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Stories about the lives we've made

module:Textiles: From domestic to factory production

The Industrial Revolution and the textiles industries

page:Working in childhood

To many contemporaries, one of the most horrifying features of the industrialisation was the large-scale use of child labour. Child labour was not new but, because it was more concentrated in the factories, it was more difficult to ignore.

In 1830, Richard Oastler, a land steward who would have seen something of child labour in the countryside, wrote in shock to one of the main regional papers of the period, the Leeds Mercury. In his letter he compared child labour in the textile mills to the slavery that was being campaigned against in the West Indies. The meeting at Leeds that he referred to sought to abolish slavery and this led Oastler to his famous campaigning letter. He started with a quotation from one of the speeches against slavery before attacking the 'slavery' of the factories.

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Richard Oastler's letter on 'Yorkshire slavery', 1830
    To the Editors of the Leeds Mercury, from 'A Briton', 1830
    ‘It is the pride of Britain that a slave cannot exist on her soil; and if I read the genius of her constitution aright, I find that slavery is most abhorrent to it – that the air which Britons breathed is free – the ground on which they tread is sacred to liberty’. Rev.R.W.Hamilton’s speech at the meeting held in the Cloth-hall Yard, September 22nd, 1830.
    Gentlemen, - No heart responded with truer accents to the sounds of liberty which were heard in the Leeds Cloth-hall Yard, on the 22nd instant, than did mine, … One shade alone obscured my pleasure, arising not from any difference in principle, but from the want of application of the general principle to the whole empire.
    The pious and able champions of Negro liberty and colonial rights should, if I mistake not, have gone farther than they did; or perhaps, to speak more correctly, before they had travelled so far as the West Indies, should, at least for a few moments, have sojourned in our own immediate neighbourhood, and have directed the attention of the meeting to scenes of misery, acts of oppression, and victims of slavery, even on the threshold of our homes.
    Let truth speak out, appalling as the statement may appear. The fact is true. Thousands of our fellow-creatures and fellow-subjects, both male and female, the miserable inhabitants of a Yorkshire town (Yorkshire now represented in Parliament by the giant of anti-slavery principles [fn, Henry Brougham MP for Yorkshire, 1830 and a champion of the anti-slavery movement] are this very moment existing in a state of slavery, more horrid than are the victims of that hellish system ‘colonial slavery’…’. 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 [greed], who are compelled (not by the cart-whip of the negro slave-driver) but by the dread of the equally appalling thong or strap of the over-looker, to hasten, half-dressed, but 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, with only – Britons, blush while you read it! – with only thirty minutes allowed for eating and recreation…..
    If I have succeeded in calling the attention of your readers to the horrid and abominable system on which the worsted mills in and near Bradford is conducted, I have done some good. Why should not children working in them be protected by legislative enactments, as well as those who work in cotton mills? Christians should feel and act for those whom Christ so eminently loved, and declared that ‘of such is the Kingdom of Heaven’. – I remain, yours, etc.,’
A Briton
Fixby Hall, near Huddersfield, Sept. 29, 1830
Letter to the Leeds Mercury from Richard Oastler, Fixby Hall, near Huddersfield, 29 September, 1830. Printed in the Leeds Mercury, 16 October 1830 quoted in Ward, J.T, (ed.), The Factory System, Vol 2: The Factory System and Society, David & Charles, Newton Abbot, 1970


Open question

On what grounds does Oastler attack the presence of child labour in the textile industry?

The revulsion towards mass child labour felt by people such as Oastler developed into a campaign in parliament. Opponents of child labour in the textile mills tried to control the hours of work.

In 1831 the government set up a parliamentary committee to consider the conditions in which children worked in factories. The committee collected a great deal of information, including the following interview with Samuel Coulson, the father of a child worker. The report was published in 1832. The final report eventually led, in 1833, to the first serious attempt to limit child labour, specifically in the textile industry.

As you consult the following extract, take notice of how frequently the man who asks the questions appears to know what answers he is expecting. We are looking at a formal public event rather than a preliminary conversation.

