Friday, 14 January 2011

Extending factory reform beyond 1878

Legislation restricting or prohibiting women’s work in mines or limiting their duties or hours of work featured prominently in the factory reforms of the 1830s and 1840s. When the issue was revisited in the 1880s with women’s employment as its primary target the political context was of a very different complexion. Despite the ability of women’s organisations to lobby parliament, state intervention in areas of social and economic concern was a growing reality despite voices raised in support of the values of individualism. The extension of the Factory Inspectorate after 1878 and the appointment of women inspectors signalled a more serious intention of enforcement by the authorities than had the earlier, more permissive, legislation.[1]

The issue was a difficult one for Victorian feminists dividing them less along class lines than along lines of political belief. Three positions emerged in the debate. First, there was outright laissez-faire opposition to any proposals that restricted women’s freedom. Secondly, some women saw restriction as a progressive and humane response of the state. Finally there were those who applauded the principle of protective legislation but only where its application was not on the basis of gender. The reaction of working women varied but there is little doubt that the impact of government reform was an unwelcome reality for many late Victorian and Edwardian working people. The significant point is that women were legislated for without consultation. There was a total neglect of their views. It was a case of men legislating for women. Women, from markedly different ideological camps, agreed that there was clearly a need to curb the excesses of employers whose interpretation of the free market was detrimental to the health and safety of their workers. They also broadly agreed where government legislated for mixed employment as in the 1878 Factory Act. But the 1878 Act specifically exempted workplaces exclusively employing women and the sweated trades were left untouched. Domestic service, the largest employer of female labour, and agricultural work, despite the governmental investigation of this area from the 1840s, were largely unregulated.[2] The problem that the anti-legislation lobby had was that in championing women’s rights to all available employment, they came close to sanctioning work that clearly endangered health and safety.

By the end of the nineteenth century it is possible to see the sexual division of labour clearly in operation. Women were concentrated into a few low paid industries, where the great majority of employees were female and in domestic service. 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 were also 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 and was re-constituted more formally in 1876.[3] The Midlands Mining Wages Board also began informally in 1874, with an official position 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. [4]

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 annual Reports of the Mines Inspectors and the Inspectors for Factories and Workshops that became more detailed as the century advanced. Early in the twentieth century, three further advances occurred. In 1908, the Eight Hours Act was passed, the first legislation regulating the hours of work for men that fixed the working day for miners.[5] 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. [6] 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. This piece of legislation was gender neutral and covered homeworkers as well as factory hands. But it included only the most notoriously low-paying industries and less than a quarter of a million workers. The Shops Act 1912 consolidated three existing laws regulating employment in shops. The Shop Hours Regulation Act 1886 limited the hours of work of persons under eighteen to seventy four hours a week. The Shop Hours Act 1904 empowered local authorities to fix shop closing hours where two thirds of the shops agreed. The 1911 Shops Act introduced a weekly half-day holiday for all staff and said that shops should have at least one early closing day.

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 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 striking. At other places of work employers found themselves under increasing pressure to make their premises safe.

The Employers Liability Act 1880 made the employer responsible for injuries at work and gave the injured worker the right to sue. However, the burden of proof as well as other legal expenses was on the worker. The 1880 Act was repealed and replaced with a Workmen’s Compensation Act in 1897. [7] After 1897, injured employees had only to show that they had been injured doing their job. The work to which the Act applied was stated to be railways, mining and quarrying, factory work and laundry work. However, the courts took a restrictive interpretation of a ‘workman’ in 1905 in Simpson v. Ebbw Vale Steel, Iron & Coal Company in which a widow claimed for the death of a colliery manager who had been killed in an underground accident. Lord Collins, Master of the Rolls held that her dead husband was outside the Act's scope, because though the act extended to non-manual workers the victim ‘must still be a workman’ and said the Act

...presupposes a position of dependence; it treats the class of workmen as being in a sens inopes consilii, and the Legislature does for them what they cannot do for themselves: it gives them a sort of State insurance, it being assumed that they are either not sufficiently intelligent or not sufficiently in funds to insure themselves. In no sense can such a principle extend to those who are earning good salaries.

The Workmen’s Compensation Act 1906 fixed the compensation that a workman could recover from an employer in case of accident. It gave to a workman, except in certain cases of ‘serious and willful misconduct’, a right against his employer to compensation on the mere occurrence of an accident where the common law gives the right only for negligence of the employer. Exceptions were made at the top and bottom ends of the labour market, including non-manual workers employed on annual pay over £250, casual workers employed ‘otherwise than for the purposes of their employer’s trade or business’, outworkers and family workers. National Insurance after 1911 and voluntary insurance before were no longer the only ways of coping with industrial injuries.


[1] McFeely, Mary Drake, Lady Inspectors: The Campaign for a Better Workplace 1893-1921, (Basil Blackwell), 1988 is a useful study of how women fared as factory inspectors. Liversey, Ruth, ‘The politics of work: feminism, professionalisation and women inspectors of factories and workshops’, Women’s History Review, Vol. 13, (2), (J2004) , pp. 233-262 is a case study of the first women appointed as official government factory inspectors in Britain.

[2] Blackburn, Sheila C., ‘“To be poor and to be honest…is the hardest struggle of all”: sweated needlewomen and campaigns for protective legislation, 1840–1914’, in Harris, Beth, (ed.), Famine and fashion: needlewomen in the nineteenth century, (Ashgate), 2005, pp. 243-258, Malone, Carolyn, ‘Campaigning journalism: the Clarion, the Daily Citizen, and the protection of women workers, 1898-1912’, Labour History Review, Vol. 67, (2002), pp. 281-297.

[3] Taylor, E., The better temper: a commemorative history of the Midland Iron and Steel Wages Board, 1876-1976, (Iron and Steel Trades Confederation), 1976.

[4] See, Treble, John G., ‘Interpreting the record of wage negotiations under an arbitral regime: a game theoretic approach to the coal industry conciliation boards, 1893-1914’, Business History, Vol. 31, (1989), pp. 61-80.

[5] McCormick, Brian and Williams, J. E., ‘The miners and the eight-hour day, 1863-1910’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., Vol. 12, (1959), pp. 222-238. See also, Duffy, A.E.P., ‘The Eight Hours Day Movement in Britain 1886-1893’, The Manchester School, Vol. 36, (3), pp. 203-222.

[6] Blackburn, Sheila C., ‘Ideology and social policy: the origins of the Trade Boards Act’, Historical Journal, Vol. 34, (1991), pp. 43-64, ‘“Princesses and Sweated-Wage Slaves Go Well Together”: Images of British Sweated Workers, 1843–1914’, International Labor and Working-Class History, Vol. 61, (2002), pp. 24-44 and A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work?: sweated labour and the origins of minimum wage legislation in Britain, (Ashgate), 2007 and Melling, Joseph, ‘Welfare capitalism and the origins of welfare states: British industry, workplace welfare and social reform, c.1870-1914’, Social History, Vol. 17, (1992), pp. 453-478.

[7] Markham, Lester, V., ‘The employers’ liability workmen’s compensation debate of the 1890s revisited’, Historical Journal, Vol. 44, (2001), pp. 471-495.

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