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The Factory Question


Earlier factory legislation had aimed primarily at limiting child (that is, 'pauper' child) labour, especially in cotton factories.  In 1794 the magistrates at the Lancashire Quarter Sessions passed a resolution that makes it clear that some authorities tried to protect the children in their care by not allowing them to be apprenticed to masters who would work them for long hours.  This was before the passing of the first Factory Act.

A cotton mill

Both the 1802 Health and Morals of Apprentices Act and the 1819 Factory Act had failed to provide for an adequate inspection and enforcement of the Acts. Legislation that placed age restrictions on employment was difficult to administer prior to the 1836 Registration Act because before that, there were no birth certificates. The 1825 Hobhouse Act had allowed the employment of 'free' children beyond the legal hours if the parents of the child consented. It was difficult to differentiate between a 'pauper' and a 'free' child. By 1830, the government was made aware of a number of problems in factories, with which it intended to deal.

Factory problems

The problems which existed in factories were highlighted by the Parliamentary Select Committee of 1833 and the Royal Commission: many were identified and included

Difficulties of Reform

  1. The government continued its 18th century laissez faire attitude. The general belief was that it was wrong for the State to interfere with private rights.
  2. Many free traders believed that a reduction of hours would ruin productivity if that happened before the repeal of the Corn Laws. Nassau Senior said that profits were made in the last hour's work and his opinions proved to be very influential. William Cobbett's response was that if this argument was correct, then the industrial welfare of England appeared to be based on '30,000 little girls. If these little girls worked two hours a day less, our manufacturing supremacy would depart from us'.
  3. A contemporary cartoon of Capital and Labour

  4. There was a great deal of political hostility from the traditional landed interest towards the new industrial interest, particularly after the passing of the 1832 Reform Act.
  5. Religious controversy hindered reform. Anglicans and Dissenters disagreed over the schooling clauses for children and over concepts of evangelical paternalism. Most factory owners were Dissenters, most reformers were Anglican. The one thing on which the two groups did agree was that they did not want the other group to have the responsibility for providing education to factory children
  6. the working class was also absorbed in the counter attractions of trade unionism, Chartism, the anti-Poor Law movement and so on. Their leaders were divided and the workers did not have a single objective. The campaigners wanted a ten-hour day for all workers but had to change their tactics to that of reducing child and female labour in order to reduce men's hours. Even adult workers objected to children working long hours only because it lengthened adults' working days.

The Factory Movement in the 1830s

This concentrated on a reduction of hours for women and children as a means of reducing those of all adults, indirectly. The campaign had a strong evangelical and philanthropic drive similar to that which had motivated Wilberforce, and there were also elements of humanitarianism to be found in the campaign. To some extent, the whole 'Ten-Hour Movement' was a tangent aspect to the whole free trade debate and it became a pawn in the bigger game and rarely was discussed dispassionately. The debates of factory reform and the repeal of the Corn Laws were all part of the same question, and both causes crossed all lines of interest.  The leaders of the Factory campaign came from very different backgrounds and were united with the working man in the fight against the inhumanities of factory labour. Most had little to gain personally from this involvement. The origins of the movement were moral and religious, not economic. The Ten-Hour Campaign therefore had a moral quality and was deemed to be a crusade.

In the autumn of 1831 Oastler urged factory workers to manage Short-Time Committees themselves and 'instantly establish, committees in every manufacturing town and village, to collect information and PUBLISH FACTS'. The committees usually were composed of radical and Tory operatives and tradesmen and were financed by Anglican clergy, Tory squires and radical and Tory industrialists. The committees chose witnesses for Sadler's Select Committee which was established in 1830/31 to report on conditions in the factories. Oastler financed central funds out of his own pocket to a great extent and bankrupted himself in the process, serving a prison term for debt. The organisation of the Short-Time Committees was modelled on the Methodist circuit idea. Although John Wesley never intended it, the Methodist movement provided its members with skills which were eminently transferable into trade union activity and political agitation.

