Studies of child labour have examined the experiences of child workers in agriculture, mining and textile mills, yet surprisingly little research has focused on child labour in manufacturing towns.
This book investigates the extent and nature of child labour in Birmingham and the West Midlands, from the mid-eighteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century. It considers the economic contributions of child workers under the age of 14 and the impact of early work on their health and education.
Child labour in the region was not a short-lived stage of the early Industrial Revolution but an integral part of industry throughout the nineteenth century.
Parents regarded their children as potentially valuable contributors to the family economy, encouraging families to migrate from rural areas so that their children could work from an early age in the manufacture of pins, nails, buttons, glass, locks and guns as well as tin-plating, carpet-weaving, brass-casting and other industries.
The demand for young workers in Birmingham was greater than that for adults; in Mary Nejedly's detailed analysis the importance of children's earnings to the family economy becomes clear, as well as the role played by child workers in industrialisation itself.
In view of the economic benefit of children's labour to families as well as employers, both children's education and health could and did suffer.
As well as working at harmful processes that produced dangerous fumes and dust or exposed them to poisonous substances, children also suffered injuries in the workplace, mainly to the head, eyes and fingers, and were often subjected to ill-treatment from adult workers. The wide gulf in economic circumstances that existed between the families of skilled workers and those of unskilled workers, unemployed workers or single-parent families also becomes evident.
Attitudes towards childhood changed over the course of the period, however, with a greater emphasis being placed on the role of education for all children as a means of reducing pauperism and dependence on the poor rate.
Concerns about health also gradually emerged, together with laws to limit work for children both by age and hours worked.
Mary Nejedly's clear-eyed research sheds fresh light on the life of working children and increases our knowledge of an important aspect of social and economic history.
Mary Nejedly is a research associate at the Centre for West Midlands History at the University of Birmingham and also has a PhD from the University of Birmingham.
ISBN 978-1-912260-43-0, Sep 2021, paperback, 224pp
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