Saturday, 17 May 2008

Factory reform after 1850

The Factory movement as such disappeared in the 1850s with great success to its credit. As yet the legislation applied only to textiles and Lord Ashley, who in 1851 become the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, continued the battle in Parliament to extend legislation to unprotected trades. In many respects, however, 1850 remained the legislative high water mark. There were three stages to the development of factory reform:

  1. The first phase occurred naturally, if somewhat illogically, on the hitherto excluded textile industries and their satellites such as bleaching and dyeing. This process had begun in 1845 when the 1844 legislation was extended to calico printing.
  2. Next the great range of other child-employing industries where working conditions and arrangements were similar to those in cotton manufacture came under review. These included pottery, the metal trades, paper-making, chemicals, glassworks and printing.
  3. Finally the principle of comparability was applied to units of production, whatever their size.

In 1862 Shaftesbury suggested the establishment of the Children's Employment Commission to inquire into the conditions in the unregulated trades. By 1866 the Commission had published five reports that the Russell government was preparing to act on. The last report was published in 1867 and drew attention to the practice of employing women and children in gangs in some agricultural counties[1]. The minority Conservative government took up these plans and in 1867 produced two measures: the Factory Act Extension Act and the Hours of Labour Regulation Act, that applied to premises including private houses with less than fifty workers. The former applied to premises with more than fifty employees in industries such as metalwork, printing, paper and glassworks, while the main effects of the latter were felt in clothing. Children under eight were forbidden to work and older children were required to have ten hours' schooling a week. Young people and women were also protected, and in all the measures affected 1.4 million people. The second measure was left to the local authorities instead of the factory inspectorate to enforce and they did it badly. The extension of the jurisdiction of the inspectorate to cover the handicrafts had to wait until 1878.

By the late 1860s over a wide range of industries the abolition of infant labour, the reduction of the hours of children to six and a half, the principles of 'protected classes' [children, young persons and women] in the mills and workshops, the 60 hour week all round, compulsory education over the age of eight and rudimentary forms of the modern working week and of factory safety and health codes had been achieved. The circle of exceptions was ever-widening but it remained and this meant continued gross abuse of infant, child, adolescent and female labour elsewhere -- to say nothing of adult males.

The next decade saw the final rounding off and consolidation of early Victorian factory reform. The electoral consequences of the 1867 Reform Act were felt much more powerfully in the general election of 1874 than in that of 1868. Factory hours were an issue, especially in Lancashire during the election. The result was a spate of legislation on factories and trade unions introduced by Disraeli's Conservative administration [1874-1880]: in 1874 and 1878 there were factory acts and in 1875 the Trade Union Act, Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act and the repeal of the remaining master and servant legislation.  The Factory Act 1874 was the work of Richard Cross, Disraeli's Home Secretary. It

  1. Finally established the ten-hour day, the historic working class goal, as far as the factories and workshops embraced in the 1867 legislation were concerned.
  2. Carried forward for the first time in a quarter of a century the frontier of regulation:
      • The minimum age of half-time employment was raised from eight [which it had been since 1844] to ten.
      • The minimum age for full-time employment was raised from thirteen [which it had been since 1833] to fourteen.
      • Women and young persons were specifically included in the body of 'protected persons', who were to receive the benefits of the ten-hour day.
      • Men were deliberately excluded: they gained the ten-hour day not in their own right but through the accident of working side by side with the protected persons.

The Factory Act 1878, followed from a Royal Commission established in 1876, and, though the more comprehensive act, it was essentially a consolidating Act pulling together all the provisions into one scheme.

The depression of the 1870s inclined some to argue that factory reform had gone too far and indeed was a major cause of the country's failure to keep up with her new industrial competitors. By that time, however, the principle of state intervention had been well established and could not be reversed. Children, young people and women at work were the responsibility of the state, secured by legal provisions enforceable through a bureaucratic machine. The effectiveness of the provision depended on the effectiveness of the inspectorate itself.  The size of the inspectorate meant that it was always unlikely that there would be comprehensive coverage. In coal mining only one inspector [H.S.Tremenheere] was appointed in 1842 and it was not until the Coal Mines Inspection Act 1850 that officials were empowered to make underground inspections. The number of inspectors was raised to four in 1850, six in 1852 and twelve in 1855. Even this gave each inspector an impossibly large area to administer and this was equally true of the factory inspectorate where a reorganisation in 1839 left each inspector some 1500 mills to supervise with the assistance of four superintendents. The total establishment for the factory inspectorate was raised to about twenty in 1839, at which level it remained for some thirty years. The inspectors were also hampered by inadequate budgets: in the mid 1860s the mines inspectorate had a budget of only £10,000 while that of the factory inspectorate was about a third more.

The inspectorates were never intended as an industrial police force supervising industry's every move. They were intended to create a moral climate of observance by the principle of inspection. Indeed, it was strongly believed that inspectors should not take from employers the ultimate responsibility for running decent industrial establishments. Almost inevitably the inspectors did not act in concert as a unified service -- in fact the 1876 Royal Commission questioned whether any unified policy existed. It was therefore common for inspectors to have different prosecution rates and to concentrate on different sorts of offences. In matters of fencing and safety at work the inspectorate was often quite ineffectual in raising standards but in other areas there was much greater levels of success. Well over three-quarters of prosecutions were successful and at times the rate was over 90 per cent. This was, in part, the result of prosecuting only in those cases that had a good chance of success.

