Friday, 16 May 2008

The Languages of Factory Reform

Industrialisation is as much a process of cultural as economic and social change. Workers, employers and observers formulated languages in which to negotiate the relationships between each other and to a changing environment[1]. The factory was a concentrated metaphor for hopes and fears about the direction and pace of industrial change and its significance extended beyond the direct impact of factory labour. Language and the construction of public debate is a central concern. Power in society is exercised partly through the privileging of certain modes of discourse and the disqualifying of others. Different discourses address different areas of life and, even in relatively stable periods, the boundaries can be ill defined, debated and re-negotiated. The debate over the 'factory question' was one of the creations of discourses addressed to different audiences in the early 1830s, a narrowing of this range during the 1840s and an effective closure of the debate in the 1850s and 1860s.

Early thrusts: a movement for conflict?

The early ten hour movement had a number of strands, loosely held together by a rhetoric variously composed of evangelical religion, conceptions of a due social balance threatened by unregulated economic change, populist radical ideas of fair employment and labour as property, and patriarchal values. Such rhetoric embodied notions of a 'moral economy' in opposition to the aggressive economic liberalism of the manufacturer's lobby. This clustering of views can be represented in terms of appeals to tradition and a paternalist mutuality of interests, with the values of 'rural' society taken as a touchstone to judge the excesses of industrialism. This articulation of a moral voice is seen best in the writings and speeches of Richard Oastler, who played a pivotal (if self-dramatised) role in organising the ten hour movement round such feelings.  Oastler brings together the elements of the early factory movement to produce a kind of populist traditionalism or 'Tory Radicalism'.  Evangelical religion and gothic romanticism are particularly important. Oastler speaks of the 'monstrous' nature of the factory system and the 'terrors' of child labour. He denounced political economy as 'earthly, selfish and devilish' and pointed to the abnormality of 'the tears of innocent victims [wetting] the very streets which receive the droppings of an Anti-Slavery Society'.

Substantial sections of the propertied classes, merchants, gentry and professional men saw their interests and values as identified with he artisans and domestic economy and feared the threat of unchecked factory concentration to community cohesion and social balance. These attributes cut across the political spectrum from traditionalist Tories to Whigs, to a patrician radicalism. The radicalism of artisans and factory workers shared many of these views. It was saturated in romantic imagery, of the 'golden age' of domestic production and of seeing their labour in terms of 'freedom', 'tyranny' and 'slavery'. The difference was that their accounts of abuse were based on experience rather than observation.

  1. Textile employers did not constitute a homogeneous group. There was a significant Tory and Anglican presence and, within the liberal community, differences between the narrow economism and the broader vision of more established manufacturing firms. The claims of 'Manchester Liberalism' to speak for the manufacturing interest as a whole, or even for Manchester itself, are open to question:
  2. Attitudes to factory reform arose from readings of the legitimate economic interests of employers and of the 'manufacturing interest' of which they felt themselves to belong but also from wider considerations of their status, cultural aspirations and claims to authority.
  3. Economic interests were rarely understood in narrow cash nexus terms and the aspirations of the average businessman was perhaps less to maximise profits than to reproduce his position and that of his family. Paternalism was not confined to Oastler and the ten hour movement and many manufacturers accepted their civic duty as men of property to engaged actively in schooling, management of housing, charity and moral surveillance. Paternalistic controls over the labour force were justified in a language of mutual obligations and the mission of the enlightened manufacturer as improver of the poor. Conversely competitive effectiveness and further accumulation of capital enabled employers to fulfil their moral mission -- in this sense there was no contradiction between the economic ethics of political economy and the moral imperatives of industrial paternalism.
  4. Textile manufacturers found themselves in a vulnerable and isolated position when the factory issue exploded in the early 1830s and were divided over their response to it. 'Evils' were recognised, but in terms far removed from the language of factory slavery.
  5. The language used by employers, whether in favour or against legislation, provided interesting contrasts between sectors and regions. In the cotton districts opponents pointed to the diminished rate of profit and the material increase in the cost of manufacture with a consequent reduction in labour employed. The responses from woollen and worsted manufacturers were less standardised. Opponents emphasised the threat from foreign competition and the absolute rights of property.

The variation in employers attitudes and opinion cannot adequately be explained in terms of big, technically progressive and small, technically-backward factories. Legislation had different implications for cotton with its higher proportion of steam power and great urban concentration. The question of stopping the moving power is only the best known aspect of such differences. Even employers who favoured reform could differ on the proper balance between state and voluntary initiatives.

