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Michael Thomas Sadler (1780-1835)

Taken from Sir Lesley Stephen & Sir Sidney Lee (eds.), Dictionary of National Biography: from the earliest times to 1900 (London, Oxford University Press, 1949).

Michael SadlerMichael Sadler, a social reformer and political economist, was born at Snelston, Derbyshire, on 3 January 1780. He was the youngest son of James Sadler of the Old Hall, Doveridge. According to tradition his family came from Warwickshire, and was descended from Sir Ralph Sadler. His mother was the daughter of Michael Ferrebee (student of Christ Church, Oxford, 1722, and afterwards rector of Rolleston, Staffordshire), whose father was a Huguenot. Sadler received his early training from Mr. Harrison of Doveridge, and while at school showed a special aptitude for mathematics, but from his fifteenth year he was practically self-taught, acquiring in his father's library a wide but desultory knowledge of classical and modern literature. His family, though members of the Church of England, were in sympathy with the Methodist movement, and suffered obloquy in consequence. Mary Howitt, who lived at Uttoxeter, wrote in her autobiography that the Sadlers, who were the first to bring the methodists into that district, ‘were most earnest in the new faith, and a son named Michael Thomas, not then twenty, a youth of great eloquence and talent, preached sermons and was stoned for it.’ ‘The boy preacher’ (Mrs. Howitt continues) ‘wrote a stinging pamphlet (‘An Apology for the Methodists,’ 1797) that was widely circulated. It shamed his persecutors and almost wrung an apology from them. His gentlemanly bearing, handsome dress, intelligent face, and pleasant voice, we thought most unlike the usual Uttoxeter type.’

In 1800 Sadler was established by his father in the firm of his elder brother, Benjamin, at Leeds, and in 1810 the two brothers entered into partnership with the widow of Samuel Fenton, an importer of Irish linens in that town. In 1816 he married Ann Fenton, the daughter of his partner and the representative of an old Leeds family.

Sadler, who had no liking for business, soon took an active part in public life, especially in the administration of the poor law, serving as honorary treasurer of the poor rates. An enthusiastic tory, he expressed his political convictions in a speech, widely circulated at the time, which he delivered against catholic emancipation at a town's meeting in Leeds in 1813. In 1817 he published his First Letter to a Reformer, in reply to a pamphlet in which Walter Fawkes of Farnley had advocated a scheme of political reform. But Sadler concentrated his chief attention on economic questions, and read papers on such subjects to the Leeds Literary and Philosophical Society, of which he was one of the founders.

The general distress and his personal experience of poor-law administration led him to examine the principles which should govern the relief of destitution from public funds. Growing anxiety about Irish affairs and the proceedings of the emigration committee in 1827 next drew his attention to the condition of the poor in Ireland, with which country his business brought him into close connection; but as early as 1823 his friend, the Rev. G. S. Bull (afterwards a leader of the agitation for the Ten-hour Bill), found him deeply moved by the condition of the children employed in factories. His reputation in the West Riding rapidly spread. Charlotte Brontë, writing at Haworth in 1829, says that in December 1827, when she and her sisters played their game of the ‘Islanders,’ each choosing who should be the great men of their islands, one of the three selected by Ann Brontë was Michael Sadler.

In 1828 he published the best-written of his books, ‘Ireland: its Evils and their Remedies,’ which is in effect a protest against the application of individualistic political economy to the problems of Irish distress. His chief proposal was the establishment of a poor law for Ireland on the principle that in proportion to its means ‘wealth should be compelled to assist destitute poverty, but that, dissimilar to English practice, assistance should in all cases, except in those of actual incapacity from age or disease, be connected with labour’. He closely followed the argument of Dr. Woodward, bishop of Cloyne (An Argument in support of the Right of the Poor in the Kingdom of Ireland to a National Provision, 1768). Sadler's book was well received. Bishop Copleston of Llandaff wrote of it to him in terms of warm approval.

