Monday, 10 January 2011

Factory reform: extending the early legislation, 1850-1880

The Ten Hours Act, together with the repeal of the Corn Laws, came to be regarded as 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 helped 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 workers as much as their protectors from unscrupulous employers.

The Factory movement as such disappeared in the 1850s with great success to its credit. As yet the legislation applied only to textiles and Ashley, who in 1851 became the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, continued the battle in Parliament to extend legislation to unprotected trades. In many respects, however, 1850 remained the legislative high water mark.

The first phase occurred naturally, if somewhat illogically, on the hitherto excluded textile industries and their satellites such as bleaching and dyeing. This process had begun in 1845 when the 1844 Act was extended to calico printing. Next the great range of other child-employing industries where working conditions and arrangements were similar to those in cotton manufacture came under review. These included pottery, the metal trades, paper-making, chemicals, glassworks and printing. Finally the principle of comparability was applied to units of production, whatever their size.

In the 1850s, the colour green became extremely popular as it was seen as new and modern. New colouring agents made green greener than ever before. Unfortunately arsenic was an important part of the process and as a result was liberally released into the atmosphere. Green wallpaper was a killer and when one Limehouse family lost four children the green wallpaper in their bedroom was analysed and every square foot was found to contain a lethal dose. Manufacturers, however, persistently denied that there was a problem among them William Morris who used green pigments widely and never accepted that they were harmful. For those who worked with these green pigments, especially in the fashion trade, this could prove fatal. They developed sores, ilcers and skin loss and the death of Matilda Scheurer, aged 19, made headlines. There was no disagreement about what killed her, the issue was whether it justified restricting the use of arsenic in manufacture. A leading medical journal decided that it was not the business of the state to ‘hinder...young women from destroying themselves for a beggarly livelihood’.[1] Parliament agreed; foreigners might introduce legislation but that was not the British way! More importantly perhaps, arsenic was valuable for trade. In 1883, the National Health Society drew up a list of safeguards for the use of arsenic, but none of them became law. [2]

In 1862, Shaftesbury suggested the establishment of the Children’s Employment Commission to inquire into the conditions in the unregulated trades. By 1866, the Commission had published five reports that the Russell government was preparing to act on. The last report was published in 1867 and drew attention to the practice of employing women and children in gangs in some agricultural counties.[3] The minority Conservative government took up these plans and in 1867 produced two measures: the Factory Act Extension Act and the Hours of Labour Regulation Act that applied to premises including private houses with less than fifty workers. The former applied to premises with more than fifty employees in industries such as metalwork, printing, paper and glassworks, while the main effects of the latter were felt in clothing. Children under eight years were forbidden to work and older children were required to have ten hours’ schooling a week. Young people and women were also protected, and in all the measures affected 1.4 million people. The second measure was left to the local authorities instead of the factory inspectorate to enforce and they did it badly. The extension of the jurisdiction of the inspectorate to cover the handicrafts had to wait until 1878. By 1870, over 1,000 lives were still being lost in mining accidents each year. In 1872, the Coal Mines Regulation Act introduced the requirement for pit managers to have state certification of their training. Miners were also given the right to appoint inspectors from among themselves. The Mines Regulation Act, passed in 1881, empowered the Home Secretary to hold inquiries into the causes of mine accidents. It remained clear, however, that there were many aspects of mining that required further intervention and regulation.

By the late 1860s over a wide range of industries the abolition of infant labour, the reduction of the hours of children to six and a half, the principles of ‘protected classes’ of children, young persons and women in the mills and workshops, the 60 hour week all round, compulsory education over the age of eight and rudimentary forms of the modern working week and of factory safety and health codes had been achieved. The circle of exceptions was ever-widening but it remained and this meant continued gross abuse of infant, child, adolescent and female labour elsewhere.

The next decade saw the consolidation of early Victorian factory reform. The electoral consequences of the 1867 Reform Act were felt much more powerfully in the general election of 1874 than in 1868.[4] Factory hours were an issue, especially in Lancashire during the election. The result was a spate of legislation on factories and trade unions introduced by Disraeli’s Conservative administration (1874-1880): in 1874 and 1878 there were factory acts and in 1875 the Trade Union Act, Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act and the repeal of the remaining master and servant legislation. The 1874 Factory Act was the work of Richard Cross, Disraeli’s Home Secretary. It finally established the ten-hour day, the historic working-class goal, as far as the factories and workshops embraced in the 1867 legislation were concerned. It carried forward for the first time in a quarter of a century the frontier of regulation: the minimum age of half-time employment was raised from eight (which it had been since 1844) to ten; the minimum age for full-time employment was raised from thirteen (which it had been since 1833) to fourteen; and, women and young persons were specifically included in the body of ‘protected persons’, who were to receive the benefits of the ten-hour day. Men were deliberately excluded: they gained the ten-hour day not in their own right but through the accident of working side by side with the protected persons. The Factory Act 1878, followed from a Royal Commission established in 1876, and, though the more comprehensive act, it was essentially a consolidating Act pulling together all the provisions into one scheme.

