Sunday, 2 January 2011

The Ten Hour Movement and the 1833 Factory Act: revised version

The emergence of the short-time or Ten Hour movement after 1830 has its origins in the late-eighteenth century when concerns about the deteriorating conditions in child employment initially developed.[1] Early legislative efforts, however, depended largely on benevolent individuals. Sir Robert Peel senior was behind both the 1802 and 1819 Acts but he received considerable popular support from Lancashire cotton spinners, in liaison with at least three distinguishable groups.[2] First, the old labour aristocracies such as the east Midland framework-knitters, Yorkshire woollen croppers and the ubiquitous handloom weavers saw the factories with their technological innovations as threats to their social status and their incomes. Secondly, some early pioneers of social medicine drew attention to the insidious effects of factory labour on health.[3] Finally, Northern clergymen of the old High Church tradition and those tinged with new Evangelical enthusiasm played important roles in successive factory campaigns. In 1836, Oastler, who believed in the notion of a ‘Christian commonweal’ wrote in a letter of the Archbishop of York that

...his only object was to establish the principles of Christianity, the principles of the Church of England in these densely people districts....the Factory question was indeed....a Soul-question -- it was Souls against pounds, shillings and pence....[4]

In 1815, Peel, supported by Robert Owen, the progressive owner of the New Lanark Mill on the River Clyde, attempted unsuccessfully to bring in legislation to ban children under the age of ten from any employment. He continued to campaign inside and outside Parliament and a parliamentary inquiry into child labour in factories resulted in the Cotton Mills Act of 1819. The Act required that no child under the age of nine was to be employed in cotton mills, with a maximum day of 16 hours for all those under 16. But once again the means of enforcing such legislation remained a serious problem and there were only two convictions while it operated.  A further burst of agitation in the 1820s by the cotton spinners led only to John Cam Hobhouse obtaining minor changes to existing legislation in 1825 and 1831 but these too were limited in scope and implementation. [5] Lancashire cotton operatives who were strong supporters of factory legislation became disillusioned with the lack of enforcement of existing law and demoralised by the collapse of strikes against wage reductions. It is, however, clear that the Factory Movement began in Lancashire rather than with the better known Yorkshire agitation begin by Richard Oastler in 1830 and that it was the militant Cotton Spinner’s Union that first created the rudiments of a popular organisation and gained support from the radical press.

The early industrial reformers had little or no organisation. The campaign between 1825 and 1829 had achieved little but it was at this stage that Richard Oastler, a Tory land steward from Huddersfield, burst upon the scene when he sent his celebrated letter to the Leeds Mercury on ‘Yorkshire Slavery’.[6] For Oastler, emotionally bound by the established inter-connected web of customs, loyalties, ties, memories and services, liberalism spoke of men as ‘free agents’ while in practice they were ‘wage-slaves’ created when ‘Money’ and ‘Machinery’ drove a wedge between the nation’s old landed and labouring interests. Most of the founders of the Ten Hour Movement were Tories and Anglicans from northern industrial towns, committed to reviving the aristocratic idea that, if necessary, might be promoted through state intervention against both the decayed aristocratic betrayal of the paternal system and the new entrepreneurial ethos. They were as deeply hostile to parliamentary reform and workers’ organisations as they were to Dissenters, orthodox political economy and the newly rich manufacturers. Many of those who financed the movement, like Michael Sadler, were themselves well-established factory owners and members of the Tory urban elite facing a challenge locally from Dissenting entrepreneurs. [7]