The legislation of the 1870s represented the consummation of the early Victorian endeavour. 'Protection' was an unchallenged principle. Despite the changes in emphasis and disagreements within the factory debate, the combatants of 1833 soon found common ground in the notion of 'freedom of contract' as expressed by John Stuart Mill in his Principles of political economy[2]. Mill started from the overriding proposition that every individual was the best judge of his own interests and should be free to pursue them without interference from the state. However, he recognised that there were circumstances under which this was unacceptable. The issue was one of defining where and why the overriding proposition justified state action. Mill accepted three circumstances in which state intervention was acceptable:

  1. Children and 'young persons' could not be the vest judges of their own interest: for them 'freedom of contract' was often 'but another name for freedom of coercion'. This is the essence of liberal paternalism.
  2. In such an area as education, since good judgement itself might depend upon being subjected to it, compulsion was justifiable.
  3. There were 'matters in which the interference of law was required, not to overrule the judgement of individuals respecting their own interests, but to give effect to that judgement'. So, if some employers wished to establish a ten-hour day, they might be restrained from pursuing what they conceive to be in their own best interests because their rivals resisted the innovation. Here all would have to be coerced if 'the judgement of individuals respecting their own interests' were to be given effect.

Central to Mill's entire position was the principle that full persons should be contractually liberated, altogether 'free' to pursue their interest, as they themselves judged it, in selling their time and labour. 'Interference' was rapidly accepted on all sides but only as an extraordinary suspension of a master principle. The principle was expressed as freedom of contract and the normal settled as the adult male. This can be seen in Cross's speech to the Commons in 1874 when he felt he must pay lip-service to the old Chadwick doctrine of the free agent: 'So far as adult males are concerned there could be no question that freedom of contract must be maintained and men must be left to take care of themselves.'

The legislation of 1874 and 1878 may have marked a 'victorious' climax to a phase but there were harbingers of a new era. In the early 1870s several bills were introduced in the Commons proposing a nine-hour day for men as for protected persons; and the royal commission of 1876 entered at length into the consideration of both health and hygiene in factories. There were early indicators that the battle was to move on to new ground.

New Horizons

Attention shifted to the sweated trades, those trades often carried on in domestic workshops or actually in a house, where hours were notoriously long and wages low. In 1888 a Select Committee of the House of Lords was appointed to report on the sweated trades and in 1892 another Royal Commission was established on labour conditions generally but which provided valuable information on both sweated and non-sweated trades. In 1901 the Factories and Workshops Act consolidated the law further.

Meanwhile in the major industries a new practice had grown up that had a further influence on the limiting of hours. This was the setting up of Wages Boards or Trades Boards on which both employers and employees were represented. In determining wages, working hours had also to be taken into consideration and this was particularly important as there was still no legislation specifically restricting the working hours of men. The Nottingham Hosiery Board dated from the 1860s while the Midland Iron and Steel Board came into informal existence in 1872, being re-constituted more formally in 1876. The Midlands Mining Wages Board also began informally in 1874, having an official existence from 1883 onwards. In addition, in the Birmingham area, the 'alliance system' was used from time to time. Under this arrangement employers would fix wages and employ only one union, while the workmen would all join the union and work only for employers in the alliance. In this way it was hoped to avoid competitive wage cutting by employers.

If one explanation for the early opposition to factory reform was simple ignorance of conditions, there could be no such excuse by 1900. In addition to Royal Commission and Select Committee reports there were the annual Reports of the Mines Inspectors and the Inspectors for Factories and Workshops which became more detailed as the century advanced. Early in the twentieth century two further advances occurred:

  1. In 1908 the Liberal government passed the Eight Hours Act, the first Act regulating the hours of work for men fixing the working day for miners.
  2. In 1909 the Sweated Industries Act [sometimes called the Trades Board Act] was passed, made necessary by the continued sweating of workers in certain trades. The Act required wage boards to be set up in specified sweated industries such as tailoring so that even these notoriously difficult to control industries came under increasing supervision. The Shops Act 1912 extended rights to shop assistants.

The working week after 1850 was gradually reduced in length. Although it was still a six day week, Saturday labour was less than before and only a half-day was worked in many trades from the 1870s onwards. Working men acquired four statutory holidays with the passing of the Bank Holiday Acts in 1871 and 1875. By 1900 a week's holiday a year was not unknown though it was more likely to be enjoyed by skilled workers than unskilled workers.

Regulations grew increasingly complex in the area of safety at work. The Coal Mines Acts provide a good illustration of this. By 1900 safety regulations were very extensive and the 1911 Act added further regulations covering many different matters: the fixing of hours for engine men, the provision of baths and facilities for drying clothes at the bigger pits and the searching of men for matches and other forbidden items. Accidents still happened and the rules were not always obeyed but the contrast with the 1850s is very striking. At other places of work employers found themselves under increasing pressure to make their premises safe. The Employers Liability Act 1880 and the Workman's Compensation Act 1905 required employers to pay compensation to any workman injured of suffering disease resulting from unsafe or unhealthy working conditions. National Insurance after 1911 and voluntary insurance before were no longer the only ways of coping with industrial injuries.


[1] These gangs worked long hours under so-called gang-masters who frequently exploited and abused their workers. By the Agricultural Gangs Act 1888 all gang-masters had to be licensed by JPs, no boy or girl under eight was to be employed, and a licensed gang-mistress was necessary when women and girls were included in the gang.

[2] On the question of 'freedom of contract' see the illuminating and contentious study P.S. Atiyah The Rise and Fall of Freedom of Contract, OUP, 1971.

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