Sadler now found himself a leader in the reaction against the individualistic principles which underlay the Ricardian doctrines, and he essayed the discussion of the more abstract points of political economy, a task for which he was indifferently equipped. He protested that in a society in which persons enjoyed unequal measures of economic freedom, it was not true that the individual pursuit of self-interest would necessarily lead to collective well-being. His point of view was that of the Christian socialist. He held that individual effort needed to be restrained and guided by the conscience of the community acting through the organisation of the state; and that economic well-being could be secured by moralising the existing order of society without greatly altering the basis of political power. He first addressed himself to an attempted refutation of Malthus, issuing his ‘Law of Population: a Treatise in Disproof of the Super-fecundity of Human Beings and developing the Real Principle of their Increase’ (1830). Here Sadler advanced the theory that ‘the prolificness of human beings, otherwise similarly circumstanced, varies inversely as their numbers.’ In the Edinburgh Review for July 1830 Macaulay triumphantly reduced the new law to an absurdity. In replying to his critic, Sadler denied that he had used the fatal word ‘inversely’ in a strictly mathematical sense, and admitted that the problem of population was too complex to admit at present of the establishment of an undeviating law. Party feeling ran too high for dispassionate criticism, and Macaulay's rejoinder vituperatively renewed the controversy on the old ground.

In March 1829 Sadler offered himself as tory candidate for Newark at the suggestion of the Duke of Newcastle. He was elected by a majority of 214 votes over Serjeant Wilde (afterwards Lord-chancellor Truro). Soon after taking his seat he delivered a speech against the Roman Catholic Relief Bill, which gave him high rank among the parliamentary speakers of the day. Of this and a second speech on the same subject half a million copies were circulated. Sir James Mackintosh told Zachary Macaulay at the time ‘that Sadler was a great man, but he appears to me to have been used to a favourable auditory.’ At the general election in 1830 Sadler was again returned for Newark. On 18 April 1831 he seconded General Gascoyne's motion for retaining the existing number of members for England and Wales, and the carrying of this amendment against Lord Grey's ministry led to the dissolution of parliament. Newark having become an uncertain seat, Sadler, at the suggestion of the Duke of Newcastle, stood and was returned for Aldborough in Yorkshire.

He now devoted himself in the House to questions of social reform. In June 1830 he had moved a resolution in favour of the establishment of a poor law for Ireland on the principle of the 43rd of Queen Elizabeth, with such alterations and improvements as the needs of Ireland required. A second resolution of his to a similar effect, moved on 29 August 1831, was lost by only twelve votes, a division which ministers acknowledged to be equivalent to defeat. The Irish Poor Law Act, however, was not passed till 1838.

In October 1831 Sadler moved a resolution for bettering the condition of the agricultural poor in England. He ascribed the degradation of the labourers to the growth of large farms which had caused the eviction of small holders, and to flagrant injustice committed in the enclosure of commons. He proposed

  1. the erection of suitable cottages by the parish authorities, the latter to be allowed to borrow from government to meet the capital outlay;
  2. the provision of allotments large enough to feed a cow, to be let, at the rents currently charged for such land in the locality, to deserving labourers who had endeavoured to bring up their families without parochial relief;
  3. the offer of sufficient garden ground at fair rents to encourage horticulture among the labourers; and
  4. the provision of parish allotments for spade cultivation by unemployed labourers

In September 1830 Sadler's friend Richard Oastler had called public attention to the overwork of children in the worsted mills of the West Riding. The agitation for legislative interference quickly spread, and in 1831 Sir J. C. Hobhouse (afterwards Baron Broughton) and Lord Morpeth introduced a bill for restricting the working hours of persons under eighteen years of age, employed in factories, to a maximum (excluding allowance for meals) of ten hours a day, with the added condition that no child under nine years should be employed. Sadler supported the bill, though he was prepared to go far beyond it. In the meantime alarm spread among many of the manufacturers, and, yielding to their pressure, Hobhouse consented to seriously modify his bill. But Oastler pursued his agitation for ‘ten hours a day and a time-book,’ and agreed with the radical working-men's committees to allow no political or sectarian differences to interfere with efforts for factory reform. Sadler was chosen as the parliamentary leader of the cause. He especially resented Hobhouse's attitude, and wrote on 20 November 1831 that the latter had ‘not only conceded his bill but his very views and judgment’ to the economists, ‘the pests of society and the persecutors of the poor.’ The economists were not all opposed to legislative control of child labour in factories. Both Malthus and, later, McCulloch approved it in principle. Hobhouse, however, regarded it as hopeless to make an effort at that time for a Ten-hour Bill, and deprecated immediate action. Nevertheless Sadler, on 15 December 1831, obtained leave to bring in a bill ‘for regulating the labour of children and young persons in the mills and factories of this country.’ He moved the second reading on 16 March 1832, and his speech was published. He argued that ‘the employer and employed do not meet on equal terms in the market of labour,’ and described in detail the sufferings endured by children in the factories. His speech deeply moved the House of Commons and the nation.