At Easter in 1832 there was a pilgrimage to York, a mass demonstration in favour of factory reform, and in July 1833 a mammoth rally was held on Wibsey Moor. In 1833, Althorp's Factory Act was passed. Sadler's speech did much to help MPs to approve the legislation.

At a meeting to discuss the need for a Ten Hours Bill, reported in the Manchester Courier in 1833, an "ultra-reformer", Mr. Condy explained why even the reformed House of Commons failed to bring in legislation controlling hours of work.  The 1833 Act was a compromise Whig Act. It did not satisfy the Ten-Hour Movement and led to working-class discontent. .  The 1833 Act was a bitter disappointment after all the work that had been put into Sadler's Committee. Also the timing was poor because in 1834

By 1835 an economic depression was beginning, which developed into the 'Hungry 40s. Economic depression undercut the movement for shorter hours and, faced with the Document, workers turned to Chartism.

Peel's Government

The factory issue was controversial because it was part of the wider battle between the 'two Englands' and centred on the conflict between the landowners who wanted factory reform and the mill owners who wanted the repeal of the Corn Laws. Many vested interests were involved. The working classes were involved in the factory movement, but not with undivided attention. They were also involved in other campaigns such as Chartism, the anti-Poor Law campaign and trade union activities.

The debate rarely concentrated on factories per se; rather it had become a pawn in the free trade economic debate. Peel threatened to resign if he was pushed into factory reform because a debate on the Corn Laws was bound to ensue. JT Ward notes that 'The Factory Movement was brought into the conflict both because its leaders were largely protectionist and because its most prominent opponents were free traders'.

A very crude differentiation may be made between the concepts of 'Old England' and 'New England' although the following table is very much an over-simplification.

"Old England"

"New England"

landed gentry

middle classes


free traders

internal legislation

internal laissez faire

agrarian based








factory reformers

opposed factory reform

Ferrand and Fielden, both of whom were MPs became more prominent and to some extent overshadowed Shaftesbury in the Commons as leaders of the factory movement in Peel's ministry. They certainly had a closer contact with factories - Fielden owned one. Neither were emotive speakers, and both were Tories.

After the failure of Graham's Factory Bill in 1843 because of the educational dispute between Anglicans and Dissenters, the government introduced a new Bill in February 1844. Children's work was limited to 6½ hours a day to allow time for schooling. Women were brought under the same protective restrictions as young persons including the limitation to twelve hours and among other safety measures, employers were compelled to fence dangerous machinery. In committee, Shaftesbury carried a clause against the government reducing the legal maximum for young persons to ten hours. The government brought in an almost identical Bill, making it an issue of confidence. When Shaftesbury again moved a ten hours amendment on the third reading of the Bill on 10 May he was defeated by 297-159 and the Bill passed.

The 1844 Factory Act was preceded by the 1843 Children's Employment Commission which revealed the long hours worked by very young children. However, the government was not prepared to further limit adult hours until the full effects of free trade had been tested and proved. In 1845, Charles Greville wrote an account of coal mining and textile manufacture in Lancashire which painted a gloomy picture. However, there were some sensible factory owners who did reduce the hours of work for their employees.

In January 1846, Shaftesbury produced his own 10-hour Bill without Peel's prior knowledge or approval. Politically, it was a very foolish move on Shaftesbury's part because Peel was involved with the Corn Law problem. The Bill failed because Peel threatened to resign as PM, and Shaftesbury resigned his seat.

In 1847 (Fielden's) Factory Act was passed by the Whigs under Russell, although the work had been done by Peel's ministry. It established a 10-hour day for all women and children. A further campaign was necessary because women and children were still worked beyond 10 hours with the result that adult male hours continued to be very long. The terms 'day' and 'night' were not defined in the 1847 Act.

In 1850 another Factory Act was passed. Shaftesbury agreed to a compromise solution whereby the working day was fixed to 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. with 1½ hours for meals: that is, a 10½ hour day. The 1853 Factory Act brought children's hours within this framework by defining their hours. By effectively restricting the hours of women and children in this way, few adult males could work beyond 10½ hours in factories, although this was not specifically stated until Disraeli's 1874 Factory Act.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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