It is possible to identify four principal pressure groups that favoured factory reform. There were the mill operatives themselves and their supporters, of whom Richard Oastler was the most prominent. Their demands for a 10-hour working day was used in the debate over child labour both as a way of exposing the hardship of the children and as a way of seeking a limitation on the working day of adults. In the laissez-faire atmosphere of the period, any direct attempt to achieve state regulation of the hours of adult males was doomed to failure. But because juveniles aged 10-13 were an essential part of the workforce it was hoped that restrictions on their hours would percolate through to the rest. The reformers did not oppose child labour as such but were merely against unregulated labour. They judged legislation not by its direct effect on child labour but by its indirect effect on the position of adult workers. Secondly, there were the Tory humanitarians among whom Lord Ashley was most active. They were concerned about the moral and religious deprivation of young workers and the ineffectiveness of existing protective legislation. Others such as William Wordsworth, Robert Southey and William Cobbett looked back to a pre-industrial ‘golden age’ and blamed the industrial revolution for alienating workers from the land and forcing children to play a major role in the workforce.[8] A fourth body of reformers came to the fore in the debates over amendments to the factory legislation that occurred in the 1840s. They included active supporters of laissez-faire principles, such as Thomas Babington Macaulay, but who argued for regulation on economic and moral grounds. Child labour, they suggested, damaged the health of youngsters who were then later in life not able to achieve their potential productivity. Restricting child labour was a rational means of promoting investment in the country‘s future workforce.

The early Ten Hour movement had a number of strands, loosely held together by a rhetoric that combined evangelical religion, the threat posed by unregulated economic change, populist radical ideas of fair employment and labour as property and patriarchal values. [9] Such rhetoric embodied notions of a ‘moral economy’ in opposition to the aggressive economic liberalism of the manufacturer’s lobby. [10] Oastler spoke of the monstrous’ nature of the factory system and the ‘terrors’ of child labour. He denounced political economy as ‘earthly, selfish and devilish’ and pointed to the abnormality of ‘the tears of innocent victims (wetting) the very streets which receive the droppings of an Anti-Slavery Society’. These attributes cut across the political spectrum from traditionalist Tories to Whigs, to a patrician radicalism. Radical artisans and factory workers shared many of these views. It was saturated in romantic imagery, of the ‘golden age’ of domestic production and of seeing their labour in terms of ‘freedom’, ‘tyranny’ and ‘slavery’.

Paternalism was not confined to Oastler and the Ten Hour movement and many manufacturers accepted their civic duty to engage actively in schooling, management of housing, charity and moral surveillance. Paternalistic controls over the labour force were justified in a language of mutual obligations and the mission of enlightened manufacturers as improvers of the poor. It was their competitive effectiveness and accumulation of capital that enabled employers to fulfil this moral mission and, in this sense, there was no contradiction between the economic ethics of political economy and the moral imperatives of industrial paternalism. Textile manufacturers found themselves in a vulnerable and isolated position when the factory issue exploded in the early 1830s and were divided over their response to it. ‘Evils’ were recognised, but in terms far removed from the language of wage-slavery. In the cotton districts, opponents pointed to the diminished rate of profit and increase in the cost of production if the hours of workers were reduced. Others emphasised the threat from foreign competition and the absolute rights of property.

During the winter of 1830-1831, there was a furious controversy in the Yorkshire press and rival views became polarised. Oastler acted as the pivot and central organiser. He possessed considerable oratorical skills and journalistic gifts; he controlled the central funds and he imparted a crusading verve to the movement. The question of child exploitation was a ‘moral’ one and he became head of a network of ‘short-time committees’ that demanded the ten-hour day. A substantial number of pamphlets, petitions and tracts were issued and ‘missionaries’ were despatched throughout the textile areas of England and Scotland to highlight the horrors of child labour in the mills. Thousands of workers were willing to ignore the hostility of the Factory Movement’s leaders to their political aspirations during the agitation for parliamentary reform 1830-1832, put aside their opposition to the Church of England and turned a blind eye to the darker side of paternalism with its insistence on a harsh penal code, savage game laws and low wages and living conditions for the rural labourer and support the Movement.[11]

