Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net
BTS logo

Children, capitalism and slavery

Romanticism saw child workers as slaves and pushed to remove children from the labour market. While some working children agreed, others welcomed the chance to contribute to the family budget.

Doffer in a Lincolnton, North Carolina mill. c.1918. Library of Congress/Flickr. Creative Commons.

British efforts against the slave trade and slavery from the late eighteenth century coincided with a mounting concern for the working conditions of children, and contemporary campaigns often linked the two issues together. Samuel Roberts, on behalf of the boys who climbed and swept chimneys, claimed in 1803 that their lot was “far, very far, worse than that of a Negro in the West Indies”. Britain’s young labourers also made the connection between their lot and slavery. Joseph Herbergam, who worked as a young teen in a British cotton factory in the late 1820s, wrote of his experience: “I wished many times they would have sent me for a West India slave … I thought … that there could not be worse slaves than those who worked in factories”.

Romantic childhood

Samuel Coleridge, the Romantic poet, described factory children as “our poor little White-Slaves”. This Romantic view of childhood marked a sharp break with previous conceptions of children, who up until this point were either born into sin and in need of salvation or wax to be moulded into a good adulthood. William Blake in Songs of Innocence imagined a two-day-old child, telling his mother “I happy am, Joy is my name”. Wordsworth wrote how babies came “trailing clouds of glory … from God, who is our home: Heaven lies about us in our infancy”. Innocent when born, Romantics thought children perceived nature and morality more ‘freshly’ than adults. Childhood was not so much the prelude to adulthood but the pinnacle of life. Given this, it was incumbent on adults to protect childhood and to prolong it.

Romantic images of childhood suffused the campaign to end or restrict child work. Child workers were ‘children without childhood’. In 1831 Michael Sadler, the parliamentary leader of the campaign to restrict child labour, wrote about “work-children”. “How revolting the compound sounds”, he wrote, “It is not yet admitted, I think, into our language: I trust it will never be familiarised to our feelings”. Eighty years later an American campaigner could assume agreement from readers when he declared that “when labor begins … the child ceases to be”. The Romantic conception of childhood nourished an entirely negative image of child work in capitalist economies.

Such views linked in with a utilitarian argument that work in childhood could damage the prospect of a healthy—and working—adulthood. In 1840 one of the early factory inspectors, Leonard Horner, deplored “the inhumanity, injustice, and impolicy of extorting labour from children unsuitable to their age and strength, - of subjecting them, in truth, to the hardship of slavery (for they are not free agents)”. Men were “free agents” and required no protection. Children did. The Romantic focus on children, however, meant turning a blind eye to what more radical critics described as the ‘wage slavery’ of adults in capitalist industry.

Remunerative childhood

Children had for long been an essential part of the labour market, not only in agriculture but also in the new industries that began to proliferate from the late seventeenth century. Much of this work was family-based, and Daniel Defoe described how any child over four was likely to be at work in the domestic woollen-weaving districts in of Yorkshire. Early industry furthermore also made use of the children institutionalised in orphanages and workhouses, and the English Poor Law allowed for children to be relocated to factory districts.

Many contemporaries delighted in children’s work. There were schools of industry in Britain, Spinnschulen in Germany. The children of the poor, said the Empress Maria Theresa in 1761, “should grow accustomed to hard work”. The idleness of unemployed children was feared, not the exploitation of their employed counterparts. Moreover, the economic viability of many industries, new as well as old, was thought to depend on the cheap work provided by children.

The Romantic conception of childhood and other contemporaneous forces led to the passage of laws protecting and limiting child work. These did not, however, end child labour as both national and family economies seemed to need children to work. The compromise reached in Britain was the half-time system: children half-time at school, half-time at work. By the late nineteenth century the half-time system had fallen into disrepute, with most of the criticism coming from teachers, but child work continued and re-emerged as an issue in the service sector of the economy. The calculus was simple: poverty demanded that children bring in some earnings at as early an age as possible.

On top of this there were an alarming number of children without families or with families deemed inadequate. The measures taken to protect them can themselves seem like a form of slavery. Many children, for example, were transported from Britain to Canada and Australia as a ‘protection’ measure. Work was what awaited them. Dr. Barnardo, a philanthropist dedicated to the rescue of street children, defended what he described as this “philanthropic abduction” of children from their parents. The Romantic conception of childhood did not carry all before it.

There were other downsides to Romanticism. It infantilised the young, it gave them no powers of agency. Children were victims. First-hand testimony from working-class children in the nineteenth or early twentieth century, by contrast, asserted pride in contributing to the family economy. Clifford Hills, born in 1904, from the age of nine had a job before and after school as a kitchen boy and worked hard in the summer holidays. His earnings paid for the weekend joint of beef.

Capitalism and slavery

In 1973 the International Labour Organization set fifteen as the ‘normal’ minimum age for employment, hoping to ‘eliminate child labour’. Implementation of it has never come near to being a reality, the less so as neoliberal policies freed up capitalism’s search for the cheapest labour. By all plausible estimates child labour has since then only increased. The aim of NGOs, meanwhile, became restricted to ending the worst forms of child work, in part because they began to question the desirability of elimination. Not all children, they realised, wanted it to happen for the simple reason that some income was necessary if they were going to remain in school.

It was no accident that it was the Anti-Slavery Society that publicised the extent of global child labour in the 1970s and early 1980s. Since the late eighteenth century there have always been voices making the link between child work and slavery. It is a powerful rhetoric, all the more so because it often obscures the equally strong link between capitalism and slavery. It was the assumption of anti-slave campaigners, as it was of many urging the end of child work, that capitalism would function better and more fairly without slaves, whether white or black. History suggests, however, that slavery was perfectly compatible with capitalism. Both black slavery in colonies and white slavery in factories were the outcome of capitalism’s search for plentiful and cheap supplies of labour. Romanticism in the nineteenth century helped to reduce capitalism’s reliance on cheap child labour but was powerless to do anything about the ‘wage slavery’ of adults. Response to bad conditions of work by children is to this day infused by the Romantic conception of childhood, but it is inadequate as a campaigning strategy because it fails to address deeper causes that are endemic in neo-liberalism.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.