Thursday, 15 May 2008

Factory Reform: Legislation of the 1840s

The ten-hour movement had been out-manoeuvred by the Whigs and its campaign against the 1833 Act proved ineffective. In October 1833 Oastler formed the Factory Reformation Society to continue the campaign but in November Robert Owen and John Fielden announced a Society for Promoting National Regeneration with the impractical but popular demand for an 8-hour day with 12 hours pay. Oastler rejected 'Regenerationist' invitations and it failed during the general Owenite collapse of 1834 carrying with it much of the Short Time agitation. From 1834 the Factory Movement had a chequered history. Oastler and his supporters became increasingly involved in anti-Poor Law campaigns and there were growing local differences:

  1. Lancashire reformers, experienced in evasions of previous legislation, demanded that mill engines should be stopped at set times to make enforcement certain -- a policy Oastler supported but 'dare not ask for'.
  2. Some of the parliamentary spokesmen, such as Hindley and Brotherton, were prepared to compromise on the Ten Hours demand and adopted a gradualist approach by arguing for 11 hours.
  3. In Scotland the committees in Aberdeen, Arbroath, Edinburgh and Paisley tended to rely on the support of professional men and Presbyterian ministers while the Glasgow committee was under working class control until 1837.
  4. Yorkshire was less prone to division and controversy within the organisation but even here there were differences.

The pace of the campaign of the 1840s varied considerably. Ashley Cooper failed to inject 'ten hours' into unsuccessful bills in 1838, 1839 and 1841. By 1840 the Inspectors were also in favour of further reform and hopes rose with the return of the Conservatives under Sir Robert Peel in 1841. Peel remained steady in his opposition to the Ten Hour movement right up to the passage of the 1847 Factory Act. He had adopted the argument of political economists that wages would fall under a ten-hour day and the cost of production would increase with consequences for rising prices.  This was not a doctrinaire approach but one grounded in a genuine concern for the welfare of workers.  In 1841, however, this concern was mistaken by a West Riding short-time deputation as an acceptance of the ten hour principle. This led to widespread and misleading publicity, raising then shattering workers' hopes and intensifying their hostility to the government during 1842.

Peel was, however, prepared to accept intervention to control working conditions when convinced that the moral case was overwhelming.  He opposed Ashley over ten-hour legislation because he believed that the moral case was weaker than the economic one. But was prepared to accept the moral arguments implicit in the Mines Act 1842. Working conditions in collieries were dangerous and children and women played an important part in mining coal. In 1840 a Royal Commission was established to investigate the working conditions of children in coalmines and manufactories. Its findings were horrific with children as young as five or six working as 'trappers' [operating doors to enable air-coursing]. There were also many comments about the poor health of the mining community. Artists were employed to go underground and make sketches of workers.  These appeared in the Commissioners' Report published in 1842. They were graphic and immediate and public opinion was shocked. Shaftesbury drafted a bill that became law at the end of 1842. It

  1. Made the employment of women underground illegal.
  2. Said boys under 10 could no longer work underground.
  3. Said parish apprentices between 10 and 18 could continue to work in mines.

There were no clauses relating to hours of work and inspection could only take place on the basis of checking the 'condition of the workers'. Many women were annoyed that they could no longer earn much needed money. In 1850 a further Act widened the authority of colliery inspectors; they could now check the condition of machines.

Peel's good intentions were insufficient to dampen class and sectarian antagonisms that intensified during the industrial distress and disturbances of 1841 and 1842. The 'Plug Plots' of mid-1842 speeded government action and in March 1843 Graham introduced a Factory Bill that would restrict children aged 8-13 to 6½ hours' work with three hours' daily education in improved schools largely controlled by the Church.  Fear and prejudice came together in the massive campaign by nonconformist groups, stressing the virtues of 'voluntaryism' and professing concerns about the 'Romanising' effects of the Oxford Movement. Peel and Graham agreed on the importance of improving educational provision for the working population and making the educational clauses of the 1833 Factory Act effective. Graham's proposal for state assistance in the education of factory children -- motivated by the need to raise the 'moral feeling' of the people as a counter to radical agitation -- was thought by Nonconformists and Roman Catholics to favour the Church of England unfairly.  Parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition resulted in the whole bill being withdrawn in the summer.

Oastler mounted a major campaign in the spring of 1844 but he was unable to graft a '10 hour clause' on to the revised factory bill, shorn of its contentious educational clauses, which was reintroduced in early 1844. Ashley moved a ten hour amendment that carried with 95 Conservatives  supporting it.  Peel refused to accept ten hours or compromise with eleven hours and the bill was only passed  by threatening resignation unless his wayward supporters  rescinded their earlier vote. The Factory Act 1844 actually effected considerable improvements:

  • children [8-13] became 'half-timers', working six and a half hours
  • dangerous machinery was to be fenced in
  • women shared the young persons' 12 hour restriction
  • it was permissible for a factory to operate for fifteen hours in a day

There was, however, considerable disappointment in the textile towns and this provoked compromises and local negotiations. A series of conferences sought to maintain unity by reviving the Ten Hours Bill in Parliament, and after a wide winter campaign Ashley Cooper moved for leave to introduce it in January 1846. However, the debate over industrial conditions was now overshadowed by the nation-wide controversy over the Corn Laws. Ashley felt morally obliged to resign his seat and Fielden took his place as parliamentary leader but lost his seat in May. As another campaign was mounted in the autumn a gathering industrial recession weakened the case for opposition. Final Whig attempts to compromise on 11 hours were defeated and Fielden triumphed in May 1847 with the Ten Hours Act receiving the royal assent in June.

Northern rejoicing was still premature. From 1848 there were reports of evasions in Lancashire and of masters' campaigns to repeal the Act. Several employers resorted to the relay system that meant that hours of work could not be enforced: the 15 hours per day clause in the 1844 Act had not been repealed. Gradually, a new campaign emerged to protect the Act but it was increasingly obvious that the Factory Movement was divided: Ashley Cooper and a 'liberal' group were prepared to accept some compromise while Oastler was not. A test case on the illegality of the relay system -- Ryder v Mills -- was heard in early 1850 and failed. The Factory Act 1850 increased weekly hours from 58 to 60 hours in return for banning relays by establishing a working day between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Attempts to include children in the standard day failed and, as a result, men might work 15 hours, aided by relays of children beyond the hours allowed for women and young persons. Children only received their fixed day in the 1853 Factory Act and Disraeli only restored the ‘10 hours’ in 1874. In the meantime, however, similar legislation had been extended to a wide range of workers.

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