In the event, Oastler and his movement had little success with the Whig government and Peel and the Conservative opposition kept the agitation at arm’s length. When Michael Sadler moved a Ten Hour Bill in March 1832 he was obliged to accept the appointment of a Select Committee to take evidence from the operatives. Meanwhile the factory masters organised a vigorous lobby to resist further legislation, arguing that shorter working hours could result only in a victory for foreign competition, leading to lower wages and unemployment. The dissolution of Parliament in 1832 led to Sadler’s defeat at Leeds in December and to his replacement, at the suggestion of the Reverend George Bull[12], by the young Evangelical Anthony Ashley Cooper as parliamentary spokesman for the Ten Hour campaign. The publication of Select Committee report in January 1833 brought the stark realities of conditions and led Anthony Ashley Cooper to introduce a factory bill. Criticisms, largely justified, that the Select Committee report was one-sided as it had only heard the workers’ views resulted, in April 1833, in the government setting up a Royal Commission to investigate the employment of children in factories.  The Whigs had effectively taken reform out of the hands of the Ten Hour Movement and it became a government sponsored issue.

Why did the Whigs take control of factory reform? Extra-parliamentary agitation occurred not only in the context of conflict between capital and labour but of other economic and social rivalries.  Social, ideological, religious and political rivalry between industrialists and neighbouring agriculturalists was exploited by operatives who turned for protection  from millowners to county JPs. The result was an Anglican Tory-Radical alliance on the factory question, grounded in notions of paternalism rather than the tenets of political economy and less inhibited in its support of the industrial poor than Whig Radicals. This alliance was weakened by the reform agitation of 1831-1832 but remained important till the late 1830s and the onset of Chartism.  Parallel to this Tory paternalist approach was one supported by some Whig radicals and a group of philanthropic millowners in which nonconformist belief was a unifying force. The agitation in Yorkshire had already convinced the Whigs that a factory act was inevitable. Determining the composition of the Royal Commission ensured that the range of options available to them would be wider and less unpalatable to manufacturers than a Ten Hours bill. The Royal Commission Report was placed in the hands of Edwin Chadwick.[13]  The report, produced in forty-five days, looked at factory  conditions far less emotionally than the Select Committee.  Its conclusions were not based on humanitarian grounds, the position adopted by the Ten Hour Movement, but on the question of economic efficiency. Chadwick argued that human suffering and degradation led to less efficient production and that a good working environment would lead to health, happiness and an efficient workforce. Its recommendations were firmly placed on the question of children’s employment and it was consequently criticised for failing to deal with the issue of adult labour.

The Factory Act 1833 that implemented its recommendations restricted children aged 9-14 (by stages) to 8 hours actual labour in all textile mills (except lace-manufacture), with 2 hours at school; young persons under 18 to 12 hours; and, four Factory Inspectors were appointed to enforce the legislation. Previous Acts had been restricted to the cotton industry, but the 1833 Act also applied to the older woollen producing communities in and around Yorkshire which had been ignored in previous legislation. However, the silk industry was given special consideration after vigorous lobbying from manufacturers who argued that the industry would perish without the employment of very young children. Silk manufacture used a large amount of workers who were below age 16 and they accounted for almost 80% of the workforce in some workships and mills. The 1833 Act was confined to children’s work and applied only to textile mills but it did establish a small four-man inspectorate responsible to the Home Office to enforce the legislation. Inspection was essential for making effective enforcement possible and providing a continuous stream of information about the conditions of workers in a range of industries. Despite the rhetoric of Oastler that magistrates, who heard the overwhemlong majority of cases, obstructed conviction under the legislation, there is significant evidence that they were not unsympathetic to prosecutions and were prepared to convict.[14] Despite the intense criticism of the 1833 Act and the problems encountered in enforcement, it would be unfair to underestimate the Whig achievement in the area of factory reform. The debates in 1832 and 1833 led to the issue being publicly aired as never before.[15] The extra-parliamentary movement may have been frustrated by what had been achieved and the 1833 Act may have not been based on any real principles, but it did mark an important stage in the emergence of effective factory legislation and underpinned the developments of the 1840s.


