Labor Laws and the Industrial Revolution

The working environment was harsh and laborers had to work long hours for extremely low wages.


In the middle of 18th century Britain, the Industrial Revolution was well underway.  These changes brought about many differences in Britain’s economic system and greatly affected the lives of those working in it.  For workers, this meant living troubled lives with little help from government laws to protect them.  While products were being produced more rapidly and in bigger quantities, workers suffered.  Working during this time included being around dangerous machinery and performing tedious tasks to get the job done. There were not many labor laws passed to protect the average workers, who were often women, and children as young as five, from being exposed to the dangerous working environment. Oftentimes these conditions would have led to workers getting injured or even, for many, resulting in death.  The working environment was harsh and laborers had to work long hours for extremely low wages.  People worked around ten to fifteen hours a day at an estimated five and a half to seven pounds a week.1  This made it extremely hard for most people to feed their families, so they often turned to child labor as employers hired younger and younger workers.  Britain went on to pass a series of laws throughout the 19th century to help solve these ongoing issues of basic human rights.2

Labor Laws in Britain , 1833-1856

This image, taken in the late 1800s, shows child laborers outside of work at a Britain factory, standing in their worn-out clothing and shoeless feet. It shows just how bad the conditions were that they worked in, and had how they had no choice but to accept them.

The need for laws regulating labor was becoming crucial to many working families, so much so that a committee was put together in order to accomplish this. William Cooper, a factory and mills worker, was brought in to be examined by the Sadler Committee on the Bill to Regulate the Labour of Children in the Mills and Factories of the United Kingdom. In the examination, Cooper was asked several questions about his hours and the work environment. He was 28 at the time of the examination but started working at the mills at age 10.  He told the committee that he worked from five in the morning until nine at night with one 40 minute break at 12 o’clock. During an interview, he was asked, “Had you any time for an afternoon refreshment, or what is called in Yorkshire, your “drinking”? He replied, “No, when we began at noon, we went on till night; there was only one stoppage, the 40 minutes for dinner”. This showed the health hazards that was presented to the workers while working in mills and factories.3

Eventually working conditions, the amount of work and the health of workers began to worsen. It was necessary that laws to protect the well-being of workers be put in place.  Beginning in 1833, the first of the Factory Acts were established to form regular working days in the textile industry. Part of the law stated that no children under nine years of age could work and it limited the working hours to 9-12 hours per day depending on your age. Children also had to attend school for a couple hours a day and could not work any overnight shifts. The employers also had to provide documentation for each child stating their age.  In order to make sure these laws were followed, officials were hired to keep an eye on the employers.4  Although it worked out mainly in the favor of the textile industry, it had little to do with any other industries.

In 1842, the Mines Act was passed. This law stated that neither children under the age of 10-years-old nor women were allowed to work underground in the coal mines. However, Parish apprentices that were between the ages of 10 and 18 were still able to work underground. Strangely enough, a majority of  women’s reactions were pretty irritated, not being able to feed their families was the biggest concern to them as they were now out of jobs. This act did not mention anything about how many hours could be worked in a single day or week and inspections were strictly to “check the conditions of the workers.”5

The Factory Act of 1844 was created to help the working class even more. This reduced the working hours for children ages nine to thirteen and required six and a half hours per day of work with three hours of school. Women and children over thirteen could not work for more than 12 hours a day. In an interview with William Rastrick he stated, “I work at the silk mill. I am an overlooker and I have to superintend the children at the mill. Their strength goes towards the evening and they get tired. I have been compelled to urge them to work when I knew they could not bear it. I have been disgusted with myself. I felt myself degraded and reduced to the level of a slave-driver”. William shared a first hand account of the brutal situations even the adult overseers had to endure while trying to encourage the children to work hard through their physical exhaustion. If there was an accidental death while at work, it had to be brought up to a surgeon and  investigated. A main change in the work environment was that machines had to be fenced in and that nobody could clean them while they were running.6

This image shows laborers working deep down in the mines, in Great Britain, during the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. They were forced to crawl into small, tight spaces. Often times they used women and children to perform such tasks due to their physical smaller nature compared to full grown men. This was put to a stop in 1842 when the Mines Acts were passed, ruling women and children under the age of 10 out of working underground in mines.

