Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Factory reform

Female and child labour
in factories

Industrialisation: the human cost

The Industrial Revolution is associated above all with machinery. The machines undoubtedly speeded production and reduced the price of goods to the consumer. But they were expensive to install and the best way to pay for them was to keep them going for as long as possible. This led inevitably to a long-hours culture, with factories often operating fourteen hours a day six days a week. The transitions must have been painful for the first generation of industrial workers. There were also huge implications for the health of these workers.
Dean Clough Mills,
Calderdale, Yorkshire
One of the carpet
factories built 1841-69
Public domain

Industrialisation is also associated with child labour though it did not invent it, as child labour had been an essential aspect of the pre-industrial economy. In the early eighteenth century Daniel Defoe thought it admirable that in the vicinity of Halifax scarcely anybody above the age of 4 was idle. What was new was the element of regimentation, with children working from 12 to 14 hours a day.

Factory reform

By 1830 the complacent assumption that the factory system did not need reform was being undermined. But the question stirred deep passions and unlikely political alliances. Prominent reformers included paternalist factory masters, political radicals, and Evangelical clergy. Opponents, most notably the Association of Master Manufacturers, were influenced by the free-market doctrine of ‘political economy’ and argued against moves which they said would undermine competitiveness overseas as well as infringing the freedom of the labour market. They were supported by influential Whig landowners and by voices within the Whig cabinet. ‘Political economists’ argued that the adult male was a free agent and that the state should not intervene in his conditions of work. This forced reformers to concentrate on the plight of those they deemed to be vulnerable – women and children.

In 1802 Robert Peel the elder (father of the Victorian prime minister) had sponsored an act to protect pauper apprentices assigned to cotton, woollen and some other mills by the Poor Law authorities. In 1825 John Cam Hobhouse sought to restrict the employment of children under 16 to 11 hours a day. His bill was mutilated by Sir Robert Peel the younger acting in concert with the Manchester Chamber of Commerce, but a twelve-hour limit was secured.

In October 1830 the movement for factory reform revived with an open letter to the Leeds Mercury from the Yorkshire land agent and paternalistic Tory, Richard Oastler (1789-1861) who spoke of
‘thousands of little children ... sacrificed at the shrine of avarice, without even the solace of the negro slave’.
Within a few months thousands of operatives and sympathetic tradesmen had organised themselves into short Time Committees. In March 1832 Michael Sadler (1780-1835), linen merchant and  Tory MP introduced a ten-hours bill to limit the working day for all people under 18.

Some of the bill’s opponents argued that the larger factories had already implemented the proposed reforms and that the legislation would disproportionately disadvantage smaller manufacturers, many of them reliant on water power, therefore based in rural areas where labour recruitment was more difficult. However the select committee appointed to consider the factory question was dominated by Sadler’s parliamentary allies and, not surprisingly it produced a damning litany of abuses and industrial accidents. These were published in polemical Sadlerite journals such as The British Labourer’s Protector and Factory Child’s Friend. However, the over-emotional tone did not help the reformers’ case.

When Sadler failed to win a seat in the 1832 election the parliamentary leadership of the reformers passed to Lord Ashley, the evangelical heir to the earldom of Shaftesbury. In February 1833 his Ten Hours Bill was set aside by a majority of one, and a Royal Commission was set up to investigate the problem. The frenzy of agitation in Yorkshire had convinced the Whigs that some sort of factory act was inevitable.

The Commission gave the masters an opportunity to state their case. They accepted that children needed protection, but argued that their opponents’ true intentions were the reduction of the working week for adults, contrary to all commercial sense and the requirements of the free market. But it also heard harrowing case-studies from hundreds of witnesses.

The Factory Act

The eventual Report came down on the side of the economic arguments of the manufacturers, but it accepted that children needed protection from those masters who overworked them. The result was the 1833 Factory Act.

The Act was only a partial victory for Ashley and Sadler and it applied only to textile factories. Factory children were declared to be ‘rapidly increasing’, and it was agreed that (unlike adult men) they were not free agents. A case for some state intervention was advanced while the general inadvisability of the state’s interfering with conditions of work was upheld.
  1. The employment of children under 9 was prohibited except in silk factories;
  2. Children aged from 9 to 12 were to work a maximum of 9 hours a day and no more than 48 hours a week;
  3. Youths from 13 to 18 to work a maximum of 12 hours a day and no more than 69 hours a week;
  4. Children from 9 to 11 (later raised to 13) were to have two hours of compulsory education every day;
  5. The first four factory inspectors were appointed.
In practice the Act was widely evaded. The schools often taught very little and manufacturers were averse to filling in the necessary forms. (No change there, then!) On the rare occasion when they were fined, the fines were set very low. Age regulations were widely evaded, sometimes with active parental connivance. Because large factories were more amenable to inspection, there was probably a shift of business to smaller workshops and therefore a possible increase in sweated labour.

The Mines Act

Nevertheless, the very operation of the Act brought abuses to light. The state was changing. The Mines Act of 1842 followed a Royal Commission into mining conditions, which revealed harrowing work conditions that also offended Victorian notions of modesty. The Act prohibited women and girls and boys under 10 from being employed underground. Inspectors of mines were appointed.

This depiction of a young girl pulling a truck shocked
Victorian humanitarian sentiment but also
Victorian morality.

The Factory Act of 1844, introduced by the Tory Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, applied to textile factories and laid down that women and youths and girls between 13 and 18 were not to work more than 12 hours a day. Hours of work for children under 13 were reduced from 9 to 6.5 hours. By this time adult females were also defined as ‘unfree agents’.

In 1847 the Ten Hours Act was passed, restricting the hours of women and young persons. It was guided through Parliament by the mill owner, John Fielden, and the Yorkshire Tory squire Busfield Ferrand, against a background of agitation which recalled the great excitements of 1832-33. By this time the injunctions of the Act were already commonplace as a trade recession had already reduced the hours of work in northern mills. When the economy picked up, mill owners were able to avoid the intentions of the new statute by the use of gangs, relay systems and shifts.


  1. Whig and Tory governments were slowly extending the role of the state into areas that were previously the concern of private industry. 
  2. But it was a halting process and adult males remained outside the legal protection of the Acts.

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