Children at work: the Factory Act in Birmingham

Portrait of a child laborer standing between a spinning loom and

The issue of children working in factories is one often associated with the big northern mills. However, there were factories in Birmingham too, and children were employed in those as well as in smaller workshops. The Factory Act of 1833 was introduced in an attempt to bring better working conditions for children, although it was something of a compromise as many were opposed to any interference in working practices at that time. The main clauses of the Factory Act were:

  • No child workers under 9 years old
  • Children 9-13 could work no more than 9 hours per day
  • Children 13-18 could work no more than 12 hours per day
  • Children not permitted to work at night
  • Two hours of schooling per day for each child

Factory owners were required to hold age certificates for any children in their employment and inspectors were appointed and fines could be levied if the laws found to be broken. However, they were never properly enforced and working conditions for many children continued to be dire. It was not until 1901 that the minimum working age was raised to 12.

children Victorian fsctory

The following is an extract from the Birmingham Daily Gazette, January 23, 1865, which had in turn been taken from The Daily Telegraph.  The article quotes from the report of a recent inspection of local factories. As the article makes clear, many local businessmen and politicians, including MP John Bright, did not feel that the Factory Act could be applied to Birmingham’s small workshop economy. It should also be remembered that these were hard times for working men and women in Birmingham, before the welfare state, the income of a child could make the difference between life at home and life in the workhouse.

The Employment of Children in
Birmingham Manufactories

Mr. Bright is singularly opposed both to the teachings of experience and to the spirit of the age. He admits that the Factory Act, of which he disapproved when it was first introduced, has done good in the Lancashire district, both to masters and men; and yet he will not assent to its introduction into the trades that cluster in and around Birmingham. “The circumstances of trade and employment  in Birmingham are different.” No doubt. But is the difference any excuse for allowing in the Midland Counties inhumanities that we do not tolerate in the North? We call it inhumanity, for however unintentional it may be, however inspired by mere love of gain, and not by deliberate heartlessness, it is contrary to natural interests to keep young children eight, ten and twelve hours a day at hard, unwholesome work. In Birmingham itself, there are in employment two thousand children under ten years old; of these, seven or eight hundred are under eight, scores not over six or seven and some as young as five. Fancy an infant of five in a factory instead of being at play, or at its mother’s knee! The assistant commissioner who recently inspected the trade of the district, heard all that the manufacturers of the neighbourhood had to say against legislative interference. Of course they “did not oppose the Factory Acts for other trades”; they only pleaded that theirs was an exceptional case. But they brought forward no new argument, and “there is nothing” we learn ” in the details of the children’s work to cause difficulties of a special kind”.  That some application of the Factory Act is imperatively needed is plain from the results of the inquiry. The Commissioner found “defective work places”, “severe overwork”, and “young children in a wretchedly squalid and forlorn condition”, although employed by persons of liberal and kindly feelings”; and as we cannot presume that all manufacturers in Birmingham, or any other large town, deserve such eulogy, what must we think of the average, when the best are so bad?  It is cruel enough to employ young children for eight or ten hours a day; but it is worse when, as in many of the factories in Birmingham, they are exposed to deleterious conditions that kill off men at forty or fifty years of age. Of the workshops, some are “oppressive and stifling”; some so crowded that the children have to creep into their benches under the legs of the adult workers; while in others the windows cannot be opened because, in a room crowded to excess, a portion of the children are obliged to sit with their backs close to the panes of glass, shutting out light and precluding ventilation.

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2 thoughts on “Children at work: the Factory Act in Birmingham

    • Thank you very much for your response. I agree about the fine line, and the stories included here are heart wrenching. Though I think not all industry in Birmingham was of the sort described in the report. Many children will have helped their mothers at home with outwork too. I used to do this myself in the 1970s! Best wishes, Donna

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