The Industrial Revolution led to a population increase, but the chance of surviving childhood did not improve throughout the industrial revolution (although infant mortality rates were reduced markedly). There was still limited opportunity for education, and children were expected to work. Employers could pay a child less than an adult even though their productivity was comparable; there was no need for strength to operate an industrial machine, and since the industrial system was completely new there were no experienced adult labourers. This made child labour the labour of choice for manufacturing in the early phases of the Industrial Revolution between the 18th and 19th centuries. In England and Scotland in 1788, two-thirds of the workers in 143 water-powered cotton mills were described as children.
Child labour had existed before the Industrial Revolution, but with the increase in population and education it became more visible. Many children were forced to work in relatively bad conditions for much lower pay than their elders.
Reports were written detailing some of the abuses, particularly in the coal mines and textile factories and these helped to popularise the children’s plight. The public outcry, especially among the upper and middle classes, helped stir change in the young workers’ welfare.
Politicians and the government tried to limit child labour by law, but factory owners resisted; some felt that they were aiding the poor by giving their children money to buy food to avoid starvation, and others simply welcomed the cheap labour. In 1833 and 1844, the first general laws against child labour, the Factory Acts, were passed in England: Children younger than nine were not allowed to work, children were not permitted to work at night, and the work day of youth under the age of 18 was limited to twelve hours. Factory inspectors supervised the execution of the law. About ten years later, the employment of children and women in mining was forbidden. These laws decreased the number of child labourers; however, child labour remained in Europe and the United States up to the 20th century. By 1900, there were 1.7 million child labourers reported in American industry under the age of fifteen.