Dr Rebecca Gill (University of Huddersfield) discusses her research with the Workers' Education Association and Heritage Quay into the campaign against child labour in Yorkshire during the First World War.
Our project “Adult Education and the Great War in Yorkshire: A Community History Project” drew to a close last Friday with a final workshop “Child Labour in the Great War – A Local History”, held at the University of Leeds and led by W.E.A. family historian Jackie Depelle and historian of childhood Dr Rebecca Gill. The workshop was full and the conversation lively!
Participants in the Child Labour in the Great War study day.
Over the course of the project, academics at Leeds (Prof Alison Fell) and Huddersfield (Dr Rebecca Gill) have worked with Rob Hindle, Sarah Holland and Jackie Depelle of the W.E.A., as well as David Smith of Heritage Quay at Huddersfield University and Rob Light our research assistant, to uncover the story of adult education during the war, covering everything from the Plebs League classes attended by local Conscientious Objectors to the wartime offerings of Huddersfield Technical College. But one story began to stand out: the campaign of the local Workers’ Educational Association in Yorkshire against the continuance – and escalation – of child labour during the war.
This had a particularly local flavour, as many children were employed either legally or illegally during the war in the mills, helping to meet the huge contracts for army cloth, whether khaki for our own soldiers or horizon blue for the French Army. Many were employed under the half time system, spending the morning in the mill and the afternoon at school (reportedly many were asleep at their desks), but in Bradford a bye-law was passed to reduce the school leaving age from 14 to 13 and of those working half time, many were doing many hours of overtime.
Through the Yorkshire District offices of the W.E.A. in Leeds, a campaign was mobilised to revive the legacy of Oastler and ban the practice of half time work. We have discovered some prominent local names connected to this campaign, in particular Arthur Greenwood, who from his role as head of economics at Huddersfield Technical College before the war had been researching the statistical evidence for the effects of work on the physical development of school children – and would continue to lecture on this topic for the Huddersfield and Leeds W.E.A. throughout the war on visits from his new role at the Ministry of Reconstruction.
We were fortunate to be able to bring together current members of the W.E.A. with local historians specialising in the history of textile production in the West Riding to unravel this story … and hope to turn this pilot project into a more extensive investigation of the extent of child labour in the First World War, and the W.E.A.’s role nationally in its abolition under Fisher’s Educational Act in 1918.
If you have any information to share on child labour or the W.E.A. in the war, we’d be delighted to hear from you. Please contact Rebecca Gill (firstname.lastname@example.org)
'Young male labourers assembling aircraft switch part' - Imperial War Museum © IWM Q54588