall’s time, but helped contribute to the way Horsfall advocated for the better treatment of children and for their exposure to education, art, and nature. 



Nathan Gould, Information Concerning the State of Children Employed in Cotton Factories, 1818.


Michael Thomas Sadler, The Sadler Report on Child Labor, 1832.

Certain documents that helped draft legislation to end child labor were personal narratives or statistical documents that gave accounts of what children went through during this period.  For example, Information Concerning the State of Children Employed in Cotton Factories was a document published in 1818 by Nathan Gould and contained statistical information regarding the health of many children working in cotton factories around Manchester.  Doctors and surgeons visited Sunday Schools and factories between 1816 and 1818 to conduct research and assess the health of the children.  The poor health of these working children that is described in this document shows how terrible the conditions were in these factories, and could have contributed to laws passed against child labor.  One noticeable flaw in the document is that it does not compare the health of factory working children to children who did not work at all.  However, this is an important document, as it provoked a sense of shock and newness of the new factories, machines, and the use of children. 


The Report from the Committee on the "Bill to Regulate the Labour of Children in the Mills and Factories of the United Kingdom:" with Minutes of Evidence, Appendix, and Index was released in 1832 by the Sadler Commission, headed by Michael Thomas Sadler, to investigate the situation of children employed in British factories.  The report depicts the testimonies of various adults who worked in factories when they were children.  By reading the Sadler Report, scholars can learn a great deal about child labor during the Industrial Revolution from first hand accounts of those who were directly affected by it.  Like the previous document, The Sadler Report provided a much needed light on child labor and directly led to the passing of future legislation to protect children. 



Artist Unknown, People working in a factory, approximately 1900.


Artist Unknown, Children working in a mine, 1842.

By the time Horsfall began his work, a number of laws regulating child labor had already passed, as seen in George Jarvis Notcutt's The Factory and Workshop Acts, which comprised of summaries of the laws in force for the regulation of labor that had passed by 1874. One of the immediate effects of The Sadler Report was the passing of the first Factory Act of 1833, which was one of the first significant legislations passed in an attempt to deal with the terrible working conditions that laborers faced, and dealt primarily with with regulating child labor.  Overall, the Factory Acts were arguably the most important pieces of legislation that were passed in order to protect child laborers.  This first Factory Act prohibited the employment of children under nine years of age in all textile mills (except silk mills, who were subject to regulations that were not as strict) that were powered by steam or water.  The act also limited children between the ages of nine and twelve to nine hours of work per day or 48 hours per week, and children of 13-18 years to work no more than twelve hours per day.  In addition, children were not allowed to work at night, and were required to attend school for two hours each day (Nardinelli, "Child Labor and the Factory Acts," 741).


The Mines Act of 1842 was an act passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom that prohibited males under the age of ten from working underground in coal mines, and prohibited all females from doing so as well.  The main goal of the law was to protect women and children by removing them from the hazardous and unwholesome working environment.  However, according to scholars such as Alan Heesom, one of the main motives of the act was not concerned with child safety, but rather to exercise social control by using “the opportunity afforded by removing children from the mines to give them that sort of Christian education that would make them accept their station in life, coupled with a general education which would make them understand the delusory nature of radical political panaceas” (Heesom, "The Coal Mines Act of 1842,” 70).  Some were also against this act, such as coal agent James Loch, who claimed that the act was “loosening the authority and the duty of the parent towards the child” (Heesom, "The Coal Mines Act of 1842,” 70). Regardless of its critics, most men agreed that children should be excluded from working in mines and from other forms of hard labor.  


In addition to many other pieces of legislation that passed in the nineteenth century, these acts played a large role in regulating the use of children in labor and helping children live better lives.  The restrictions enforced by them show how terrible working conditions were for children during the Industrial Revolution. In addition, the terrible working conditions and the passing of these pieces of legislation showed that there was a new recognition in Britain of the need for government intervention in certain aspects of society.  This is a aligns with Horsfall’s work, as he advocated for the government to intervene in and play an active role in promoting social welfare, including the better treatment of children.  



Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, 1850.


Frances Trollope, The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong the Factory Boy, 1840.

Different works of literature published in the 1800s depicted what child labor was like at the time.  One author that consistently described child labor in his books was Charles Dickens.  For example, Dickens’s David Copperfield (1850) gives one example of not only what child labor was like, but also of an artist’s thoughts on child labor. In the book, a young boy named David Copperfield is sent to work in warehouse by his stepfather, and Dickens depicts the poor conditions and the mistreatment he suffered.  At one point in the story, Copperfield claims, “how can I so easily be thrown away at such an age,” showing how easily young children were sent away by their parents to work in these factories.  In addition, it shows what Dickens himself thought of child labor.  It depicts how terrible he thought it to be that young children were forced to work so hard, and how easily childhood, which according to Horsfall was supposed to focus on education and beauty, was being “thrown away”. 


The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong the Factory Boy (1840) by Frances Trollope is another example of a piece of literature that depicts child labor and its effects at this time.  It is the story of a factory boy who is at first rescued by a wealthy benefactor but who is later returned to the mills (The British Library).  The goal of this book was to both expose the misery of factory life for children and to also show how private philanthropy alone was not enough to solve the widespread misery of child factory employment. 


Works of literature such as David Copperfield and The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong the Factory Boy show how people like Dickens and Trollope used their power as artists and authors to discuss their opinions on different social issues affecting society, and how these works of literature influenced the way society fixed these issues.  This concept of childhood and the works of those like Dickens and Trollope made Horsfall’s work possible, because they showed the world what the concept of childhood was not supposed to be.  This allowed advocates like Horsfall to campaign for better lives for children by showing how artists viewed child labor and by looking at examples from the literature around them.  In addition, it portrayed the dual role that culture had in this period.  On one hand, it shaped ideas of childhood and child labor, and provoked policy responses through helping to publicize abuse.  On the other hand, it provided access to nature and beauty otherwise lacking in industrial cities. 


Artist Unknown, Children in a classroom, approximately 1900.

Because of the newly defined existence of childhood separate of just being small personhood, as well as the changing political role of the working class there was a strong push for a state system of primary education.  Active members of society, like Thomas Horsfall in conjunction with politician worked for years to encourage educational change, but it wasn’t until 1870, when The Forster Education Act was passed; there was any form of government involvement in the education system in Britain. This law created a system of school boards that regulated, managed, and built schools in order to provide every child in England with a non-denominational education (Armytage 57).


Just six years after Britain’s first piece of education legislation was put into action, Parliament passed The 1876 Royal Commission on the Factory Acts, which enforced mandatory schooling for children. The implications of the law suggested that education for children was compulsory in order to stop child labor.


The Education Act of 1880 came shortly after, and made school attendance mandatory between the ages of five and ten, and by 1899, the law was reformed to increase the age to twelve, including blind, deaf and physically disabled children.  This not only expanded the age of childhood, but also gave students with disabilities similar access to the sacred time in their lives that should be devoted to mental and physical growth. This law allowed children, who were most likely maimed by the terribly labor conditions that they were exposed to, the ability to have another way to access the world and have the potential for success. 


However, according the UK Parliament website, school attendance was limited to approximately eighty-two percent of children within this age range. Additionally, children were still working long, hard hours, just outside of mandated classroom times.


The conversation instigated in part by Thomas Horsfall in the early nineteenth century concerning accessibility to the arts and the role of arts in education remains a live issue in education reform today. 


Written by Nairi Dulgarian



Children & Legislation