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Evidence of Samuel Coulson, a factory worker, of the condition of children
    From the Report of the Committee on Factory Children's Labour, 1831-2
In the brisk time, for about six weeks, they have gone at 3 o'clock in the morning, and ended at 10, or nearly half past at night.
Breakfast a quarter of an hour, and dinner half an hour, and drinking a quarter of an hour.
They generally had to do what they call dry down; sometimes this took the whole of the time at breakfast or drinking, and they were to get their dinner or breakfast as they could; if not, it was brought home.
Yes, in the early time, we had them to take up asleep and shake them, when we got them on the floor to dress them, before we could get them off to their work; but not so in the common hours.
They were quartered in the longest hours, the same as in the shortest time.
A quarter was taken off.
Five minutes.
It was near 11 o'clock before we could get them into bed after getting a little victuals, and then at morning my mistress used to stop up all night, for fear that we could not get them ready for the time; sometimes we have gone to bed, and one of us generally awoke.
In general me or my mistress got up at 2 o'clock to dress them.
No, they had not
About six weeks it held; it was only done when the throng was very much on; it was not often that.
Yes, just the same.
Many times; we have cried often when we have given them the little victualling we had to give them; we had to shake them, and they have fallen to sleep with the victuals in their mouths many a time.
Yes, my eldest daughter when she went first there; she had been about five weeks, and used to fettle the frames when they were running, and my eldest girl agreed with one of the others to fettle hers that time, that she would do her work; while she was learning more about the work, the overlooker came by and said, `Ann, what are you doing there?' she said, `I am doing it for my companion, in order that I may know more about it,' he said, `Let go, drop it this minute,' and the cog caught her forefinger nail, and screwed it off below the knuckle, and she was five weeks in Leeds Infirmary.
It is cut off at the second joint.
As soon as the accident happened the wages were totally stopped; indeed, I did not know which way to get her cured, and I do not know how it would have been cured but for the Infirmary.
She was stopped a quarter of a day; it was done about four o'clock.
Yes, with being so very much fatigued the strap was very frequently used.
Yes, every one; the eldest daughter; I was up in Lancashire a fortnight, and when I got home I saw her shoulders and I said, `Ann, what is the matter?' he said, `The overlooker has strapped me; but', she said, `do not go to the overlooker, for if you do we shall lose our work'; I said I would not if she would tell me the truth as to what caused it. `Well,' she said, `I will tell you, father.' She says, `I was fettling the waste, and the girl I had learning had got so perfect she could keep the side up till I could fettle the waste; the overlooker came round, and said `What are you doing?' I said, `I am fettling while the other girl keeps the upper end up'; he said, `Drop it this minute;' she said, `No, I must go on with this'; and because she did not do it, he took a strap, and beat her between the shoulders. My wife was out at the time, and when she came in she said her back was beat nearly to a jelly; and the rest of the girls encouraged her to go to Mrs. Varley, and she went to her, and she rubbed it with a part of a glass of rum, and gave her an old silk handkerchief to cover the place with till it got well.
Evidence of Samuel Coulson, a factory worker, of the condition of children (Report of Committee on Factory Children's Labour, 1831-2 (XV) p.192 etc) 1832, reprinted in Bland, A.E., P.A. Brown, and R.H.Tawney, English Economic History: Select Documents, Bell, 1914, pp. 510-3.




Text only version

Coulson was responding to an enquiry set up by parliament, in which the supporters of factory reform sought to build up evidence to justify their case for parliamentary reform.

Open question

In what way does this passage suggest that Coulson was answering a series of questions put by opponents of child labour who already knew the answers? Were they asking ‘leading’ questions that encouraged the person questioned to give a particular answer?

Think again about the hours that Coulson's daughter had to work. Look at it on the 24-hour clock below. How would you feel about working such long hours?



Text only version

We must always remember that child labour was nothing new. It was normal in agricultural societies and it was widespread in the domestic system as well. In the following passage George Crompton, son of the Samuel Crompton who invented the Mule, describes his own childhood at the age of four.

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George Crompton recalls a childhood in the domestic system
    [from around the age of 4] ‘… I recollect that soon after I was able to walk I was employed in the cotton manufacture. My mother used to bat the cotton wool on a wire riddle. It was then put into a deep brown mug with a strong ley of soap suds. My mother then tucked up my petticoats about my waist, and put me into the tub to tread upon the cotton at the bottom. When a second riddleful was batted I was lifted out, it was placed in the mug, and I again trod it down. This process was continued untill the mug became so full that I could no longer safely stand in it, when a chair was placed beside it, and I held on by the back. When the mug was quite full the soapsuds were poured off, and each separate dollop [ie., lump] of wool well squeezed to free it from moisture. They were then placed on the bread-rack under the beams of the kitchen-loft to dry. My mother and my grand-mother carded the cotton wool by hand, taking one of the dollops at a time, on the simple hand cards. When carded they were put aside in separate parcels ready for spinning…….’
From The Life and Times of George Crompton, French, G.J., 3rd ed. 1862, quoted in J.T.Ward, (ed.) The Factory System Vol 2: The Factory System and Society, David & Charles, Newton Abbot, 1970, pp. 67-8


Open question

How far is the evidence of this passage reinforced by the contemporary illustrations of domestic production? If child labour was not new, why did it cause so much concern to many intelligent men and women of the period? Discuss.

Notice that what Oastler saw was not just children working in a single factory, but many children working in many factories. By this stage, steam power (generated by coal) was replacing water power. This change had allowed the development of large concentrations of factories and the creation of textile towns.

During the nineteenth century the fight against child labour led to the following series of reforms and to a real reduction in child labour in the textile industry. Have a look at the following details of key legislation showing the decline of child labour in the textile industry.

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Controlling child labour in the nineteenth century: Key legislation
    1819 Factory Act
    Applied to cotton mills
Children under nine forbidden
Children over nine restricted to twelve hours per day
No inspection, to enforce legislation
    1833 Factory Act
    Applied to all textile mills except silk and lace
Children of nine to twelve: maximum hours nine per day
Youths thirteen to eighteen years: maximum hours twelve per day
Children less than thirteen to have two hours education
Four inspectors appointed to enforce act. (But only four).
No means of being exact on the age of the child.
    1844 Factory Act
    Applied to textile factories only
Children of eight to twelve maximum of six and a half hours a day
Children to have three hours education per working day
No women, or youths to work at nights, or for more than twelve hours in any working day
    1847 Factory Act>
    Applied to textile factories only
Maximum of ten hours work per day (or 58 hours per week) for women and children of thirteen to eighteen years
1850 Factory Act
Applied to textile factories only
Restricted hours of work to after 6am and before 6pm, or 2pm on Saturday
    1853 Factory Act
    Applied to textile factories
In order to restrict use of shift labour for child work, their hours of work were restricted to between 6 am and 6 pm.
    1874 Factory Act
    Applied to textile factories
Women and young persons to work maximum of ten hours per day
Children up to fourteen allowed to work for half a day


Open question

Even today child labour exists and not only in factories. Scandals about child ‘slave labour’ are just as likely to refer to the handicraft industries. Can you find any examples from the newspaper or television?

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