Prior to the Industrial Revolution at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, child labor was far from nonexistent. In a rural agricultural society, children often performed useful farm labor to help their parents. But industrialization, which brought about a massive growth in work outside the home, changed the nature of child labor and ignited a movement against it. Writers including Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Barrett Browning used their fiction and poetry to illuminate the problems with child labor in industrial settings, helping turn public opinion against the practice and eventually change its legal status.
The children portrayed in 'The Cry of the Children" are employed in factories and mines, offering a fairly accurate representation of the actual realms in which children worked in the early industrial period (though other jobs, such as chimney sweeping, were also common). They started work, on average, at around age eight in Britain during the early years of the nineteenth century. Children weren't just easy to overwork and underpay—their small size made them well-suited to working with industrial machinery, though it was often dangerous for them. In factories, therefore, though they sometimes worked directly operating machinery, they were also likely to work as scavengers, cleaning and retrieving fallen objects underneath the machines. In mines, meanwhile, they might help carry tools and assist adult miners with other supplemental tasks. According to an 1821 count, nearly half of Britain's workforce was younger than 20.
These child workers' age and social status made it difficult for them to seek protection, leading not only to underpaid, dangerous conditions but to rampant abuse from employers. Though the parents of these child laborers might attempt to intervene, the class-based power differential between the families of child laborers and their employers made intervention difficult—and sheer economic desperation caused many parents and children to simply remain silent. And in many cases, child workers were deliberately sought out in orphanages, ensuring that they had few adults able to assist them. A number of high-profile cases helped alert British citizens to these problems with dangerous work and abuse. For instance, in 1859, a young girl named Martha Appleton lost all the fingers on one hand after she fainted and got her hand stuck in a factory machine.
Artists and writers, most famously Charles Dickens, described the misery of child laborers in works such as Oliver Twist. Though these works inspired sympathy for child workers, opposition to child labor was not universal. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, was among the advocates for child labor, arguing that it aided in moral development. Still, though child labor didn't entirely die out, its worst elements were addressed in a series of parliamentary reforms. The 1819 Cotton Factories Regulation Act outlawed textile manufacturers from employing children under 9, and limited work to 12-hour segments. Later, in 1847, the Ten Hours Bill further reduced those hours, capping shifts at 10 hours for women and children alike. Meanwhile, the 1842 Mines Act forbade the employment of children under 10. Other legislation created a regime of inspection and regulation. Though extremely lax by today's standards, these laws represented a major shift in both the regulation and the public attitude towards child labor.
Legislation cannot entirely account for the sharp decline in child labor in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and it is likely that these changing public attitudes played a large role as well—especially given the mild fines that lawbreakers usually faced. Some historians have posited that the development of Victorian-era gender roles, in which the home came to be viewed as the domain of women and children, brought about this decline. Others have argued that the Industrial Revolution produced more widespread wealth, allowing families to keep children home and educate rather than employ them. In any case, the role of the press, especially as print culture grew increasingly prevalent, cannot be discounted, and writers like Elizabeth Barrett Browning were at least partially responsible for very real changes in the material conditions of Britain's children.