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Richard Oastler was born in St. Peter's Square, Leeds, on 20 December 1789. He was the son of Robert Oastler and one of the daughters of Joseph Scurr of Leeds: Oastler was the youngest of eight children born to the couple. Robert Oastler originally was a linen merchant in Thirsk; he then moved to Leeds and became steward of the Fixby estates in Huddersfield. These were the property of the Thornhills of Riddlesworth in Norfolk. Robert Oastler was disinherited by his father for becoming a Methodist - Oastler was one of the earliest followers of John Wesley, who frequently stayed at his house when he visited Yorkshire.
Richard Oastler was educated at the Moravian school at Fulnek; he wanted to become a barrister; but instead, he was articled to the architect Charles Watson in Wakefield. Oastler was a powerfully built man, over six feet tall, and had a commanding presence. His voice was - according to Trollope - ‘stentorian in its power and yet flexible, with a flow of language rapid and abundant’. He suffered from a vision problem and was forced to give up his career as an architect; instead, he became a commission agent, and by sheer hard work, accumulated considerable wealth. On 16 October 1816, Oastler married Mary Tatham of Nottingham. She died at Headingley (Leeds) on 12 June 1845, and was buried at Kirkstall. Oastler's two children by her, Sarah and Robert, both died in infancy. After his wife's death Oastler lived at South Hill Cottage, Guildford, Surrey.
Oastler's father died in July 1820 and Thomas Thornhill - the absentee landowner - appointed him to the stewardship at a salary of £300 a year. Oastler moved from Leeds to Fixby Hall on 5 January 1821 and devoted himself to his new duties. The estate contained at that time nearly one thousand tenants, many of them occupying very small tenures.
Oastler was an Anglican, Tory, and a protectionist, who by the 1820s was well known in the West Riding. Since 1807 he had been an advocate of the abolition of slavery in the West Indies. He also supported Queen Caroline and opposed Roman Catholic emancipation. On 29 September 1830 John Wood of Horton Hall, a Bradford manufacturer who had introduced many reforms into his factory, told Oastler of the evils of children's employment in the Bradford district, and made Oastler promise to work towards removing them. Oastler said that he 'had been on terms of intimacy and of friendship with many factory masters, and ... all the while fancied that factories were blessings to the poor’. On the same day as Wood spoke to him about factory conditions, Oastler wrote a letter to the Leeds Mercury called ‘Yorkshire Slavery’ in which he described what he had been told. Oastler's statements were met with denial and criticism from the factory owners.
In a letter called ‘Slavery in Yorkshire’in the Leeds Intelligencer on 20 October 1831, addressed ‘to the working classes of the West Riding’, Oastler urged voters to use their influence 'to prevent any man being returned who will not distinctly and unequivocally pledge himself to support a “Ten-Hours-a-day and a Time-book Bill."’ He also formed the ‘Fixby Hall Compact’ with the working men of Huddersfield, by which they agreed to work together for the reduction of working hours. Oastler was also in constant correspondence with Michael Sadler, the parliamentary leader of the movement. The introduction of Sadler's Factory Bill was followed by numerous meetings at which Oastler advocated the claims of the children. He was examined at length by the Select Committee on Sadler's Bill. He was responsible for organising a meeting on 24 April 1832 when thousands of working people from the clothing districts joined in a ‘pilgrimage of mercy' to York in favour of the bill. His opponents nicknamed him ‘the factory king,’ a title by which he soon became known throughout Lancashire and Yorkshire.
On 23 February 1833 Oastler addressed a meeting at the City of London Tavern, convened by the London society for the improvement of the factory children. This was the first meeting held in London, and was the first under the parliamentary leadership of Lord Ashley. After the defeat of Ashley's bill and the passing of the mild government measure known as Lord Althorp's Act, Oastler continued to write and speak in favour of a ten-hours day.
