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History

Living and working conditions

Reform of factories and mines

When concerns were raised about the working conditions in factories, especially for children, reformers began to propose changes to improve working environments.

The first supporters of factory reform were caring mill owners, many of them in the Tory Party, who were motivated mainly by their religion. One such factory owner was Robert Owen.

Robert Owen

  • He owned a cotton mill in New Lanark in Scotland.
  • He thought that if workers were treated well then they would work harder. This would then make greater profits for the factory owners.
  • He provided good houses and a school for his workers and their families.
  • He would not allow a child under ten to work in his mills.
  • He set up the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union for his workers in 1834.

In 1830 Richard Oastler wrote to the Leeds Mercury newspaper, complaining that the conditions of factory workers in Bradford was "more horrid than that hellish system of colonial slavery". Even so, the campaign to reform conditions achieved little attention until Sadler’s Report was published. The report was written in 1832 by Michael Sadler and included testimonies from factory workers to reveal appalling conditions, especially for women and children. The report shocked public opinion.

In 1832 Lord Ashley, Earl of Shaftesbury took over leadership of the movement for factory reform in Parliament. He organised campaigns that achieved new laws to improve conditions.

Opposition of reform

  • The economist Nassau Senior argued that increased costs would ruin the industry, which made a major contribution to the wealth of the country. (This was later found to be wrong as better fed, less tired workers produced more, not less.)
  • Some people argued that the workers would only spend the extra time and money in drunkenness and crime. (This turned out to be wrong: better conditions led to less crime.)
  • Laissez-faire: the government believed it was wrong to interfere in the free working of the economy.
  • Discipline was necessary: domestic workers were not used to the needs of the factory and had to be trained.
  • The famous economist Adam Smith argued that children had always been employed in the domestic system, and that poor conditions in the factories were exaggerated.
  • Titus Salt (a manufacturer and politician from Manchester) argued that it was better for a child to work in a factory and earn a wage that provided food and clothes, than to force them to stay outside and starve or freeze to death. The work in factories (like pulling levers or tying threads) was less difficult than manual work and did not harm the children.

Back to British society - 1815-1851 index

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