Sunday, 23 November 2008

Factory reform and the ‘condition of England’ question 1841-1842

More serious conflict over social legislation occurred between the government and a small group of socially concerned Conservative MPs. These Tory ‘paternalists’ commanded a certain respect for their devout Anglicanism and deeply held conservatism. Motivated by a strong humanitarianism, they were more willing than many of their colleagues to extend the role of the state where there was a clear social injustice. Most important was Anthony Ashley Cooper, Lord Ashley (later 7th Earl of Shaftesbury[1]) whose reputation for sincerity and moral integrity gave his opinions an unusual influence in Parliament. Ashley’s independence and persistence on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged often created a dilemma for the government. The government feared that too much government regulation would inhibit entrepreneurial activity but it could not allow profit at the expense of public health and safety. It was on the question of factory reform[2] that problems first arose.

The redefining of the factory question was part of the shaping of the Victorian state and the accommodation of interests within it. The 1830s saw the development of responses to reform and vigorous resistance to them, at both popular and ruling-class levels. However, the 1840s saw modifications to this approach through its incorporation into a broader consensus that shaped the agenda of the ‘condition of England’ question. This had several dimensions. First, 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 led them to take a more independent line. Secondly, popular protest 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 moral order and economic efficiency appealing to the longer-term rational interests of employers and workers and emphasised the role of state inspectors in monitoring this process. Finally, 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 child labour led to reductions in family budgets leading to 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. 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’. The agenda of the ‘condition of England’ extended into mines and child and female labour generally, the weavers, outwork and sweated trades and urban conditions. As a result the factory lost its centrality as a focus of social concern. The issue became a more general one of working conditions across the economy.

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.

Peel’s attitude

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. 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 he was prepared to accept the moral arguments implicit in the Mines Act 1842.

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.

The Mines Act 1842 was not a piece of government legislation and support was hardly enthusiastic. Although he admitted that some intervention was justifiable, Graham expressed reservations about its over-extension. Despite this, ministers were unwilling to defeat the proposals and contented itself by allowing amendments. The Lords lowered from 13 to 10 the age below which boys would be excluded from mines and Ashley reluctantly accepted it. Most ministers, with the exception of Gladstone supported the amended bill, though tepidly. Some help was given in drafting the legislation but the initiative lay with Lord Ashley. The Act made the employment of women underground illegal. It said boys under 10 could no longer work underground but 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.

The issue of social reform was, in Peel’s mind, linked to successful economic conditions. These would enable economic growth, create new jobs and so stimulate consumption. Peel was sceptical of the value of direct government intervention in solving social problems. Free market answers were more effective. He recognised that government could not abdicate all responsibility in the ‘social question’ but, like many contemporaries, believed that its role should be severely limited and definitely cost-effective. . However, the publication of reports from committees originally set up by the Whigs in the late 1830s and extra-parliamentary pressure from radical politicians and Tory paternalists sceptical of the gains of industrial capitalism could not be ignored.


[1] Geoffrey Finlayson The Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury 1801-1885, Methuen, 1981 is a detailed biography that contains much on factory conditions.

[2] For a short summary of the issues see J.T. Ward ‘The Factory Movement’ in J.T. Ward (ed.) Popular Movements 1830-1850, Macmillan, 1970, pages 78-94. The shortest introduction to factory reform is Ursula Henriques The Early Factory Acts and their Enforcement, The Historical Association, 1971. J.T. Ward The Factory Movement 1830-1850, Macmillan, 1962 is the most detailed study though it has, in part, been superseded by R. Gray The Factory Question and Industrial England 1830-1860, CUP, 1996. C. Driver Tory Radical: A Life of Richard Oastler, OUP, 1946 and A. Weaver John Fielden and the Politics of Popular Radicalism 1832-1847, OUP, 1987 are useful biographies which go beyond factory reform. J.T. Ward (ed.) The Factory System, two volumes, David & Charles, 1970 contains primary material.

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