[1] Kydd, Samuel, The History of the Factory Movement: From the Year 1802, to the Enactment of the Ten Hours’ Bill in 1847, 2 Vols. (Simpkin, Marshall, and Co.), 1857, Edler Von Plener, Ernst, The English Factory Legislation, from 1802 Till the Present Time, (Chapman and Hall), 1873, reprinted, (BiblioBazaar, LLC), 2008, Cooke-Taylor, R.W., The Factory System and the Factory Acts, (Methuen), 1894 and Hutchins, B.L., Hutchins, Elizabeth L. and Harrison, Amy, A history of factory legislation, (P. S. King & Son), 1911 provide contemporary comment on the development of legislation.

[2] Innes, Joanna, ‘Origins of the factory acts: the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act 1802’, in Landau, Norma, (ed.), Law, crime and English society, 1660-1830, (Cambridge University Press), 2002, pp. 230-255 and Thomas, M.W., The early factory legislation: a study in legislative and administrative evolution, (Thames Bank Publishing Co.), 1948.

[3] See, for example, the comments in Ure, Andrew, The Philosophy of Manufactures: or, An exposition of the scientific, moral and commercial economy of the factory system of Great Britain, (Charles Knight), 1835, pp. 374-403.

[4] Cit, ibid, Driver, C., Tory Radical: A Life of Richard Oastler, p. 306.

[5] On Hobhouse, see, Zegger, Robert E., John Cam Hobhouse: a political life, 1819-1852, (University of Missouri Press), 1973.

[6] Creighton, Colin, ‘Richard Oastler, factory legislation and the working-class family’, Journal of Historical Sociology, Vol. 5, (1992), pp. 292-320; Ward, J.T., ‘Richard Oastler on politics and factory reform, 1832-1833’, Northern History, Vol. 24, (1988), pp. 124-145.

[7] Sadler’s death in 1835 removed an important advocate of reform. See, Sadler, Michael T., Protest Against the Secret Proceedings of the Factory Commission, in Leeds, 1833, Reply to the Two Letters of John Elliot Drinkwater, Esquire, and Alfred Power, Esquire, Factory Commissioners, (F.E. Bingley), 1833 and Factory statistics: the official table appended to the report of the committee on the ten-hour factory bill vindicated in a series of letters addressed to J.E. Drinkwater, (Hatchards), 1836; Drinkwater, J.E., Bethune, John Elliot and Power, Alfred, Replies to Mr. M.T. Sadler’s Protest Against the Factory Commission, (Baines and Newsome), 1833.

[8] On this issue, see, Stevenson, Warren, The myth of the golden age in English Romantic poetry, (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg), 1981.

[9] For what follows see Gray, Robert, ‘The languages of factory reform in Britain c.1830-1860’ in ibid, Joyce, Patrick, (ed.), The historical meanings of work, pp. 143-179.

[10] Lyon, Eileen Groth, Christian Radicalism in Britain from the Fall of the Bastille to the Disintegration of Chartism, (Ashgate), 1999, pp. 125-150 examines the Christian radicalism of the Factory movement.

[11] For a short summary of the issues see Ward, J.T., ‘The Factory Movement’ in Ward, J.T., (ed.), Popular Movements 1830-1850, (Macmillan), 1970, pp. 78-94.

[12] Gill, J.C., The ten hours parson: Christian social action in the eighteen-thirties, (SPCK), 1959.

[13] Ibid, Finer, S.E., The Life and Times of Sir Edwin Chadwick, pp. 50-68 and ibid, Brundage, A., England’s ‘Prussian Minister’: Edwin Chadwick and the Politics of Government Growth 1832-1854, pp. 22-24

[14] Peacock, A. E., ‘The successful prosecution of the Factory Acts, 1833-55’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., Vol. 37, (1984), pp. 197-210.

[15] Wing, Charles, Evils of the Factory System Demonstrated by Parliamentary Evidence, (Saunders and Otley), 1837, Part II prints important contemporary comment.

No comments: