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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


On The Job

Early craftsmen worked out of their own homes with assistance from every member of the family and sold their produce themselves, either from their dwelling or at a local market. As production workplaces became established they were know as manufactories, and from the mid-19th century mills or factories.

Before this time the term factory referred to the workplace of a company’s factors, in other words a trading station or overseas branch.

Major Treatises such as Hammond and Hammond’s The Town Labourer with the general introduction by Lovell comparing their work with that of later authors are fundamental to understanding the overall trends and forces. The British Industrial Revolution was the first one in the world and it entailed urbanization.

In the one hundred years from 1750 to 1850 Britain changed from a largely rural to a predominantly urban society. At the beginning of the period less than 20% of the population lived in towns containing 5,000 or more people but a century later not only was the population larger, but over three fifths were town dwellers (Lovell’s introduction to Hammond and Hammond).

These urban people were very poorly housed, with serious overcrowding and defective water supplies, sanitation, drainage and ventilation. Tuberculosis was endemic and epidemics of cholera etc. were rife, contributing to a much lower life expectancy; Lovell quotes an 1837 report showing that the working Mancunian’s life was only half as long as the rural inhabitant of Rutland.

They also discuss the quality of life such as the change from a family-based workforce to a factory-regimented one, and the new freedom from the close supervision of the church and the gentry of small communities.

Children and Women at Work

  • Age
    Children, particularly the eldest in a family, were expected to go out to work as soon as the law would allow, or before if they could get away with it, in order to supplement the family’s income. The 1880 Education Act made school attendance up to the age of 10 compulsory, unless he or she had registered too few attendances, in which case he had to stay until age 13. In 1918 the school-leaving age was raised to 14, and in 1944 to 15 (Richardson).
  • Hours of work
    Various Factory Acts were passed to regulate the exploitation of child labour in regard to ages and number of hours per day allowed. These were widely circumvented as there was little enforcement and the restrictions were resented by employees who needed the children’s contributions, and the long hours, to offset the meagre hourly pay.

Factory Acts

In 1801/2 pauper apprentices were restricted to working 12 hours per day and had to receive elementary education. In 1819 no child under 9 was to be employed in a cotton mill, and others for no more than 12 hours a day. Althorpe’s 1833 Act laid down hours of work for children in textile mills. Those aged 9-12 were to work a maximum of 9 hours a day and 48 a week, those 13-18 years up to 12 hours a day and 69 hours a week. Two hours schooling per day was to be given to all children.

The Mines Act of 1842 followed the report of a Royal Commission which showed children as young as 4 as well as women working in appalling conditions in the mines. The act prohibited the employment of girls, women or boys under 10 underground. The 1844 Factory Act laid down that in textile mills children were to spend half their days in school, and women were not to work more than 12 hours a day. A further act in 1853 restricted the operational hours for children to 6am to 6pm with 1-1/2 hours for meals. In 1867 the Factory Acts Extension extended these provisions to other industries employing more than 50 people in one place. At the same time the Workshop Regulation Act introduced inspection of workshops, and prohibited employment of those under age 8. Children ages 8 to13 were to work only half a day.

In 1874 the minimum working age was raised to 9, and in 1875 to 10, with women allowed to work no more than 10 hours a day, and children under 15 only half a day. The minimum age was raised to 11 in 1891 by the Factory and Workshop Act, and in 1901 this was upped to 12.

Further improvement came in 1937 when those under 16 were allowed only a 44-hour working week, and those 16-18 and women were allowed 48 hours.

Jerrold (The Factory Child in Portraits of the English Vol V: Working Lives edited and published by COLLINS, Audrey. 1999-1. Original published by Robert Tyas, London, 1840) presented an essay on the life of the factory child, from the time she was deemed to be of the full age to qualify for work. Her age was assessed by a surgeon who examined the development of her teeth, and the puny seven-year-old was ‘certified’ to be nine and eager to contribute the much-needed extra family wages.

Opportunities for Women

The Acts of Parliament mentioned above came about in response to the awful 19th century conditions of work and the lack of sufficient wages for men to support a family. Despite being given ‘opportunities’ for hard physical labour in addition to household duties and pregnancy all the money a woman earned legally belonged to her husband until 1870. It was also still legal for a man to beat his wife until 1879. The female mind was thought too feeble to manage mathematics, and higher education was forbidden for fear of drying up the mammary glands or affecting the womb. When the typewriter was invented in 1867 it was considered far too complex for a woman to use. Oxford University first allowed a woman to get a degree in 1920 and Cambridge not until 1948.

In a thoughtful study on the sexual division of labour in London during the period 1820-1850, Sally Alexander (Women’s Work in Nineteenth-Century London. A Study of the Years 1820-50. Journeyman Press and the London History Workshop Centre, 1983) has described the activities of working women. What skilled work there was for women included the less-skilled parts of three categories:

  • Exclusively female trades such as dressmaking, millinery and other needlecrafts.
  • Women’s work in the ‘honourable’ sectors of men’s trades including shoemaking, cabinet making, tailoring, leather manufactories, bookbinding and hatting.
  • Factory work in other trades such as rope and sailcloth, handloom weaving, and lucifer (match) making.

Each of these required some formal training, produced wages higher than average for women, and could provide secure employment. Unskilled and casual work included washing, mangling, folding, packing, and sewing typically for older women, and domestic service usually for younger ones. Street selling and various types of casual manufacturing jobs were other options.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

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  • This page was last modified on 11 September 2014, at 21:11.
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