Thursday, 6 January 2011

Factory reform in the 1840s: revised version

The ten-hour movement had been out-manoeuvred by the Whigs and its campaign against the 1833 Act proved ineffective. In October 1833, Oastler formed the Factory Reformation Society to continue the campaign but in November Robert Owen and John Fielden announced a Society for Promoting National Regeneration with the impractical but popular demand for an 8-hour day with 12 hours pay. Oastler rejected ‘Regenerationist’ invitations and it failed during the general Owenite collapse of 1834 carrying with it much of the Short Time agitation. From 1834, the Factory Movement had a chequered history.  Oastler and his supporters became increasingly involved in anti-Poor Law campaigns and there were growing local differences. Lancashire reformers, experienced in evasions of previous legislation, demanded that mill engines should be stopped at set times to make enforcement certain, a policy Oastler supported but ‘dare not ask for’. Some of the parliamentary spokesmen, such as Hindley and Brotherton, were prepared to compromise on the Ten Hours demand and adopted a gradualist approach by arguing for 11 hours. In Scotland, committees in Aberdeen, Arbroath, Edinburgh and Paisley tended to rely on the support of professional men and Presbyterian ministers while the Glasgow committee was under working-class control until 1837. Yorkshire was less prone to division and controversy within the organisation but even here there were differences.[1]

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. 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. 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. The issue was not the introduction of new legislation, but fulfilling the intention of existing law by taking action to remedy defects in the 1833 Act. The key issue was enforcement.

During the 1830s, Oastler and the Ten Hour had projected a vision in which the regulation of the factory and the protection of labour was the key to remedying social distress. In the 1840s, the factory question can be seen through the language of negotiation within a growing consensus in favour of further regulation. 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. First, the development of state regulation increasingly resulted in distinctions being made between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ factories and of the need to improve the ‘bad’. Secondly, 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 was by no means the worst form of social distress.

The pace of the campaign of the 1840s varied considerably. Ashley Cooper failed to inject ‘ten hours’ into unsuccessful bills in 1838, 1839 and 1841. [2] By 1840, the Inspectors were also in favour of further reform and hopes rose with the return of the Conservatives under Sir Robert Peel in 1841. 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. Peel remained steady in his opposition to the Ten Hour movement right up to the passage of the 1847 Factory Act. He accepted 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.  In 1841, this concern was mistaken by a West Riding short-time deputation as an acceptance of the ten hour principle. This led to widespread and misleading publicity, raising then shattering workers’ hopes and intensifying their hostility to the government during 1842.

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. However, he was prepared to accept the moral arguments implicit in 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.[3] Shaftesbury drafted a bill that became law at the end of 1842. It made the employment of women underground illegal; said boys under 10 could no longer work underground; and, allowed 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.[4] Further legislation in 1850 addressed the frequency of accidents in mines. The Coal Mines Inspection Act introduced the appointment of inspectors of coal mines, setting out their powers and duties, and placed them under the supervision of the Home Office. The Coal Mines Regulation Act of 1860 improved safety rules and raised the age limit for boys from 10 to 12. [5]

There was an obvious difference between Ashley’s proposals and the government’s own initiatives in social legislation. For Ashley, it was a crusade; the government was far more concerned with the promotion of social and political order. Peel’s good intentions were insufficient to dampen class and sectarian antagonisms that intensified during the industrial distress and disturbances of 1841 and 1842. The ‘Plug Plots’ of mid-1842[6] speeded government action and in March 1843 Graham introduced a Factory Bill that would restrict children aged 8-13 to 6½ hours’ work with three hours’ daily education in improved schools largely controlled by the Church of England.  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. The Home Secretary, Sir James Graham believed in the importance of education as a means of social control and emphasised the moral content of schooling. [7] He was convinced that the riots in 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. [8]

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.[9] He also drew on the educational expertise of James Kay-Shuttleworth.

Graham’s proposal for state assistance in the education of factory children was motivated by the need to raise the ‘moral feeling’ of the people as a counter to radical agitation but Nonconformists and Roman Catholics believed it favoured the Church of England unfairly. Fear and prejudice came together in the massive campaign by nonconformist pressure groups coordinated by 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. In June 1843, the education clauses were withdrawn but the government remained committed to proceeding with the remainder of the bill.[10] However, it was not until the following February that Graham submitted a truncated bill. The Factory Act 1844 actually effected considerable improvements: children (8-13) became ‘half-timers’, working 6½ hours; dangerous machinery was to be fenced in; women shared the young persons’ 12 hour restriction; and, it was permissible for a factory to operate for fifteen hours in a day.

Oastler mounted a major campaign but he was unable to graft a ‘10 hour clause’ on to the revised factory bill. Ashley moved a ten hour amendment that carried with 95 Conservatives supporting it.  Peel refused to accept ten hours or compromise with eleven hours and the bill was only passed by threatening resignation unless his wayward supporters rescinded their earlier vote. [11] 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 laws 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 18 March 1844 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.

