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  • Child Labor in the British Victorian Entertainment Industry, 1875–1914 by Dyan Colclough
  • Eileen Curley
Child Labor in the British Victorian Entertainment Industry, 1875–1914. By Dyan Colclough. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. xiv + 227 pp. $88.00 hardcover.

Dyan Colclough's monograph is a well-structured, comprehensive assessment of child labor in the theatrical industry in Victorian England. Colclough draws extensively from primary sources, written by performers, managers, producers, reformers, audiences, the government, and proprietors of related industries, and uses them to create an interwoven assessment of these complex competing [End Page 325] interests. On top of these sources, Colclough layers secondary scholarship, including studies on the history of children, educational reform movements, and labor legislation. The period under consideration is one wherein "child laws were believed to be addressing the issue of child labor, [and yet] the recruitment of child performers not only gained momentum but also became more rigorous and extensive" (44). The result is a detailed, layered, and nuanced discussion of complex social and market forces impacting child theatrical labor in this period.

The book is structured so as to present evidence of the broader issues that educational and employment reform legislation of the era sought to combat; thus, the early chapters address the economic and material conditions of theatrical employment for children and the relationships between the children and their audiences that led to their increased employment in this period. The sheer volume of child employees, stemming from the interplay of theatrical fads such as pantomime, fantasy, and crowd scenes, is explored amid a burgeoning Victorian fascination with childhood and children. Profit-seeking managers, employers, family members, and children are placed in conversation with each other and with educational and workplace reform movements that sought to protect valued Victorian children from exploitation. Children were becoming revered in part for their vulnerability, and yet that reverence also made them candidates for public consumption, enabling employers to exploit them in the workplace and sparking decades of conflict between reformers, employers, and parents. "The worth of the child as a family resource was matched by its importance as a source of profit for the industry and its value to the audience as a source of pleasure. Satisfying all those needs could not help but compromise a young entertainer's experience of childhood because despite all the rhetoric, those deriving some sort of return from the children's work were unwilling to acknowledge their vulnerability" (57).

After establishing that changing Victorian notions of childhood constituted a time for learning rather than labor and after clearly arguing that theatrical workplaces were simultaneously stark and yet economically beneficial for children and their families, managers, and producers, Colclough proceeds to analyze the various competing attempts to reform theatrical labor conditions and laws at the turn of the twentieth century. Managers, parents, and producers exploited various loopholes, including the lack of labor laws for under-five-year-olds, the legality of employing certain children outside school hours, the requirement of having classrooms to educate their school-age workforce, and the legal standing of private schools that removed child actors from certain legal protections. In response, reformers sought to limit the employment of children in theatres through numerous failed and partially successful legislative [End Page 326] volleys made throughout the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Reform was incremental, with the introduction of licenses and the gradual raising of the licensing age paralleling shifts in aesthetic trends away from huge crowd scenes and pantomimes overflowing with child actors. Colclough addresses the economic and political forces driving these developments through the final chapters.

The book's strengths reside in the interplay of sources and interrogation of motives. For example, the latter chapters position various reformers against each other, underscoring the at-times selfish motivations of the various industry and missionary forces that sought to control childhood experiences. Ellen Barlee, from whose writings Colclough draws throughout the volume, is indicative of this complex interplay. As Colclough notes, Barlee is both an advocate for child theatrical laborers and a potential exploiter of them as well. Her work took her backstage in many theatres and permitted her to detail working conditions, yet...


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