The rescue, reform and restoration of childhood : a hundred years of child labour in Britain (1780-1880) : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Social Anthropology at Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand
Over the past twenty years, child labour has drawn heightened attention from the global community, especially through debates over labour standards and international trade. The plight of these working children in the present-day Third World is however not unlike the plight of those children who were once employed in the fields, factories, mines and workshops of Britain. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was the industrialisation of the British economy that intensified the exploitation of children and normalised their labour. Today, it is globalisation and the World Market that assumes this role, overwhelming the lives of millions of children in the Third World. The interests of working children in Britain were clearly of low priority in the years prior to the 1840 s, just as they are today in many underdeveloped countries around the globe. This thesis aims to draw attention to these similarities by revisiting the past and by trying to unravel the interconnected narratives that have produced the countless theories that seek to explain this phenomenon. This study also analyses the relationships between child labour on the one hand, and economic development and the socioeconomic structures of a society on the other and challenges the simplistic common belief that poverty is the cause of child labour and that child labour can be reduced only through economic development. One important conclusion of this study is that child labour is affected by the transformation of the economic and social structure rather than merely dictated by the economic necessities of households that supply child labourers. Thus the one thing that becomes abundantly clear from this study is that when it comes to understanding and evaluating child labour - regardless as to whether it is the spinning of cotton in a British mill of the nineteenth century or the weaving of carpets in a Pakistani factory of the twenty-first century - childhood and adulthood are interdependent and the ways in which children are treated are in turn a reflection of the values and priorities of adult society.