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Why was factory legislation so slow to appear and take effect in the period 1830-50?

Primarily factory legislation was so slow to appear and so haphazardly implemented because the legislation was so inexorably linked to the Corn Law debate. This deadlock neatly epitomised the ever increasing conflicts between the two Englands: the industrial middle classes and the agrarian upper classes. Peel, who was imbued with the qualities and values of both classes, had already pointed out that the industrialists were the 'more prosperous interests', and, as such, they were using this power to block factory legislation as a privilege. Legislation was also hindered because other items, especially foreign policy, were simply more important.

Because of the intrinsic connection between the Corn Laws and factory legislation Peel felt himself unable to pass one without considering the future of the other. Consequently he emerged as an uncaring character, or, in the words of Shaftesbury, "an iceberg with a slight thaw on the surface". Peel often manifested himself as an unemotional megalomaniac, and perhaps deservedly so, but in this instance the criticism was probably unjustified. It is ironic that people criticised his actions over this question when the majority of the people who either supported repeal of the Corn Laws or factory improvements were so selfishly motivated. The middle classes were in favour of repeal because the infamous bread tax was restricting the output of their manufactures because fewer people could afford to buy the goods; not because of the adverse effects it had upon the working classes. Similarly, the upper classes were prepared to rally for factory reform but only if it meant that they could uphold the Corn Laws which arguably did as much harm as the unethical factory conditions. In order to avoid a clash between both these interests, Peel decided to leave both subjects well alone. Consequently, he was able to rely upon the free traders and his party to block both Shaftesbury's Ten-Hour clause in 1844 and his Bill in 1846.

Another problem facing the factory reformers was their lack of representation in parliament. Until Shaftesbury and Fielden chose to take up the cause there had been no-one apart from Michael Sadler and it would not be untrue to say that this was due to the fact that very few people in parliament were aware of the appalling conditions. Unfortunately Shaftesbury was not ideally suited for the post as he had an unusual talent for upsetting virtually all parties concerned. Joseph Rayner Stephens was just one of the people he angered: "the unsteadiness, time-serving and tergiversation of Lord Ashley [is] inglorious, inconsistent, miserable [and] contemptible". There were also limitations to what Shaftesbury could do because he did not have Peel's backing. Perhaps it was not such a bad thing, then, when Shaftesbury resigned in 1846 after the rejection of his Bill. Fielden, the Todmorden factory owner, succeeded him as leader of the factory cause in parliament but he too failed to pass a Bill just five months after Shaftesbury's failure.

Other notable reasons for the lack of factory legislation were the government's laissez faire attitude and the influence of Nassau Senior. The government was unwilling to do anything about the conditions in factories because it felt that it did not have the right to interfere with a person's private affairs. It seems likely that if parliament had been more aware of the conditions more would have been done. However, the reliability of most information concerning factory conditions was highly dubious. Of particularly unreliable character were the alleged autobiographies of child labourers; for example those provided by Robert Blinko or William Dodd and James Miles. The fact that these children were educated enough to write these autobiographies is a complete paradox of the campaigners' argument that the children both required an education and time away from work in which to learn. Clearly these children must have worked sufficiently short hours for them to have had enough energy to do their schooling and for them to produce such books.

The other first hand information of the conditions come, again, from children or parents who agreed to be witnesses before the Short-Time Committee. These were equally suspect as the 'autobiographies' because the labourers had clearly been primed and had thus had the opportunity to produce a relatively heart-rending story. Few and far between were accounts from the factory owners themselves. Articles such as the "Progressive Factory Owner" in the Parliamentary Papers of 1845 were far more valuable to the cause.

Although prominent campaigners such as Sadler, Oastler and Fielden all produced either pamphlets or books, there was no special encouragement from the press to push for reform of factories. During the winter of 1830-31 Edward Baines' Leeds Mercury had actively opposed reform leaving only the Tory Intelligencer and the radical Patriot to push for voluntary reform and a ten-hour day. Without the constant interest of the papers to inform the men in high positions there was really not much chance of reform.

