ON the face of it, Richard Oastler wasn’t the obvious candidate to become a reforming radical. Born in 1789. the youngest of ten children of a linen merchant and his wife, and living in St Peter’s Square, Leeds, he grew up to be a dedicated Tory who was set against parliamentary reform and trades unions.
In 1820 Oastler, having failed to become a barrister due to failing eyesight, succeeded his father as steward to Thomas Thornhill’s estate at Fixby Hall near Huddersfield.
Until 1830 he led an unremarkable life, but in that year he met John Wood, a worsted manufacturer from Bradford who agonised over the need to employ children in his factory.
Already an abolitionist and great supporter of William Wilberforce’s work to end slavery in the colonies, Oastler decided to join the struggle for factory legislation that would eventually change the lives of millions of children and adults working in intolerable conditions across Britain.
From the day of that chance meeting with Wood, Oastler dedicated himself to improving the lives of those, some as young as seven years old, who ground out a living in the dusty, fibre-filled, noisy mills and factories of Yorkshire and beyond.
He started the campaign that would lead to him being dubbed ‘The Factory King’ by writing a passionate and vitriolic letter to The Leeds Mercury (later to become the Yorkshire Evening Post), lambasting Britain as a country of God-fearing and temperance-observing paternalism which nonetheless exploited children on the altar of commercial avarice (see panel).
Radical MP John Hobhouse read the letter, and was prompted to introduce a child labour bill in the Commons which would have banned all factory work for children under nine and limited those between nine and 18 to 12 hours a day, 66 hours a week.
Parliament was dissolved before the bill could be passed and when Hobhouse reintroduced it in modified form in 1831, it applied only to cotton factories and with no provision for its enforcement. Oastler organised Ten-Hour Bill committees in mill towns and cities, and by 1836 had roused workers to use strikes and sabotage to achieve their ends.
During this period of rabble-rousing, Oastler was still Thornhill’s steward, but his employer grew increasingly disapproving and irate.
In 1838 he sacked Oastler and called in unpaid debts (he had funded the campaign largely out of his own pocket) which Oastler couldn’t pay.
He was jailed for debt in 1840 and it took his friends and supporters three years to raise the necessary funds to pay of the debts and secure his release.
Oastler wasn’t idle while he was inside Fleet Prison, publishing weekly papers to further the campaign. However it was not until after his death in a Harrogate hotel in 1861 (he is buried in the churchyard of Kirkstall St Stephen’s Parish Church in Leeds) that the 1847 Factory Act was widened to encompass children working in all factories, not just cotton mills.
Dr John Hargreaves, visiting research fellow at Huddersfield University, has edited a new collection of essays by leading historians on the life, work and significance of Richard Oastler, says the campaigner’s gift lay in how he drew an analogy with enslaved people in this country associated only with lands thousands of miles away.
The shock value lay in how he woke everyone up to living within a mile or two of young children working very long hours in barbaric and unhealthy conditions with few, if any, breaks for fresh air and food.
“It was a stroke of genius that he compared the mills and factories of West Yorkshire with the appalling conditions in fields and plantations in the colonies.
“Children were working 14-hour days and had done so every since the factory system had begun in the late 18th century.
“There were stories of youngsters being burned and maimed in factory accidents.
“Children were often used to crawl into spaces where adults could not go, and they were particularly prone to the dangers of moving machinery,” says Dr Hargreaves. “They were also prone to abuse from overseers who would beat them.”
In evidence given to a select committee on factories in 1833, a crippled 17-year-old, called Joseph Habergam, testified to having worked in factories in Huddersfield from the age of seven, and revealed a terrifying catalogue of abuse. Shocked committee members heard how he had been one of a group of around 50 children who had often been “sick and poorly as a result of excessive labour” at Bradley Mill, and how around a dozen of those children died shortly after leaving work.
When Habergam heard about the lives of slaves in the West Indies, he’s documented to have said: “There could not be worse slaves than those who worked in factories in Huddersfield.”
There is evidence that between 1821 and 1850 nearly 60 per cent of working class boys were in the workforce, despite increasing factory mechanisation.
The campaign spearheaded by Richard Oastler led the way to much bigger improvements in working conditions in factories, and to the introduction of what today is called health and safety legislation.
“In so far as you can judge public opinion at the time, Oastler had many supporters,” says Dr Hargreaves. “When he returned to Yorkshire after his release from prison reports tell of an ecstatic reception for him by crowds of ordinary people. In a sense he took over where William Wilberforce left off and he was a maverick who took on the cause because he could see that the treatment of children in mills and factories was inhumane and immoral.
“One of the reasons I’m pleased to have been involved with the book is that we live an age when a whole generation of children is coming through who have not experienced a world of textile mills and manufacturing. But they are a vital part of our history, as are prominent figures, like Richard Oastler, who are associated with those times.”
Although his name is not as widely known as that of William Wilberforce, Richard Oastler’s important work has been publicly recognised in Yorkshire. In Northgate, Bradford, a statue of Oastler with two children, sculpted in bronze by John Birnie Philip was funded by national subscription and unveiled by the great political reformer Lord Shaftesbury in 1869. A school in Armley, Leeds and A pub in Park Street Market, Brighouse also bear his name, and there is a memorial to him in Leeds Minster.
Slavery in Yorkshire: Richard Oastler and the campaign against child labour in the Industrial Revolution is published by the University of Huddersfield Press – Queensgate, Huddersfield HD1 3DH ([email protected]) and from www.store.hud.ac.uk. Price £20.
The letter that started the campaign
From a letter to The Leeds Mercury by Richard Oastler, published on October 16, 1830:
‘Let truth speak out, appalling as the statement may appear. Thousands of our fellow creatures and fellow subjects, both male and female, the miserable inhabitants of a Yorkshire town, are this very moment existing in a stage of slavery more horrid than are victims of that hellish system ‘Colonial Slavery’. These innocent creatures drawl out unpitied their short but miserable existence in a place famed for its profession of religious zeal, whose inhabitants are ever foremost in professing Temperance and Reformation, and are striving to outrun their neighbours in Missionary exertions and would fain send the Bible to the farthest corner of the globe... The very streets which receive the droppings of an Anti-Slavery Society are every morning wet by the tears of innocent victims at the accursed shrine of avarice, who are compelled not by the cart whip or the negro slave-driver but by the dread of the equally appalling thong or the strap of the overlooker, to hasten, half-dressed, not half-fed, to those magazines of British infantile slavery – the worsted mills in the town and neighbourhood of Bradford. Thousands of little children, both male and female, but principally female, from SEVEN to fourteen years of age, are daily compelled to labour from six o’clock in the morning to seven in the evening...Poor infants! Ye are indeed sacrificed at the shrine of avarice, without even the solace of the negro slave; ...ye are compelled to work as long as the necessity of your needy parents may require, or the cold-blooded avarice of your worse than barbarian masters may demand!’