Redefining the question: towards conciliation?

The redefining of the factory question is part of the shaping of the Victorian state and the accommodation of interests within it. If the 1830s saw the elaboration of Benthamite responses to reform and vigorous resistance to them, at both popular and ruling-class levels, the 1840s saw modifications to this project through its incorporation into a broader consensus that shaped the agenda of the 'condition of England' question. This had several dimensions:

  1. The writing of the new public agenda owed something to expert knowledge and the role of the factory inspectorate. Initially the inspectors had been inclined to defer to the expertise of leading employers but the pressure of public agitation pushed them into taking a more independent line.
  2. Popular unrest and the desire to contain unrest pushed inspectors, parliament and elite public opinion to take a firmer line on enforcement. In 1840, Leonard Horner, a leading inspector, presented the benefits of factory regulation in terms of the growth of more rational attitudes among both employers and employees. He presented a case of moral order and economic efficiency appealing to the longer-term rational interests of employers and workers and projected the role of state servants in monitoring this diffusion of rationality.
  3. The issue became one, not of introducing new legislation, but fulfilling the intention of existing law by taking action to remedy defects in the 1833 Act. The key issue was enforcement, especially the vexed questions of age certification and the rights of entry to factories. Opposition to legislation was not solely in the interests of employers but of workers as well. Reducing instances of child labour led to reductions in family budgets, hence much working class opposition. Adult labour had been left unaltered by the 1833 Act.

Oastler and the ten hour movement in the 1830s had projected a vision in which the regulation of the factory, and the protection of labour generally was the key to remedying social distress. The factory question in the 1840s can be seen through the language of negotiation within a growing consensus in favour of further regulation: the prosperity of trade and the welfare of the nation were increasingly seen as two sides of the same coin. Two particular emphases worked to incorporate social criticism about the distress, moral degeneration and Chartist threat and the awareness of working class conditions, into a liberal vision of a rationalised factory system:

  1. The development of state regulation and the associated public debate tended to project a series of distinctions between 'good' and 'bad' factories and of the need to improve the 'bad'.
  2. The agenda of the 'condition of England' extended into mines, child and female labour generally, the weavers, out-work and sweating and urban conditions. As a result the factory lost its centrality as a focus of social concern.

Public opinion saw social problems as separate and the evils of the factory as by no means the worst, though possibly the most readily remediable form of social distress. Education and a morally improved working force became the key. The debate continued to embody distinctive workers' perspectives, though these were perhaps less challenging than in the 1830s. Ten-hour legislation insisted on the minimal protection of labour, including adult men's labour. This was constructed as a moral imperative and a necessary limitation of the sphere of political economy. The eventual introduction of a fairly effective Ten Hours Act could be seen as a logical development within this framework.

A symbolic resolution

The Ten Hours Act, together with the repeal of the Corn Laws, came to form part of the symbolic 'social settlement' underpinning the apparent social harmony of the mid-Victorian period. The absence of factory acts became part of a collective memory of the 'bad old days', an unacceptable face of capitalism that no doubt worked to make its current face seem more benign. From the 1860s the factory agitation could be recalled as part of the general progress of society. For employers, the improvements associated with the Acts became part of an image of the well-regulated factory as the site of that economic, social and moral progress that the Victorian middle classes liked to represent as its mission in life. The factory inspectors saw themselves as agents of moral improvement among the operatives, as much as their protectors from unscrupulous employers.

Factory reform had some bearing on the making of mid-Victorian industrial paternalism. The consensual rhetoric of factory reform could, however, have different meanings in particular contexts. For workers, they were important as a symbol of 'industrial legality', especially where trade unions were relatively weak. The construction of women and children as protected categories reinforced notions of the adult male 'breadwinner' as an independent free labourer. Much of the debate concerned the drawing of boundaries -- between morality and the market, dependent and free agents, the state and the rights of property, the household, the factory and the school. Factory reform reflected a recognition that the market of liberal economics existed in a moral and legal framework. This contention was open to debate in the 1830s but from the 1840s the boundaries appear more settled and with an authoritative discourse of reform and moral improvement framing economic and Benthamite language with a moralising social commitment.


[1] For what follows see Robert Gray 'The languages of factory reform in Britain c.1830-1860' in Patrick Joyce (ed.) The historical meanings of work, pp.143-179.

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