Another result of this lack of publicity was that the operatives were not coerced into forming a single groups which would be strong enough to badger for reform. The irregular speeches and tours made by Oastler in the early 1830s would probably have been more influential if they had been maintained over a longer period of time. As his contribution to the Ten-hour movement, Oastler encouraged workers to "instantly establish committees in every manufacturing town and village, to collect information and publish FACTS". Again, his contribution to the factory movement may have been greater if he had attempted to unite all these Short-Time Committees. Hence, just as the Chartists after them, the members of the Ten-Hour movement began to part and involve themselves with other causes. Oastler and his supporters increasingly dedicated their time and resources to the Anti-Poor Law campaign.

Nassau Senior's brainstorm that profits could only be made in the last hour of a twelve hour day proved another barrier against factory legislation. On the substance of this, free traders turned against factory reform believing that a reduction of hours would reduce productivity. Tying this up with the disproportionate number of children working in the factories, Cobbett said "If these little girls worked two hours a day less our manufacturing supremacy would depart from us". Another misapprehension of the middle classes was that it was the working classes' duty to go to work, or, as Thomas Carlyle put it in his book Past and Present, "The latest Gospel in this world is, know thy work and do it".

Another predominant factor leading to insufficient factory measures was that the period 1830-41 was, for the most part, preoccupied with the Whigs and their subsequent legislation. The first two years of Whig domination were taken up by the Reform Bill agitation. Plainly, factory reform would have been covered here because the working classes saw their enfranchisement as a panacea to all their problems.

Hot on the heels of this was the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which was nothing more than a bag of goodies for the masochistic. This piece of legislation neatly overshadowed the factory movement because of its severity. In comparison with the workhouse the factories probably seemed luxurious.

Needless to say amongst the Whig legislation was the 1833 Factory Act. This was ineffective because there were only four inspectors for the whole country and this was hardly sufficient to keep an expanding industry on its toes. Likewise, it was also ineffectively enforced because the Justices of the Peace who were meant to implement it were often factory owners themselves or if not, they were certainly in league with them. One of the most important clauses was that no child under nine years old should be allowed to work in a factory. Considering that the Registration Act was not implemented until 1837, this clause could not really prove itself to be of any use until 1845. Consequently parents who were unable to obtain work for themselves were able to evade this law and claim that their children were actually above the legal working age. The major disappointment of the Act, though, was that it only applied to children in the cotton mills, and adult working hours remained the same.

The period 1830-41 falls neatly into Palmerston's most successful years as Foreign Secretary. His enterprises in these years were all aimed at advancing Britain's prestige, so that she would 'count for something in the transactions of the world'. Consequently he satisfied himself with keeping peace in Spain, Portugal, Greece and the Middle East; saving the former two from absolutism. Following the second revolution in France in 1830 he was also preoccupied with controlling French expansionism. However, it perhaps was not the deeds which made Palmerston such a distraction, because he would have attacked a boiled egg, if it looked threatening and had a French accent, but his way of performing them. As the true personification of John Bull, he was flamboyant, egotistic and overly confident. Consequently his tendency to work by himself and discuss it with the government later proved to be very time consuming. Needless to say, the problems he caused were not nearly as impressive as those of the inimitable Earl of Aberdeen who was Foreign Secretary from 1841 to 1846. As a result, then, factory reform had to take very much a back seat.

In conclusion, factory reform was slow to come about because there was simply not enough information available. Royal Commissions which undoubtedly had examined the situation clearly appeared too late to help the cause. Even if they had made investigations the opposition of parliament and the close association factory reform had with the Corn Laws would still have made the passing of legislation difficult. Consequently, factory legislation was regarded with indifference because it was only a slight headache in a body riddled with disease.


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Last modified 5 May, 2017

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