The main features of Sadler's bill were ‘to prohibit the labour of infants under nine years; to limit the actual work, from nine to eighteen years of age, to ten hours daily, exclusive of time allowed for meals, with an abatement of two hours on Saturday, and to forbid all night work under the age of twenty-one.’ He had intended to insert clauses

  1. ‘subjecting the millowners or occupiers to a heavy fine when any serious accident occurred in consequence of any negligence in not properly sheathing or defending the machinery,’ and
  2. proposing ‘a remission of an hour from each day's labour for children under fourteen, or otherwise of six hours on one day in each week, for the purpose of affording them some opportunity of receiving the rudiments of instruction.’

He had also contemplated a further clause putting down night work altogether. But, not to endanger the principal object which he had in view, and ‘regarding the present attempt as the commencement only of a series of measures in behalf of the industrious classes,’ he had confined his measure within narrower limits. The reply to Sadler was that his statements were exaggerated, and that a committee should investigate his facts. Sadler consented to an inquiry, and the bill, after being read a second time, was referred to a committee of thirty members, to whom seven more were afterwards added. The committee included Sadler as chairman, Lord Morpeth, Sir J. C. Hobhouse, Sir Robert Peel, Sir Robert Inglis, and Messrs. Poulet Thomson and Fowell Buxton. It held its first sitting on 12 April 1832, met forty-three times, and examined eighty-nine witnesses.

About half the witnesses were workpeople. The appearance of these working-class witnesses was much resented by some of the employers, and on 30 July 1832 Sadler addressed the House of Commons on behalf of two of them who had been dismissed from their employment for giving evidence, and prayed for compensation. Among the physicians summoned before the committee were Sir Anthony Carlisle, Dr. Thomas Hodgkin, Dr. P. M. Roget, Sir W. Blizard, and Sir Charles Bell, who all condemned the existing arrangements. The committee reported the minutes of evidence on 8 August 1832. The report impressed the public with the gravity of the question. Even Lord Ashley had heard nothing of the matter until extracts from the evidence appeared in the newspapers. J. R. McCulloch, the economist, writing to Lord Ashley on 28 March 1833, said: ‘I look upon the facts disclosed in the late report (i.e. of Sadler's committee) as most disgraceful to the nation, and I confess that until I read it I could not have conceived it possible that such enormities were committed’. The chief burden of the work and of the collection of evidence fell on Sadler, and his health never recovered from the strain.

Sadler had been one of the chief speakers at the great county meeting which Oastler organised at York on 24 April 1832 to demonstrate to parliament the strength of public opinion in favour of a ten-hour bill. Later in the year, sixteen thousand persons assembled in Fixby Park, near Huddersfield, to thank him for his efforts in the committee. At Manchester, on 23 August, over 100,000 persons are said to have been present at a demonstration held in honour of him and Oastler, and in support of the agitation for the bill. His parliamentary career, however, had drawn to a close. Aldborough, for which he sat, was deprived of its member by the Reform Bill of 1832, and, at the dissolution in December, he declined other offers in order to stand for Leeds. His chief opponent was Macaulay, who defeated him by 388 votes. The fight was a bitter one. In 1834 Sadler stood unsuccessfully for Huddersfield, but failing health compelled him to decline all later invitations. After his rejection for Leeds, his place as parliamentary leader of the ten-hour movement was taken, in February 1833, by Lord Ashley, who never failed to recall the services previously rendered by Sadler to the cause.

The manufacturers complained that, when the session of 1832 ended, they had not had time to open their case before Sadler's committee. Accordingly in 1833 the government appointed a royal commission to collect information in the manufacturing districts with respect to the employment of children in factories. In May Sadler published a ‘Protest against the Secret Proceedings of the Factory Commission in Leeds,’ urging that the inquiry should be open and public; and in June renewed his protest in a Reply to the Two Letters of J. E. Drinkwater and Alfred Power, Esqs., Factory Commissioners. After this, his health failed, and he took no further part in public affairs. Retiring in 1834 to Belfast, where his firm had linen works, he died at New Lodge on 29 July 1835, aged 55. He was buried in the churchyard of Ballylesson.

See also Sadler's poem The Factory Girl's Last Day
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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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