Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Factory reform and the 'condition of England' question 1843-46

The 1843 Factory Bill and the 1844 Factory Act

There was an obvious difference between Ashley’s proposals in social legislation and the government’s own initiatives. For Ashley, it was a crusade; the government was far more concerned with the promotion of social and political order. This can clearly be seen in the government’s own factory proposals in 1843. 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 believed in the importance of education as a means of social control and emphasised the moral content of schooling. He was convinced that the riots in the autumn and winter of 1842 were the result of declining religious attendance. It was necessary, he told Parliament to ‘rescue the rising generation in the manufacturing districts from the state of practical infidelity… [only if] the education of the rising youth should be the peculiar care of the Government’ could the moral tone of the nation be elevated.

For the state to sponsor religious training in factory schools meant, to some degree favouring the Church of England. Graham anticipated opposition and took exceptional care in drafting the educational clauses of the proposed bill. He consulted two of his factory inspectors: Leonard Horner, who he believed had some influence with the Nonconformists, and Robert Saunders, who had the confidence of the Bishop of London. He also drew on the educational expertise of James Kay-Shuttleworth. The bill was presented to Parliament in March 1843 restricting children aged 8-13 to 6½ hours’ work with three hours’ daily education in improved schools largely controlled by the Church of England.

He could not have imagined the depth of opposition to this proposal. Fear and prejudice came together in the massive and unusually united campaign by nonconformist groups coordinated by an extra-parliamentary pressure group, the United Conference, stressing the virtues of ‘voluntaryism‘ and professing concerns about the ‘Romanising’ effects of the Oxford Movement. Within two months, it had organised a petition to Parliament containing over two million signatures. Graham’s proposal for state assistance in the education of factory children was thought by Nonconformists and Roman Catholics to favour the Church of England unfairly. In June 1843, the education clauses were withdrawn. In its failure to make the Church of England responsible for the education of England’s manufacturing districts, Peel witnessed the fading of Anglican hopes to reassert its claim as the effective church of the whole state.

Opposition to the educational clauses had delayed the bill as a whole but the government was committed to proceeding with the remainder of the bill. However, the government decided not to proceed further in the 1843 session and it was not until the following February that Graham submitted the truncated Factory Bill. It proposed reducing daily working hours for factory children (8-13 years of age) from 9 to 6½ hours. It increased their required hours in school from 2 to 3 hours daily. In effect, children became ‘half-timers’, working for only half a day and spending a proportionately greater amount of time in school. The hours of adult females were limited to 12 hour. This meant that they could work the same amount of time as young persons (13-18 years of age). This represented an important development as previous factory legislation had only limited the hours of work of children and young persons. By its application to textile mills, the new proposal extended considerably the precedent for the regulation of adult female labour set in the 1842 Mines Act. Dangerous machinery was to be fenced in. It was permissible for factories to operate for 15 hours a day.

Richard 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. However, Ashley moved an amendment to reduce the twelve hour limitation for women and young persons to ten hours daily. The introduction of the Ten Hour Movement into the factory debate precipitated the most serious crisis in the life of the government to that time. The debate on the ten hour amendment developed over the next two months and forced the government into a series of difficult manoeuvres. Initially, Peel and Graham argued against Ashley on economic grounds. Peel was prepared to pass legislation preventing exploitation of children and women but he argued adult males were free agents and the law should not interfere with market forces. Even so, he doubted whether employers would pay a twelve hour rate for ten hours, work. Graham warned the Commons that the reduction of two hours’ work might damage British industry by reducing productivity, thus lowering profits and ultimately wages. Not all members of the House were convinced by this argument. Secondly, there was an important political motivation in supporting Ashley. The agricultural interest, upset of Peel’s liberalised tariff policy and angered by the activities of the Anti-Corn Law League saw an easy opportunity for revenge against manufacturers. This mixture of motives accounts for the surprising victory on 18th March in committee of Ashley’s amendment by 179 to 170. However, four days later, when the specific clause of the Ten Hours’ Bill was presented, the vote went against Ashley.

There was now some room for compromise around eleven hours and some of Ashley’s supporters signalled that they were prepared to accept this. However, Peel made it clear that he was unwilling to accept any compromise and on 25th March Graham announced the government’s intention of bringing forward a new bill after the Easter recess in which the twelve hour restriction would be maintained arguing for the dangers of legislative interference in the free market for labour. However, Graham advanced a new argument: should a ten hour amendment pass, then he would seek ‘a private station’; in other words the government would resign. This brought the Conservative dissidents to heel and when Ashley’s amendment came to the Commons it was heavily defeated by 297 to 159.

This may seem a rather extreme way of getting the Factory Bill through. Even Peel admitted that in practice there were only a few mills in which workers had a twelve hour day. So, why not accept a compromise? However, both Peel and Graham believed that cabinet government and executive action were the only effect way to carry out the growing mass of public business. Peel expected his party to support legislation; it was a matter of confidence.

Factory reform 1845

Ashley returned to factory reform the following year. The Royal Commission on the employment of children had investigated abuses not only in mines and collieries but in numerous other unregulated industries. Ashley was determined to extend government regulation over these exempted industries and concentrated on calico printing. Since it was a textile industry, he thought that the restrictions on work contained in the 1844 Factory Act could be extended with relative ease. His proposal to limit the hours of children and women in calico printing was introduced to the Commons In February 1845 and initially attracted some support from the government. The result on this occasion was a compromise. The government agreed with those parts of Ashley’s bill that provided education for children under thirteen, prohibited the employment of children under eight and prohibited night work for children and women. However, it did not agree with restrictions on the hours of children between eight and thirteen years old arguing that the employment of children in calico printing was more necessary than in other industries. With Ashley’s acceptance of the government’s position, an effective compromise was reached and the measure passed into law.


There was considerable disappointment in the textile towns with the failure to implement the ten hour day in 1844. 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 John 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.

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