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Lessons from the First and most Child Labour Intensive Industrial Revolution: The Case of Britain

Jane Humphries

Oxford University

The paper uses autobiographical accounts by working women, which I analyze using a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods, to identify the similarities and differences in the experiences of boys and girls growing up in the era of industrialisation.  There were similarities, many of which are predictable. But there are some surprises including the unsettling evidence of girls’ greater vulnerability to sexual predation. Historians of gender have long emphasized the social and cultural inhibitions, which segmented labour markets, structured family life and increased women and girls’ dependence on male kin, but fear of sexual assault and loss of respectability as a constraint on female independence has perhaps been overlooked.  Moreover, the gendering of life chances spills over from the economic to the demographic, for the experience of maternity towers over the women’s accounts, shared with mothers who faced the same horrors of childbirth without effective medical assistance or analgesics. Girls anticipated the gendered trials and tribulations which they saw their mothers endure and this united them.  Not only did these prospects bring mothers and daughters together it drove fathers and daughters apart as girls associated men with the pain and suffering that they perceived emanated from maternity after maternity.  Men withdrew from the risk and suffering of childbirth, reneging as their daughters often saw it on these as well as other responsibilities

Jane Humphries is a Professor of Economic History and a Fellow of All Souls College. Her interests include labour markets, industrialization and the links between the family and the economy. She has published extensively on gender, the family and the history of women and children's work, and is also interested in the causes and consequences of economic growth and structural change. Her recent book, Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution drew on a very large number of autobiographies by working men and used an innovative quantitative and qualitative methodology to illuminate aspects of children's lives which are inaccessible on the basis of more conventional sources. The monograph was awarded the Gyorgi Ranki Prize for an outstanding book in European Economic History by the Economic History Association in 2011 and provided the basis for a successful BBC4 documentary, The Children Who Built Victorian Britain, which she co-wrote and presented. She is currently working on children's wages in the very long run.


December 7, 2017


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