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Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution

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Part of Cambridge Studies in Economic History - Second Series

  • Date Published: November 2010
  • availability: This ISBN is for an eBook version which is distributed on our behalf by a third party.
  • format: Adobe eBook Reader
  • isbn: 9780511922022

$ 32.00 USD
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About the Authors
  • This is a unique account of working-class childhood during the British industrial revolution, first published in 2010. Using more than 600 autobiographies written by working men of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Jane Humphries illuminates working-class childhood in contexts untouched by conventional sources and facilitates estimates of age at starting work, social mobility, the extent of apprenticeship and the duration of schooling. The classic era of industrialisation, 1790–1850, apparently saw an upsurge in child labour. While the memoirs implicate mechanisation and the division of labour in this increase, they also show that fatherlessness and large subsets, common in these turbulent, high-mortality and high-fertility times, often cast children as partners and supports for mothers struggling to hold families together. The book offers unprecedented insights into child labour, family life, careers and schooling. Its images of suffering, stoicism and occasional childish pleasures put the humanity back into economic history and the trauma back into the industrial revolution.

    • Unique account of childhood during the industrial revolution that draws on working people's own accounts of their lives
    • Sheds new light on the individual experience of industrialisation and its impact on working-class family life
    • Integrates quantitative analysis with social, family and demographic history
    Read more


    • Winner of the 2011 Gyorgi Ranki Biennial Prize in European Economic History, Economic History Association

    Reviews & endorsements

    Reviews of the hardback: 'This is a deeply humane book which breathes new life into the debate over the impact of industrialisation on the standard of living. It uses a range of qualitative and quantitative approaches to examine the evidence provided by more than 600 working-class autobiographies dating back to the 1600s. It will surely become essential reading for all scholars and students of modern economic and social history, as well as for all those interested in the history of childhood, the family and human well-being.' Bernard Harris, Professor of the History of Social Policy, University of Southampton

    'Jane Humphries has cast considerable new light on many important questions about the economic, social, and demographic history of that era. We are provided with much new information on the nature and role of child labor, family relations, and education, among its many issues. This is an unusually well-done work of scholarship, based on the imaginative use of traditional sources to interpret long-standing topics in a most convincing manner.' Stanley Engerman, Professor of Economics and History, University of Rochester

    'Jane Humphries' ingenious use of a remarkable assemblage of working class autobiographies brings new dimensions to this long-discussed subject by illuminating the contributions of children to the first Industrial Revolution. It is written with great empathy for the social and economic costs that these younger generations carried in facilitating this historical divide. It will be essential reading for economic, social, demographic and family historians and those whose interests focus on child labour in Third World countries.' Richard M. Smith, Professor of Historical Geography and Demography, University of Cambridge

    'This is a work of economic history that is at once rigorous and humane. Jane Humphries' use of workers' autobiographies opens the black box of the household economy to reveal family relations and the circumstances that led young boys into the workplace. Humphries takes the reader from the highly particular to the reliably general with a rare and enviable mastery of both economics and history.' Jan de Vries, Professor of History and Economics, University of California, Berkeley

    'These life stories treat us to colourful detail about what it was like to be a working child in industrialising Britain … [Humphries] has conveyed more about the nature and importance of children's employment than any previous study …' The Times Higher Education Supplement

    'The industrial revolution brought immense prosperity to the British Empire … But as a new book by Jane Humphries, a professor of economic history, shows, a terrible price was paid for this success by the labourers who serviced the machines, pushed the coal carts and turned the wheels that drove the Industrial Revolution. Many of these labourers were children.' Daily Mail

    'Britain's industrial revolution - the first in the world - would have never happened without child labour. That's the startling conclusion drawn by a leading economic historian following the most detailed analysis of relevant contemporary sources ever carried out.' BBC History Magazine

    'There are too many strengths in this book to pack into a short review. The scale and impact of the Napoleonic Wars on ordinary families is fully appreciated. The situating of child labour within an Industrial Revolution that slowly gathers force through the eighteenth century is another one. … this monograph is a tremendous achievement.' Pamela Sharpe, Local Population Studies

    '… eloquently written account … meticulous and brilliant research …' Journal of Economic Geography

    'Children were increasingly at the heart of economic life in the acute age of industrialisation, and the historical community and the public alike owe Humphries a debt of gratitude for bringing this point into sharper focus.' The English Historical Review

    'Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution is richly innovative in its marrying of economic data with life stories. The voices of the children - stoical, matter of fact, and moving in their ordinariness - jump off the page. There is no other historical study of British labour during the industrial revolution that so vividly brings to life the world of the working-class child.' History Workshop Journal

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    Product details

    • Date Published: November 2010
    • format: Adobe eBook Reader
    • isbn: 9780511922022
    • contains: 7 b/w illus. 37 tables
    • availability: This ISBN is for an eBook version which is distributed on our behalf by a third party.
  • Table of Contents

    1. Introduction
    2. Sources, models, context
    3. Families
    4. Household economy
    5. Family relationships
    6. Wider kin
    7. Starting work
    8. Jobs
    9. Apprenticeship
    10. Schooling
    11. Conclusion

  • Author

    Jane Humphries, University of Oxford
    Jane Humphries is Professor of Economic History and Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford University.


    • Winner of the 2011 Gyorgi Ranki Biennial Prize in European Economic History, Economic History Association

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