Thomson's bill to allow twelve year olds to be employed for eight hours a day caused a fresh outburst of activity, during which Oastler went from town to town addressing meetings. On 15 September 1836 at the Blackburn meeting organised by the short time committee, he accused the magistrates of refusing to enforce the Factory Acts and threatened to teach the children to ‘apply their grandmothers' old knitting-needles to the spindles’ if the magistrates refused to listen to their complaints. This provoked criticism so Oastler published a pamphlet, ‘The Law and the Needle,’ in which he justified himself on the grounds that if the magistrates refused to put the law into execution for the protection of children, there was no remedy but an appeal to force.
Meanwhile Oastler's views on the new Poor Law were involving him in serious difficulties. He believed that the powers with which parliament had invested the Poor Law Commissioners for the supply of the factory districts with labourers from the agricultural counties would lead to a fall in wages and a deterioration in conditions for the working classes. He objected to the new poor law on the grounds that it severed the connection between ratepayers and their dependents, and undermined the parochial system. Another of his objections to the new poor law was that it would prove fatal to the interests of the Church and the landed proprietors, and that the repeal of the corn laws would inevitably follow its enactment. He defined his Toryism to the Duke of Wellington as ‘a place for everything, and everything in its place.’ He hated ‘Liberal philosophy,’ and was bitterly opposed to the Whig manufacturers. When he resisted the commissioners in Fixby, Frankland Lewis, on their behalf, asked Thornhill to assist them in enforcing the law. Until this time, Thornhill had regarded Oastler's public work with approval and had introduced Oastler to several statesmen including the Duke of Wellington, with whom Oastler carried on a long correspondence. However, Thornhill would not support Oastler's opposition to the poor-law commissioners and discharged him on 28 May 1838.
Oastler moved to Brompton and was supported by the gifts of anonymous friends in Lancashire and Yorkshire; however, Oastler owed Thornhill £2,000 and Thornhill sued him to recover it. The case was tried on 10 July 1840 in the Court of Common Pleas before Lord Chief Justice Tindal. Judgment was given against Oastler who was nable to pay the debt. On 9 December 1840 Oastler was sent to the Fleet (debtors') Prison where he remained for more than three years.
Presentation Wax Sealer. The inscription on the holder says
Presented to Richard Oastler as a mark of respect for his powerful & manly advocacyof the Rights of the Poor By An Admirer Of His Principles March 25th 1841.
The seal inscription is "The Altar, The Throne and The Cottage", which was Oastler's motto in his factory campaign.
My grateful thanks go to John Molloy, the owner of this wax sealer, for his gracious permission to use the images. Mr Molloy says,
"I purchased this at a small local estate auction in upstate N.Y and thought perhaps he was a local. I wonder if there is any connection between him and the anonymous giver. It was purchased in Seneca Falls N.Y. — the Birthplace of The Womans Rights Movement. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer and people such as Frederick Douglas were involved in that first Convention that took place there."
Although he was in prison, it did not mean that Oastler was not active. On 2 January 1841 he published the first of The Fleet Papers: Letters to Thomas Thornhill Esquire of Riddlesworth from Richard Oastler his prisoner in the Fleet. With occasional Communications from Friends. The letters appeared weekly: in them, Oastler pleaded the cause of the factory workers, denounced the new poor law and defended the corn laws. The publications were very important in influencing public opinion. ‘Oastler Committees’ were formed in Manchester and other places to help him and ‘Oastler Festivals' were arranged by working men - the proceeds of which were forwarded to him.
In 1842 an ‘Oastler Liberation Fund’ was started and at the end of 1843 it amounted to £2,500. Some of Oastler's friends guaranteed the remaining sum necessary for his release and in February 1844 he was freed. He made a public entry into Huddersfield on 20 February. From then until 1847 he continued to agitate for a ten-hours day but with the passing of Lord Ashley's Ten Hour Act his public career practically ended. He died at Harrogate on 22 August 1861 and was buried in Kirkstall churchyard. A stained-glass window was erected to his memory in 1864 in St. Stephen's Church, Kirkstall.
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