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Schools of Industry and Habits of Industriousness: Making childhood pay in the early Nineteenth Century

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Amid the wars and economic distress of the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries, an influential paradigm shift was occurring whereby a governing ethic of paternalistic moral economy transitioned into one of political economy, entailing a discursive re-imagining of the poor as those who existed in a condition of poverty rather than as individuals who were poor. This subtle recalibration of the terms of the poor-law debate drew on recent trends casting the poor as the subject of statistics; constituting a quantifiable and aggregated morass that could be tamed by the application of macro-economic principles and the realisation of self-responsibility on the part of the poor. Nowhere was this discourse more evidenced or more influential than as it pertained to the experience of childhood and the agency of children. Particular emphasis was placed on the economic contribution of youngsters when as children and as future adults, with a raft of literature detailing policies and institutions for putting them to work. Children should be bred up into habits of industry’ appropriate to their station, placed into workhouses or ‘schools of industry’ so as to contribute to their upkeep, and at all times supervised and molded into ‘useful’ citizens. Impassioned rhetoric espousing the economic exploitation of children was homologous to that exhorting that the poor be put to work; such discourse was obsessed with economy and cost-effectiveness, and there was no space for idle or relaxed youths in such a schema. By examining the school of industry movement and its contextualising literature we can understand better the social effects of industrialisation and the Victorian moralities of self-help and charity that did so much to pattern subsequent notions of Britishness.

This talk is part of the Graduate Workshop in Economic and Social History series.

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