The depression of the 1870s inclined some to argue that factory reform had gone too far and indeed was a major cause of the country‘s failure to keep up with her new industrial competitors. By that time, however, the principle of state intervention had been well established and could not be reversed. Children, young people and women at work were the responsibility of the state, secured by legal provisions enforceable through a bureaucratic machine. The effectiveness of the provision depended on the effectiveness of the inspectorate itself. The size of the inspectorate meant that it was always unlikely that there would be comprehensive coverage. In coal mining, only one inspector (H.S. Tremenheere) was appointed in 1842 and it was not until the Coal Mines Inspection Act 1850 that officials were empowered to make underground inspections. The number of inspectors was raised to four in 1850, six in 1852 and twelve in 1855. Even this gave each inspector an impossibly large area to administer and this was equally true of the factory inspectorate where a reorganisation in 1839 left each inspector some 1,500 mills to supervise with the assistance of four superintendents. The total establishment for the factory inspectorate was raised to about twenty in 1839, at which level it remained for some thirty years. The inspectors were also hampered by inadequate budgets: in the mid-1860s, the mines inspectorate had a budget of only £10,000 while that of the factory inspectorate was about a third more. [5]

The inspectorates were never intended as an industrial police force supervising industry’s every move. They were intended to create a moral climate of observance by the principle of inspection. Indeed, it was strongly believed that inspectors should not take from employers the ultimate responsibility for running decent industrial establishments. Almost inevitably the inspectors did not act in concert as a unified service; in fact the 1876 Royal Commission questioned whether any unified policy existed. It was therefore common for inspectors to have different prosecution rates and to concentrate on different sorts of offences. In matters of fencing and safety at work the inspectorate was often quite ineffectual in raising standards but in other areas there were much greater levels of success. Well over three-quarters of prosecutions were successful and at times the rate was over 90%. This was, in part, the result of prosecuting only in those cases that had a good chance of success.

The legislation of the 1870s represented the consummation of the early Victorian endeavour. ‘Protection’ was an unchallenged principle. Despite the changes in emphasis and disagreements within the factory debate, the combatants of 1833 soon found common ground in the notion of ‘freedom of contract’ as expressed by John Stuart Mill in his Principles of political economy. Mill started from the proposition that every individual was the best judge of his own interests and should be free to pursue them without interference from the state. However, he recognised that there were circumstances when this was unacceptable. The issue was one of defining where and why the overriding proposition justified state action. Mill accepted three circumstances in which state intervention was acceptable. First, children and ‘young persons’ could not be the best judges of their own interest: for them ‘freedom of contract’ was often ‘but another name for freedom of coercion’.[6] This is the essence of liberal paternalism. Secondly, in such an area as education, since good judgement itself might depend upon being subjected to it, compulsion was justifiable.[7] Finally, there were ‘matters in which the interference of law was required, not to overrule the judgement of individuals respecting their own interests, but to give effect to that judgement’. So, if some employers wished to establish a ten-hour day, they might be restrained from pursuing what they conceive to be in their own best interests because their rivals resisted the innovation. Here all would have to be coerced if ‘the judgement of individuals respecting their own interests’ were to be given effect. [8] This can be seen in Cross’s speech to the Commons in 1874 when he paid lip-service to the old Chadwick doctrine of the free agent

So far as adult males are concerned there could be no question that freedom of contract must be maintained and men must be left to take care of themselves.[9]

The legislation of 1874 and 1878 may have marked a ‘victorious’ climax to a phase but there were harbingers of a new era. In the early 1870s, several bills were introduced in the Commons proposing a nine-hour day for men as for protected persons; and the Royal Commission of 1876 entered at length into the consideration of both health and hygiene in factories. These were early indicators that the battle was to move on to new ground.


[1] Medical Times & Gazette, Vol. 2, (J. & A. Churchill), 1861, 30 November 1861, p. 558.

[2] Ibid, Whorton, James C., The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work and Play, pp. 294-323.

[3] These gangs worked long hours under so-called gang-masters who frequently exploited and abused their workers. By the Agricultural Gangs Act 1888 all gang-masters had to be licensed by JPs, no boy or girl under eight was to be employed, and a licensed gang-mistress was necessary when women and girls were included in the gang.

[4] Maehl, W. H., ‘Gladstone, the Liberals, and the election of 1874’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, Vol. 36, (1963), pp. 53-69.

[5] Crooks, Eddie, The factory inspectors: a legacy of the industrial revolution, (Tempus), 2005.

[6] Mill, J.S., Principles of Political Economy with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy: With Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy, 2 Vols. (C.C. Little & J. Brown), 1848, Vol. 2, pp. 532-536.

[7] Ibid, Mill, J.S., Principles of Political Economy, pp. 528-532.

[8] Ibid, Mill, J.S., Principles of Political Economy, p. 552-554.

[9] Hansard, HC Deb, 6 May 1874, Vol. 218, cc1740-1803, at 1793-1794.

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