Children had always worked in agriculture; caring for farm animals and scaring birds away from the crops. At a very young age many had also learned to assist in domestic textile production preparing wool for spinning, and raising silk worms.

With industrialization children came to be employed in factories, where their compact size made them "invaluable" for certain tasks, such as crawling under machinery mending broken threads, or climbing on machinery to clean spinning machines and looms (whilst they were in motion).

Children's low wages – about one quarter of what their fathers earned nevertheless represented a significant contribution to the family economy. Britain's 19th century urban poor lived in miserable housing. Buildings in industrial cities built as hurriedly and cheaply as possible, quickly becoming dilapidated tenements. Whilst a fifth of all Liverpool residents lived in cellars.

There were few restrictions or state regulation leading to widespread and dangerous neglect for the health and well being of the workers.

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The Commission

In 1840, Lord Ashley, the factory reformer and philanthropist, who had spent the previous decade campaigning to improve children's working hours and conditions persuaded Parliament to set up a Royal Commission of Inquiry into Children's Employment. This Commission produced two reports. The horrific First Report on Children in Mines, published in May 1842, led to the 1842 Coal Mines Act prohibiting the employment underground of all female labour and boys under 10 years old. The Second Report, published early the following year (though dated 1842) covered Trades and Manufactures and lead to the 1844 Factory Act. The Appendix to this Second Report contained the "Reports and Evidence from Sub-Commissioners" and due to its size was split into two parts. Its 1,500 interviews throw vivid light on the perilous conditions in which children lived and worked.

Sub-Commissioners reported from all over England, from North Wales, from the East and West of Scotland, and from the North and South of Ireland. They undertook the detailed interviews and related investigations personally (see particularly those of R.H. Horne).

Evidence was collected (verbatim) from these personal interviews with hundreds of children and young adults, as well as parents, employers, clergymen, medical men, magistrates, teachers, and others. Evidence from an interview was generally checked against other interviews to ensure the accuracy of the data presented and conclusions reached. The commissioners encouraged children (some as young as 5 years of age) to speak openly by questioning them away from the intimidating eyes of their masters.

Information given in the Report includes:

  • The work and working conditions in factories in the first half of the 19th century, all over the British Isles. This includes description and details of the specific trades or occupations covered in the report, details on the various activities and jobs involved in each occupation and type of machinery used (includes some illustrations).
  • State of the actual place of work and detail of occupational accidents
  • Hours of work, meals, holidays and wages paid.
  • Living conditions, the kind of housing they resided in and what they ate at home.
  • Health, moral and intellectual condition of employees (including schooling/level of education). There was great concern not just about the physical labour but also the "moral condition" of the child labourers – in a reform movement heavily influenced by strong evangelical feelings.
  • Leisure activities.
  • Identity of specific individuals (who maybe ancestors) in the reports: the interviewees, of whom there are several hundred, are usually named. The comprehensive index includes the names of all persons mentioned in the reports.
  • The attitudes of factory bosses and other adults interviewed.

Due its size this Appendix for this second report was split into two parts.


Trades and manufactures included in the Children’s Employment Commission Reports
bleaching bonnet making bottle making
brick making calendering calico printing
card setting chain making comb making
file cutting fustian cutting foundries
glass works harness-loom weaving hat making
iron works key making lace making
lock making muslin embroidery nail making
paper making pin making potteries
rope making sail making screw making
shoe making singeing tobacco-pipe making
tobacco spinning