History of child labour in France

The end of child labour in the 19th century in France (source wikipedia)


View on the evolution of child labour in western countries until the establishment of its prohibition:

  • Child labour has always existed and that is since Antiquity, whether it is in the agricultural sector or in factories. Childhood is then a short period and children are involved in domestic tasks and agricultural task in the family setting.
  • In the Middle Ages, children start working outside the family setting to answer both employers requests looking for low cost workforce and poor families needs to survive: boys are designated to field jobs and girls work as servants. Education is only profiting to children coming from privilegded backgrounds.
  • This situation has continued until the end of the 18th century, boys are then placed as farm hands in the country, or to their employers, girls are maids. Their pay is extra to their parents' and allows them, among other things, to support their own needs.
  • The phase of industrialization, in France and in England particularly, corresponds to a period of high activity demanding lots of workforce; industrialists recruit massively in factories, mines or construction; which in France, resulted in a huge rural exodus.
  • Workers having low incomes and many children, urged them to go to the factory with their parents, where they carry out the menial tasks in the same bad conditions as adults.
    • "Child labour, along with women's, comes with three particular benefits for indusrialists. It allows to pressure into lowering men's wages; it allows to bring the whole familiy to factory work, which accelerates the break with traditional rural world; and finally, it provides a more abundant workforce, guaranteeing them full production."
  • Children's flexibility and small height are used for specific tasks grown-ups could not complete.
  • Work is highly premature: 4 year-olds are quite sought so they can be "trained" to use machines as soon as they have physical ability.
  • They can be found in mines pushing wagons in the tunnels, weaving workshops, etc.


11 year-old girl testimony: 1842

" I've been working down into the mines for three years for my father. I have to get down into the pit at 2 in the morning and I come back up at 2 in the afternoon. I go to bed at 6 pm to be able to do it all over again the next morning. Where I work within the pit, the deposit is a steep slope. With my load, I have got four slopes or ladders to ride up, before getting to the main gallery. My job is to fill four to five wagons of two hundred pounds each. I'vo got twenty trips to do to fill the five wagons. When I can't do it, they beat the crap out of me. I'm glad when the work is done, beacause it is so completely exhausting." 

Child labour in mines 1844.

"I went down into the mines when I was seven. When I pulled with the belt and the chain, it cut my skin and I bled. If we were to say something, they would beat us. I saw many children pulling the wagons at the age of six. They had to or they were beaten. They can't stand up straight when they come back to the surface."


Testimony of an english girl working in a mine, 1845.

"I don't know how to read or write. I pull the coal wagons, 12 hours a day. I've got a belt around my waist, a chain going between my legs and I move forward with my hands and feet. The pit is very humid and the dark water sometimes moves upwards to our thighs."



Facts that contributed to question children's condition:

  • At the beginning of the 19th century, 5-year-old children commonly work 15 to 16 hours a day in the textile industry, mines or construction.
  • Public authorities ended up moved, not so much by all the pain endured but because of statistics given by draft boards. Young workers were so many in bad shapes that more than two-thirds of them were to be declared unable to work. There was a risk of missing conscripts, which is what alarmed the authorities.
  • Simultaneously enlightened people raise their voices; thus wrote Victor Hugo :


GRAVURE VICTOR HUGOWhere do all this children go of which none of them laugh?

Those pensive soft beings, that fever makes thin?

Those eight-year-old girls we see going all by themselves?

They go to work fifteen hours under laps;

They go, from dawn-to-dusk, and do endlessly

In the same prison the same moves.

Squat down under the teeth of a dark machine

Hideous monster chewing, who knows what in the shadow,

Innocents in a penal colony, angels in a hell,

They work. All is bronze, all is iron.

Never do we stop and never do we play....

Victor Hugo –Melancholia 1856



  • Doctor Villermé was then commissioned by the Science Academy to make a report on factory workers' health status a few years after the Révolte des Canuts in November 1831 in Lyon, the firts social insurrection of the industrial era.
  • His work, entitled "Tableau de l'état physique et moral des ouvriers employés dans les manufactures de coton, de laine et de soie", published in 1840 and known under the name Villermé report, has had a great stir and was the spearhead of a law regarding child labour in factories, the Cunin-Gridaine law of the 22nd of March 1841.


The evolution of the laws regarding child labour, in the 19th century and in the end of child labour:


In Europe :

  • Laws limiting child labour are progressively established all around Europe but usually misapplied.


In France :

  • 1841 : applicable law in manufactures, factories and workshops, sets a minimum age of employment at 8 years old, but only for companies employing more than 20 employees; prohibits night work for children under 13; limits working time to 8 hours a day for children aged 8 to 12 years old and 12 hours for children of 12 to 16 years old.
  • 1851 : Working time limited to 10 hours for children under 14 years old and 12 hours for 14 to 16 year-olds. Prohibition of night work for children under 16 and tend to generalize those legal rules to all establishments.
  • 1874 : Prohibition of children under 12 from working, of night work for minor girls and for boys under 16. Sunday resting becomes mandatory for workers aged under 16.
  • 1892 : Working time limited to 10 hours for children under 18.


Those laws will be established very gradually, on one side because of industrialists' reaction who berated the state for getting involved in the life of companies, on the other part because the prohibition of child labour lead to lost revenues for parents, but also the lack of means for inspectors to have the laws applied (the labour inspection unit was created in 1892).


Below the testimony of Ch. Delzant regarding child labour inspection:


                                             "Statistics harsh to produce"

To know precisely the exact number of children employed in factories ain't always easy. The figures we have are too approximate, uncomplete and sometimes even contradictory. Sure, from the Restauration, statisticians have tried to measure the weight of popular masses of which the poor controlled growing was worrying and we wanted, little by little, to differenciate the working class, focusing on the importance of children. 

But several kinds of obstacles would stand in the way to precise counts:
- We would forget to count them : "14 french workers non included a dozen children".
- Industrialists "will always know how to elude our questions which would seem intrusives to them".
- We would have the children hide before the inspectors arrived.


(In the glassworks, resonated) a signal by which the concierge would warn of the arrival of the labour inspector. Then around the kilns, a general free-for-all would happen, hiding children in the basements, the cellars, fodder stores and under smashed barrels."



«L'exploitation des enfants dans les verrerie» dans La Vie Ouvrière 20 juillet 1910




Only mandatory school will put an end child labour (Loi jules Ferry en 1882); a system of compensation for lost revenues for parents due to the prohibition of child labour and to school enrolment will be progressively established, a system called "family allowances".


For more information :

Dossier thématique sur le travail des enfants : de l'Antiquité à nos jours en passant par la révolution industrielle

Le travail des enfants en Angleterre au 19ème siècle

Le travail des enfants au 19ème siècle

Entretien avec Julien DAMON sur la petite enfance

Tout savoir sur le Docteur Louis René Villermé, pionnier de la médecine du travail

"Les enfants au travail dans les usines du XIXème siècle"