Child Labor Laws in Victorian Era: The Factory Acts


In nineteenth-century Victorian England and even through the beginning of the twentieth-century, child labor laws were virtually nonexistent and, where they did exist, went largely unenforced by figures in government until the Factory Act of 1833 was passed by English Parliament which offered protections, if a bit scant, to the class of citizen most in need of protection: children. For an upper-class child in Victorian England, a day might be spent tutoring under a nurse between meals in a private estate; however, for the lower class, children were often forced into public jobs that would help supplement their family’s income with some parents treating the children themselves as sources of income. Thus, in the words of a writer with, “having more children who worked raised the income of the home,” as children were pawned off to employers who would offer the child board and pay parents as little as fifteen shillings (about $69.82 today) per year for a laborer who would work for upwards of fourteen hours per day and even into the night with scarce breaks for eating or resting (Victorian Children). For many children this life was normal, even expected, and after learning to behave under their new masters, they grew used to the ever-growing threat of death and disease hanging over them as they worked in factory and mining settings with poor ventilation, unclean conditions, and claustrophobic spaces that threatened to suffocate them at every turn. The Factory Acts of the nineteenth century helped to revolutionize how children were protected from the labor force, and, although provisionary and largely unenforced, they helped lay a groundwork that would outline child liberation in the twentieth century.

Child Labor Before 1833

Before the signing of the first Factory Act which helped protect the workers in cotton mills, mines, and industrial factories, legal protections for working children were almost non-existent. Some children started working in factories as young or younger than nine years, and their slight bodies were used to perform labor that even adults were unable to accomplish. Many children worked in mines where they were often strapped to a cart filled with coal and forced to pull it on their hands and knees to the opening of the mine for collection. Because the mines were not properly ventilated, respiratory problems and black lung were common among child workers who performed these tasks for twelve to eighteen hour per day (Victorian Child Labor). Other children worked in city cleaning as street sweepers or chimney sweeps, literally crawling into chimneys to clean them only to be scrubbed perfunctorily with salt water and sent down the next one. Without legal protections and a way to enforce them, children were tasked with the most dangerous jobs that ought to have been reserved only for the most able adults among them.

To understand this issue more clearly than I can explain it, read the following excerpt from a transcript of an interview with a young woman who had spent most of her life as a laborer:

Elizabeth Bently, called in; and Examined.

What age are you? – Twenty-three.

What time did you begin work at a factory? – When I was six years old.


What kind of mill is it? – Flax mill.

What was your business in that mill? – I was a little doffer

What were your hours of labour in that mill? – From five in the morning till nine at night when they were thronged.


What time was allowed for your meals? – Forty minutes at noon.


Suppose you flagged a little, or were too late, what would they do? – Stap us.

Are they in the habit of strapping those who are last in doffing? – Yes.

Constantly? – Yes.

Girls as well as boys? – Yes

Have you ever been strapped? – Yes.

Severely? – Yes. (Scott)


That excerpt was taken from an interview given before the Sadler Committee in 1831 who worked to give a voice to those who were victimized by the institution of child labor.


The Factory Acts

Although poorly executed in the beginning, the laws passed by British Parliament were among the first in the world to provide any protections for children in the working class. The Factory Acts, as they would be called, began with an Act called the Cotton Mills Act in 1819. According to the official UK Parliament website, this first Act prohibited children younger than nine from working in cotton mills “with a maximum day of twelve hours for all those under sixteen,” (UK Parliament). The Act was narrow in scope and almost impossible to enforce, but it opened the door for a line of legislation that would follow to provide protections for the weakest in Victorian society. The next Act that would follow came in 1833 that demanded that no child under nine should be employed in any industry as well as limiting work for children under thirteen to no more than nine hours per day. It also provided children with schooling for at least two hours per day and prohibited work at night according to the UK National Archives (National Archives). These advances on their own were revolutionary in the early 1800’s, but what made the biggest difference for those children was the final stipulation of the law which required that four factory inspectors would be appointed to enforce that law and offer heavy fines to those who broke it. Following this Act, several others would be passed in 1844, 1850, and 1884 that would improve working conditions and further restrict working hours to only week-days and part of Saturday. Those laws then remained largely unchanged for the rest of the Victorian Era until the end of WWI. Although the new laws were not perfect and would have to evolve further, the Victorian Era ended with rights granted to workers that could not have been imagined by those soot covered children at its beginning.


Works Cited

Moore, Amanda. Factory Act 1850. 2011. Web site. November 2021.

Nye, Eric W. Pounds Sterling to Dollars: Historical Coversion of Currency. 2021. Website. November 2021.

Scott, Jonathan F. Readings in European History Since 1814. Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1930. eBook.

UK Parliament. The Factory Acts. 2021. Web Page. November 2021. Victorian Child Labor and the Conditions They Worked In. 2 March 2013. Website. 1 11 2021.

—. Victorian Children in Victorian Times. 11 December 2012. Website. November 2021.

Associated Place(s)

Event date:

The start of the month Dec 1833 to Winter 1850

Event Source: