Recently I’ve been busy renumbering our D6948 collection, which relates to W. G. and J. Strutt Ltd, who once ran mills at Belper, Milford and Derby. There is a collection which we are currently re-cataloguing, and there is a lot of material to get through, comprising of fifty-one boxes and eighty outsize volumes. Whilst going through it, I came across a very interesting box full of registers and certificates for the child workers employed by the company, ranging from 1836 to 1875.
These entries do bring about an emotional reaction as we can all imagine a child that we know in the present day and compare their ages with those who would have worked in mills from the late eighteenth century. We all can easily bring to mind a child mill worker: young, poor, replaceable, but most importantly anonymous, as they dived under machinery to catch spare cotton. Such child labour is, quite rightly, not legal any more thanks to many acts that have been passed to restrict working ages, but during the Industrial Revolution, it was common practice to send children out to work from a young age. They were seen as cheap labour who could easily perform tasks in small spaces that adults couldn’t access.
For these reasons, we often imagine that child labour in manufacturing processes is a product of the Industrial Revolution. However, children would also have worked prior to the invention of the factory system, albeit in different settings. In terms of the fabric industry, wools, linens, and cottons, as well as other items, would have been produced on a smaller scale. This would have been either in people’s homes or in communal workshops. Children would have also worked in these environments, but in a more flexible way than was seen later on. Roles assigned to the workers (including children) depended more on what was needed, rather than having set roles depending on gender or age.
Mills employed large numbers of people and offered steady and reliable work. It was this reliability that largely attracted workers to the mills, and those found in Belper were no different. For the children entering this employment, it would have been seen as a job for life, as long as they weren’t injured or killed in the process.
Sadly, there is little information about the children mentioned in these registers; in fact, most didn’t give specific ages, just a date they entered, left, or changed their employment with the Strutts. The certificates give a little more information as the parents are named.
Life would have been tough for these children as the work usually involved working long hours in dangerous conditions for minimal pay. They would have had some education. In 1833, an act was passed ensuring that any employment of children was only allowed if they were provided with two hours of schooling for six days a week. Jedediah Strutt admitted in 1816, during a Parliamentary enquiry into working practices in factories, that they were already providing this. This cut the children’s working hours from twelve to ten hours.
These recommendations had already been made. In 1802, the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act was passed, which had been largely advocated for by Robert Peel (not the later prime minister, but his father of the same name). This Act had already ensured apprentices under the age of twenty-one did not work night shifts, restricted their working hours to ten rather than twelve hours, and were offered some form of education. By already offering these things, the Strutts were some of the better employers to work for at this time. This can be seen when out of the one hundred employees under ten that the Strutts employed at the time of the enquiry in 1815, only eight couldn’t read.
Even though the 1802 Act was well intentioned, it still had its issues, the main one being that it wasn’t very well enforced, so mill owners could easily flout the rules. There were so called ‘visitors’ appointed to inspect factories. A visitor could be an upstanding member of the community, such as a Justice of the Peace or a local clergyman. In most cases though, they were usually friends of the mill owner, so they weren’t impartial to the environment they were meant to inspect.
It was around this time that discussions were being held about the minimum legal working age. In the same Parliamentary enquiry mentioned above, the Arkwrights, who owned mills further down the Derwent Valley at Cromford and Masson, stated that they already excluded those under ten from working for them, as they wished for the children to already be able to read and write, before entering their employment. This age was significant as in 1815, an act to ban those under ten from working was unsuccessful. These recommendations had been brought forward by Robert Peel (again) and Robert Owen, a mill owner of the New Lanark Mill in Scotland. It is possible from Strutt’s appearance before the enquiry, that he would have been willing to apply these rules if the act had been passed.
It is somewhat unusual to think that these types of debates were being discussed in the first half of the nineteenth century, as it is more common to find these arguments from the middle of the nineteenth century, when more acts that aimed to improve the working life of those in industrial sectors were passed.
In terms of the registers shown from our collection, whilst they do show the children involved, they offer very little contextual information about their lives and working conditions. Hopefully this post has gone some way towards explaining some of the moral debates about child workers, particularly in factory settings, at the time that children worked in the Strutt mills, as well as how the Strutts may have treated their child workers.
Barbara J. Starmans, ‘Child Labour’, The Social Historian, https://www.thesocialhistorian.com/child-labour/
Katerina Honeyman, Child Workers in England, 1780-1820, Parish Apprentices and the Making of the Early Industrial Labour Force (London: Routledge, 2007)
R. S. Fitton and A. P. Wadsworth, The Strutts and the Arkwrights, 1758-1830 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1958)
UK Parliament, ‘Early factory legislation’, https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/livinglearning/19thcentury/overview/earlyfactorylegislation/