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Child Labour in Cotton Factories, 1807

Although this extract was written in 1807 it illustrates that there had been concern among some elements of society about the employment of children in factories and the long hours to which they were subjected.

A conversation between Southey and a Manchester gentleman who is showing him over the cotton factories.

Mr. -------- remarked that nothing could be so beneficial to a country as manufacture. 'You see these children, sir,' said he. 'In most parts of England poor children are a burthen to their parents and to the parish; here the parish, which would else have to support them, is rid of all expense; they get their bread almost as soon as they can run about, and by the time they are seven or eight years old bring in money. There is no idleness among us: they come at five in the morning; we allow them half an hour for breakfast, and an hour for dinner; they leave work at six, and another set relieves them for the night; the wheels never stand still.'

I was looking, while he spoke, at the unnatural dexterity with which the fingers of these little creatures were playing in the machinery, half giddy myself with the noise and the endless motion; and when he told me there was no rest in these walls, day or night, I thought that if Dante had peopled one of his hells with children, here was a scene worthy to have supplied him with new images of torment.

'These children then,' said I, 'have no time to receive instruction.' 'That, sir,' he replied 'is the evil which we have found. Girls are employed here from the age you see them till they marry, and then they know nothing about domestic work, not even how to mend a stocking or boil a potato. But we are remedying this now, and send the children to school for an hour after they have done work.' I asked if so much confinement did not injure their health. 'No' he replied, 'they are as healthy as any children in the world could be. To be sure, many of them as they grew up went off in consumptions, but consumption was the disease of the English. ...'

'We are well off for hands in Manchester,' said Mr. ------; 'manufacturers are favourable to population, the poor are not afraid of having a family here, the parishes therefore have always plenty to apprentice, and we take them as fast as they can supply us. In new manufacturing towns they find it difficult to get a supply. Their only method is to send people round the country to get children from their parents. Women usually undertake this business; they promise the parents to provide for the children; one party is glad to be eased of a burden; and it answers well to the other to find the young ones in food, lodging and clothes, and receive their wages.' 'But if these children should be ill-used', said I. 'Sir,' he replied, 'it never can be the interest of the women to use them ill, nor of the manufacturers to permit it.'

It would have been in vain to argue had I been disposed to it. Mr. ------- was a man of humane and kindly nature, who would not himself use any thing cruelly, and judged of others by his own feelings. I thought of the cities in Arabian romance, where all the inhabitants were enchanted: here Commerce is the Queen witch, and I had no talisman strong enough to disenchant those who were daily drinking of the golden cup of her charms

Robert Southey, Letters from England (1807).

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