Next week Jane Humphries, a Professor of Economic History at Oxford University, is due to give a seminar at the Paris School of Economics about her work on the topic. She published a book on Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution in 2010, and her excellent 2010 Tawney lecture summarises that larger work. The lecture is forthcoming in the Economic History Review (PDF).
Quantitative and qualitative analysis of a large number of autobiographies by working men who lived through the industrial revolution has demonstrated that there was an upsurge in child labour in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with children’s work entrenched in traditional sectors as well as spreading in newly mechanized factories and workshops.
I have interpreted this rise in terms of the appearance of a new equilibrium in the early industrial economy with more and younger children at work. The new equilibrium, in turn, was related to a number of co-incidental developments including: an increase in the relative productivity of children as a result of mechanization, new divisions of labour, and changes in the organization of work; the dynamics of competitive dependence linking labour market and families; high dependency ratios within families; stumbling male wages and pockets of poverty; family instability; and breadwinner frailty.
Better yet, you can view the original lecture either below or here (65 minutes, flash file).
A very interesting slice of economic history. But the most engaging account of her work can be found in her 2011 BBC documentary, The Children Who Built Victorian Britain. The BBC website has 8 animated videos from the programme, with harrowing testimonies from children of the era. Well worth viewing.
N.B. Teachers and lecturers might also be interested in the excellent compilation of video clips on child labour at BBC's Learning Zone: 34 in all.