The Role and Regulation of Child Factory Labour During the Industrial Revolution in Australia, 1873–1885

Research paper by Madeleine Johnston

Indexed on: 22 Nov '20Published on: 01 Dec '20Published in: International review of social history / International Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Amsterdam


This study investigates child factory labour in Victoria, the most populous and industrialized colony in Australia in the second half of the nineteenth century. Three sources of primary data are analysed: Royal Commission reports, texts of bills and statutes, and parliamentary and public debates. The findings inform current academic debates by enhancing understanding of the role played by child workers during industrialization. They show that children were low-cost substitutes for adult males and that child labour was central to ongoing industrialization. A wide range of industries and jobs is identified in which children were employed in harsh conditions, in some instances in greater proportions than adults. Following the reports of the Royal Commission, the parliament of Victoria recognized a child labour problem serious enough to warrant regulation. While noting that circumstances were not as severe as in Britain, it passed legislation in 1885 with provisions that offered more protection to children than those in the British factory act of 1878. The legislation also offered more protection than factory laws in other industrializing colonies and countries. The findings throw light on the character of colonial liberal reformers in a wealthy colony who sought to create a better life for white settlers by adopting policies of state intervention.