- Child Workers and Industrial Health in Britain, 1780–1850 by Peter Kirby
Peter Kirby’s new book addresses the neglect of a detailed examination of the occupational health of children in the “classic” Industrial Revolution period in Britain. Such inattention to the health of working children is perhaps unsurprising given the numerous methodological difficulties for such a study, for which Kirby’s innovative solution is to use modern research into occupational health. He concludes the text with a call for historians to “challenge ingrained attitudes to child labour, both past and present,” and his nuanced approach to the complex causes and outcomes of poor health in child workers reminds us that the employment of children must be understood in context. In this sense, the book acts as a caution against the “othering” of states where child labor is common through its mental consignment to a horrific practice of the past in more “progressive” nations.1 [End Page 265]
An assessment of the impact of employment on children must always take account of the balance between costs and compensations. Cheap child labor could undercut and drive down adult wages, and thus did not necessarily increase the overall family wage, but as child workers were most likely to come from the very poorest families and particularly those where one or both parents were absent, the contribution a child could make might be the difference between starvation and survival.2 Focusing in particular on factory labor, Kirby’s book seeks to offer “a major challenge to the predominantly pessimistic historiography of industrial child employment” (161). Kirby argues that historians have relied too heavily on the biased reports of factory reform commissions to the exclusion of dissenting voices, which often came from observers with more experience of factory communities. He contends that factories were, if anything, less dangerous to the health of child workers than was domestic industry, and that they were certainly safer than work in coalmines. Kirby finds the greatest body of direct evidence of work-related ill-health in the mining industry, demonstrated most startlingly in the growth differences between children employed in coalmines and those with other occupations (117–120). Given that other recent authors on the subject have concluded that industrialisation increased the extent and intensity of child labor, with consequent negative effects for health3, Kirby’s alternative viewpoint contributes to a debate which shows few signs of abating.
The great strength of its book is it use of this kind of scientific evidence to understand specific industry-related problems, moving beyond simple descriptions of the often incomplete and speculative medical understandings of the time. Kirby’s use of modern studies of cotton contamination to explain outbreaks of fever in textile towns is particularly striking in this regard. Historians have tended to focus upon the effects of cotton dust upon the respiratory systems of workers, but as these conditions tended to present themselves in adult life, they were little recognised in children. More visible to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century medical observers were the unexplained fevers and digestive problems which afflicted cotton workers, and which are linked by Kirby to the changing profile of contaminants in the raw cotton (80–88). However, throughout the study he advises caution in attributing diseases to single occupational causes, emphasising the overall importance of the environment and of longitudinal study of health over the life-cycle. For example, he places the weak constitution of some child workers within the context of higher survival rates from childhood disease among urban populations, whilst also noting that some forms of debility were age-related, such as increased absences from work among young women at the onset of puberty.
Kirby also takes a wider view of workplace beatings, setting them within the context of generally higher levels of corporal punishment and physical enforcement in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain. However, his assertions about the acceptance of the abuse of children sit uncomfortably with scholarship suggesting a lower tolerance (if not always a lower incidence) of violent discipline in the same period, with...