Factory Reform: The problem and the 1833 Act

 

The industrial revolution cannot be viewed as a simple transition from an agricultural and domestic economy to one dominated by factory regimes but rather as a restructuring of economy and society equivalent to that of the 1920s and 1930s and which entailed the decline of old industries as much as the growth of new ones. For individual workers this meant the abandoning of old skills as well as the development of new ones, while increasing regional specialisation of industry created differing impacts from one locality to another. Although contemporaries placed considerable emphasis on the development of large-scale factory production, domestic production and small workshops dominated manufacture until the mid-nineteenth century [1].

The Factory problem

Technological change and the development of new work conditions had gained sufficient strength by the 1830’s to necessitate a serious and sustained effort by the state to regulate their application. Both employers and workers believed themselves locked into a system of attitudes, actions and responses. Employers regarded their position as defined by the laws of a competitive market of which they had no control. Insensitive, repressive and largely indifferent to the conditions of their workers, many were motivated by a belief in profit, a belief buttressed by their subversion of religious piety.  Endemic drunkenness among the workforce, as escape from these pressures, seemed to confirm employer belief that the workforce could and would not respond to better treatment.  These attitudes percolated down into the workforce itself and there is ample evidence of the exploitation of and cruelty towards workers, especially children, by fellow workers.  Masters and workers had been related to each other by simple contract and face-to-face contact  but industrialisation had created a new set of relationship patterns. Workers had become ‘operatives’, human extensions of new technology, ‘dehumanised’ and ‘dehumanising‘.

By no means were all factories similar and there was a wide range of work experience within any one factory unit. Many late eighteenth and early nineteenth century textile mills were rural and recruited labour from the local domestic industries. Families often moved together to a new factory so that all members of a household could gain employment. A weaver used to the workings of a small weaving shed would be familiar with many aspects of the work environment — if not the scale — within a factory. Boys would probably be apprenticed to weaving, power spinning or in the machine shop; girls might work in the carding room before moving to other low-technology jobs within the mill. Generally, as new technology was adopted, men took control of the new processes in spinning and weaving while women were left with the older machines and more poorly paid jobs.

Increasingly, as factories moved to steam-powered sites, the labour force moved from rural mills to towns. The new large urban mills offered greater opportunities and a wider range of employment in towns was some insurance against recession and unemployment. But factory work altered labourers’ lives in a variety of ways. Most obvious was the loss of freedom and independence, especially for men who had previously been their own masters. Factory workers could no longer intersperse industrial work with agricultural labour or other activities. Many factory masters introduced rigid and draconian regulations to keep the workforce at their machines for long hours and to break their irregular work patterns.

The Ten Hour Movement and the 1833 Factory Act

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. 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:

  1. 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 both their social status and their incomes.
  2. Some pioneers of social medicine drew attention to the pernicious effects of factory labour on health.
  3. Northern clergymen played important roles in successive factory campaigns. Both clergymen of the old High Church tradition and those tinged with new Evangelical enthusiasm took part. Oastler wrote in 1836 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….’

The Health and Morals of Apprentices Act 1802 was extended in 1819 from pauper apprentices to cover all cotton factory children restricting them to twelve hours daily labour.  A further burst of agitation in the 1820s by the cotton spinners led only to John Cam Hobhouse obtaining minor improvements to existing legislation in 1825 and 1829, as the Lancashire cotton operatives 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’. Most of the founders of the Ten Hour Movement were Tories and Anglicans from northern industrial towns, committed to a romantic and paternalistic model of society which, if necessary, might be promoted through state intervention. 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.  It is possible to identify four principal pressure groups in favour of factory reform[2]:

  1. 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 used to 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 opposed 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Romantics like 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.
  4. 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.

During the winter of 1830-1 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. Pamphlets, petitions and tracts were issued by the thousand, as ‘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 (1830-32 also saw the agitation for parliamentary reform) and put aside their hostility 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[3].

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, 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 1833 report was somewhat 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 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 their support of the industrial poor than Whig Radicals. This alliance was weakened by the reform agitation of 1831-2  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.  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 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
  • four Factory Inspectors were appointed to enforce the Act

It was confined to children’s work and applied only to textile mills but it did establish a small inspectorate to enforce the legislation. Inspection was the prime condition of effectiveness  making enforcement possible and, perhaps in the early stages  more importantly, providing a continuous stream of information about the conditions of workers in a range of industries.  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. 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] The  shortest introduction to factory reform is U. Henriques The  Early Factory Acts and their Enforcement, The Historical Association, 1971. J.T. Ward  The Factory Movement 1830-1850, Macmillan, 1962 is the most detailed study though it has, in part, been superseded by R. Gray The Factory Question and Industrial England 1830-1860, CUP, 1996.  C. Driver Tory Radical: A Life of Richard Oastler, OUP, 1946 and A. Weaver John Fielden and the Politics of Popular Radicalism 1832-1847, OUP, 1987 are useful biographies which go beyond factory reform.  Geoffrey  Finlayson The Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury 1801-1885, Methuen, 1981 is a detailed biography  which contains much on factory conditions. Clark Nardinelli Child Labour and the Industrial Revolution, Indiana University Press, 1990 examines the most contentious of the questions surrounding factory conditions. J.T. Ward (ed.) The Factory System, two volumes, David & Charles, 1970 contains primary material.

[2] P. Horn Children’s Work and Welfare 1780-1880s, Macmillan 1994 and Eric Hopkins Childhood Transformed. Working Class Children in Nineteenth Century England, Manchester University Press, 1994 are excellent on child labour. They need to be considered in relation to the contested study by Clark Nardinelli Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution, Bloomington, 1990.

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

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