The Factory Act of 1847, also known as The Ten Hours Act, was created with the purpose of limiting the amount of time women and children were permitted to work in textile mills.  On the weekdays, women and children were limited to working no more than 10 hours in a single day because of this Act.  On weekends, they could only work up to eight hours, but on Sundays they were not obligated to work. The Factory Act helped with cutting the long working hours from ten to fifteen hours to only ten hours a day and this gave workers a consistent work schedule.7

The Factory Act of 1850 limited the work during the day and made home life easier. Times were restricted as to when people could work. During the summer, women and children could only work between six am and six pm. During the winter, it was seven am to seven pm. Work had to stop at two pm on Saturdays with 9-18 year olds not being able to work more than 10.5 hours for people who were not in the textile mills. The interesting part is that there was an increase in hours per week by two hours for men, women and children, so instead of working 58 hours, they worked 60 hours. Having a fixed working period allowed workers to spend time with their family and enjoy life outside of their jobs such as having time for recreation.8

The Factory Act of 1856 basically re-established the Factory Acts of 1844 and 1847.  While maintaining its general concept, the Act no longer let employers choose the hours for its employees.  There was now set times that went with when women and children could work.  They could only work from six a.m. to six p.m. during the summer and seven a.m. to seven p.m. in the winter. Children from  It also stated that all work would end on Saturday’s at two o’clock. This was specifically for textile mill workers.9


With the up and coming labor laws in Great Britain, the workforce was changed in many ways. It fluctuated a bit from positive to negative changes such as gaining daily working hours to reducing them. It took some time, but conditions began to evolve and workers started getting a voice. The labor hours were cut and limited to certain times a day, especially for women and children. Not only were the hours of daily work changed, but so were the safety conditions. Laws were passed to ensure the safety of the workers and help them stay safe while on the job. As a result of these labor laws passing in Britain, people were safer while at work, they were getting less hours and better pay, and children had the opportunity to go to school while still being active in the workforce. For the most part, the newly enforced labor laws were effective and created better situations and conditions for the manual laborers and workforce in Great Britain. Child labor was an issue largely related to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Many families had no choice but to have their children alongside them day in and day out. But over time, child labor laws were put into place in order to protect the wellbeing of children in the workforce. Furthermore, the Industrial Revolution was a time full of great change for the whole of Britain. Everything was evolving at a rapid pace, and the workforce was indeed one of the major factors in the Industrial Revolution. Labor laws were being passed and as fast as the industrial workforce came about, conditions were being changed for the better of the working class.


  1. “Children in the Industrial Revolution – History Learning Site.” History Learning Site. Accessed March 10, 2016.
  2. Griffin, Emma. “Child Labour.” British Library. Accessed March 10, 2016.
  3. Wiesner, Merry E., Andrew D. Evans, William Bruce Wheeler, and Julius R.  Ruff.“Chapter 6 Labor Old and New:  The Impact of the Industrial Revolution.”Discovering the Western Past:  A Look at the Evidence.  Seventh ed.  Vol. II. Stamford, CT:  Cengage Learning, 2015.  157.  Print.
  4. “1833 Factory Act – The National Archives.” The National Archives. Accessed March 10, 2016.
  5. “The Peel Web.” The 1842 Mines Act. Accessed April 27, 2016.
  6. Tuttle, Carolyn. “Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution.” EHnet. Accessed February 20, 2016.
  7. “The Ten Hour Act of 1847.” Child Labor During the Industrial Revolution. Accessed April 14, 2016.
  8. “Factory Act 1850.” Intriguing History. 2011. Accessed April 14, 2016.
  9. “Factory and Workshop Act 1878.” Factory and Workshop Act 1878. Accessed February 29, 2016.

Originally published by Foundations of Western Culture, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.



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