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, however, considerable disappointment in the textile towns and this provoked compromises and local negotiations. 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 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.[12]

Northern rejoicing was still premature. From 1848, there were reports of evasions in Lancashire and of masters’ campaigns to repeal the Act. Several employers resorted to the relay system that meant that hours of work could not be enforced: the 15 hours per day clause in the 1844 Act had not been repealed and the 1847 legislation did not limit the number of hours machines could operate. As a result, employers quickly recognised that they could abide by the letter of the new law and still keep their mills working for 15 hours by the use of a relay system. Working children, women and young persons were subjected to interrupted shifts (two hours on, one hour off, for example) so the adult workers could be kept at their machines for fourteen or more hours a day. Attempts by the factory inspectors to prosecute employers invariably failed in the magistrates courts. Gradually, a new campaign emerged to protect the Act but it was increasingly obvious that the Factory Movement was divided: Ashley Cooper and a ‘liberal’ group were prepared to accept some compromise while Oastler was not. A test case on the illegality of the relay system in the Court of Exchequer (Ryder v Mills) was heard in early 1850 and the employers’ liberal interpretation of the law upheld.[13]

The Factory Act 1850 finally legislated for what was called a ‘normal day’. The term derived from the custom that developed in the eighteenth century limiting the hours of work of craftsmen in most trades to those that could be worked, with breaks between 6 am and 6 pm. The Act required that young persons and women should only work between these two customary times, starting and ending one hour later in winter, with one and a half hours for meals and ending at 2pm on Saturdays with half an hour for breakfast. This meant they would work 10½ hours a day Monday to Friday and 7½ hours on Saturdays increasing their working week from 58 to 60 hours. Although textile workers now worked a shorter working week than most manual labourers, their anger over what they saw as the betrayal of the ten-hour principle was intense. Attempts to include children in the ‘normal day’ failed and, as a result, men might work up to 15 hours, aided by relays of children beyond the hours allowed for women and young persons. Children only received their fixed day in the 1853 Factory Act. This legislation effectively limited the running of textile factories to twelve hours each day with 1½ hours set aside for meals. Disraeli only restored the ‘10 hours’ in 1874. In the meantime, however, similar legislation had been extended to a wide range of workers.

After campaigns lasting twenty years and the passage of factory legislation in 1833, 1844, 1847 and 1850, the regulation of factory labour amounted to this.[14] First, three ‘protected’ classes of workers had been established: children between the ages of 8 and 13; young persons between the ages of 14 and 18; and women. Adult males over 18 were unregulated. Secondly, children could not enter factories until they were 8 years old and their work was restricted to 6½ hours a day. However, those hours could be worked any time between 5.30 am and 8.30 pm and nothing prevented them being used in relays throughout that time. Thirdly, women and young persons were classed together and their hours were restricted to 10½ hours daily (exclusive of meals) between 6 am and 6 pm five days a week with an 8 hour day on Saturdays. Finally, the legislation was supervised by regional Inspectors and their assistants who made quarterly reports to the Home Office.

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 free market existed within a moral and legal framework.


[1] See, Ward, J.T., ‘The Factory Reform Movement in Scotland’, Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 41, (2), (1962), pp. 100-123.

[2] For Ashley’s role in the 1840s, see, ibid, Finlayson, Geoffrey, The Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury 1801-1885, pp. 173-270.

[3] Those who favoured reform also used literature as propaganda. In 1839-1840 Mrs Frances Trollope published her The Life and Adventure of Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy in twelve shilling parts; see, Chaloner, W.H., ‘Mrs Trollope and the Early Factory System’, Victorian Studies, Vol. 4, (2), (1960), pp. 159-166.

[4] John, Angela V., ‘Colliery legislation and its consequences: 1842 and the women miners of Lancashire’, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, Vol. 61, (1978), pp. 78-114.

[5] On the Mines Act 1843, see, ibid, Finlayson, Geoffrey, The Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury 1801-1885, pp. 182-189 and Heesom, Alan, ‘The Coal Mines Act of 1842, social reform, and social control’, Historical Journal, Vol. 24, (1981), pp. 69-88. See also, MacDonagh, Oliver, ‘Coal Mines Regulation: the first decade, 1842-52’, in Robson, R., (ed.), Ideas and Institutions of Victorian Britain: Essays in honour of George Kitson Clark, (Barnes and Noble), 1967, pp. 58-86.

[6] Jenkins, Mick, The General Strike of 1842, (Lawrence & Wishart), 1980 surveys the wave of strikes with a particular emphasis on Lancashire.

[7] Ward, J.T., Sir James Graham, (Macmillan), 1967 and Erickson, A.B., The public career of Sir James Graham, (Blackwell), 1952 are complementary biographical studies. Donajgrodzki, A.P., ‘Sir James Graham at the home office’, Historical Journal, vol. 20 (1977), pp. 97-120 is a useful article.

[8] Hansard, HC Deb, 24 March 1843, Vol. 67 cc1411-77.

[9] For the broader context of the government’s relationship with the Bishop of London, see, Welch, P.J., ‘Blomfield and Peel: A Study in Cooperation between Church and State, 1841-46’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 12, (1961), pp. 71-84.

[10] Ward, J.T. and Treble, James H., ‘Religion and education in 1843: reaction to the ‘Factory Education Bill’’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 20, (1969), pp. 79-110.

[11] Stewart, R., ‘The Ten Hours and Sugar Crises of 1844: Government and the House of Commons in the Age of Reform’, Historical Journal, Vol. 12, (1969), pp. 35-57.

[12] Ibid, Weaver, A., John Fielden and the Politics of Popular Radicalism 1832-1847, pp. 249-281.

[13] Ibid, Finlayson, Geoffrey, The Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury 1801-1885, pp. 295-296.

[14] Ibid, Ward, J.T., The Factory Movement 1830-1850, pp. 505-506.

2 comments:

Isaac said...

Thanks for this info! I needed it for a project on the Industrial Revolution.

Richard Brown said...

I'm glad you found it useful