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Why was legislation to improve factory conditions enacted between 1833 and 1850, and how much change did it bring about?

This essay was written by Mark Harbor.  My thanks to him for allowing publication on this web site.

It is widely accepted at the present time that working excessive hours is not only injurious to the workers' health, but also tends to have an adverse affect on work output. [1]

At the beginning of the 19th century, however, factory owners and managers did not have access to data such as Grandjean's, and they felt that the only way to increase output and productivity was to get the employees to work longer hours for the same, or less, money. [2] In addition to this ignorance of the effect of excessive hours, the factory masters had no model of management upon which to base their operations other than the experiences of the domestic system, or the workhouses. [3] In the workhouses the regimes tended to be extremely harsh and prison like. The domestic system though was the epitome of flexibility; the hours worked would vary and were sometimes excessive, but only in the short term. The long hours were used to 'stockpile' produce in order to allow for leisure time.

Some two or three weeks before Christmas it was the custom in families to apportion… a certain quantity of work which was to be done ere his or her holidays commenced… Play hours were nearly given up and whole nights would be spent at the loom.

S. Bamford, Early Days, 1849

In the initial stages of the factory movement the system whereby children worked directly for their parents was transferred from the home to the factory; the factory owners had essentially sub-contracted responsibility for conditions and hours of work, they did not need to accept their responsibility for the well-being, or otherwise, of the children. The fact that the harsh conditions were imposed on the children by the parents made the whole system socially tolerable. [4]

Not all of society however found the conditions of work imposed on children tolerable. Richard Oastler, among others, felt that forcing children to work up to 16 hours, day and night, was little more than slavery. [5] Oastler began his campaign by writing a series of letters to the Leeds Mercury and Leeds Intelligencer in 1830 under the heading 'Slavery in Yorkshire' [6]. Oastler's letters, while being very emotional in style, began to bring to public attention the plight of the 'factory children'.

Thousands of little children… 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. Poor infants… feel and mourn that ye are slaves.

R. Oastler, 'Slavery in Yorkshire', Leeds Mercury, 29/09/1830 .

The growing public awareness of children's working conditions, fostered by the likes of Oastler, coincided with the breakdown of the kinship links within the factory. Technical advances, such as Roberts' automatic mule (1824), required the factories to employ more children; with Roberts' mule an adult spinner needed up to nine children working for him instead of the one or two required with the older mules. With the discipline in factories being imposed more and more by the owners, rather than the family, the workers themselves began to protest against the harsh conditions and long hours. [7]

This twin thrust of public opinion and worker unrest led to a general movement for a shorter working day. This 'Ten Hour Movement' with its 'Short Time Committees' was diverse in its membership, consisting of Socialists, Chartists and Ultra Tories. [8] Oastler, a Tory evangelist, was one of the prominent leaders of the movement outside parliament; Michael Thomas Sadler, a Yorkshire MP, became the movement's parliamentary leader. Sadler introduced a Ten Hour Bill in December 1831, which received its second reading in the House of Commons in 1832. Sadler made a speech on 13 March 1832 supporting the bill in which he stated,

Sir, the bill… has, for its purpose, to liberate children and other young persons… from that over exertion and confinement…to rescue them from a state of suffering and degradation…which cannot be much longer tolerated.

Hansard, 3/II/342-345

The bill therefore purported to protect children from long hours and harsh conditions. There is evidence though that this was a smoke screen for the real purpose of the Ten Hour Movement. A resolution passed at a public meeting in Leeds in 1831 included the following; 'That a restrictive act would tend materially to equalise and extend labour, by calling into employment many adult males'. [9] The resolution makes it plain that one of the objectives was to decrease adult working hours and therefore increase adult employment, and that this could be achieved through the limitation of the hours that children could work.

The Whig government of the time referred the matter of factory conditions, and legislation to control them, to a Parliamentary Select Committee, chaired by Sadler. The Committee's report, published in August 1832, revealed extremely poor conditions in textile mills [10] and essentially supported Sadler's bill. In December of that year however Sadler lost his seat in parliament, and for a short time the parliamentary movement lost momentum. Lord Ashley was persuaded to take up the Ten Hour mantle in parliament, and he re-introduced the bill in 1833.

There was however still great opposition to the bill on a number of political, economic and social grounds [11] and a Royal Commission was appointed to, again, investigate the matter.

Manufacturers were strongly represented on the commission, unlike on Sadler's committee, and this together with the fact that testimony was to be heard in private caused an outcry from the Short Time Committees. In Leeds a meeting of operatives agreed not to cooperate with the commission on the grounds that it was a 'Tribunal adverse to the Ten Hour Bill in origin, adverse in spirit, adverse in object, adverse probably in instruction'. [12]

The commission found that some of the evidence given to the Sadler committee had been, to say the least, exaggerated. For example, one Joseph Hebergam had stated to the committee that he had met with frequent accidents at work; to the commission however he stated 'the accidents I meant were hurting my knuckles with the flies. I can't recollect that I ever saw anything worse than that'. [13] The commission did conclude however that hours of work were 'seldom less than eleven and scarcely ever more than twelve; this is the average; for there is considerable irregularity'. [14] They also concluded that there was 'a case…for the interference of the legislature on behalf of the children employed in factories'. [15]

The commission's report formed the basis of a government bill, sponsored by Lord Althorp, which became law in August 1833. The main points of the act were

Within these main points the influence of the Benthamites can be seen. This is not surprising considering that Edwin Chadwick and Southwood Smith, two ardent Benthamites, were members of the Royal Commission [16]. Their influence can be seen in the provision of the four inspectors and that of compulsory education.

While the provision of the inspectors did not originate with Smith and Chadwick, the suggestion came from the manufacturers who gave evidence to the commission, [17] it would have been included as central control and enforcement of legislation was a central tenet of the Benthamite creed. Compulsory education was also one of Jeremy Bentham's proposals; he had proposed a government department of Education and Health. [18]

The provision of government inspectors and another feature of the act was opposed by the Ten Hour Movement. The second feature was the provision that allowed two sets of children working a maximum of eight hours each. They felt that this was merely a device whereby adult workers could be kept working for 16 hours per day. The inspectors were seen as nothing more than the agents of the manufacturers. It will be seen that while they were correct about the working hours, their concern regarding the inspectors was unfounded.

The first major problem that the inspectors encountered was to ensure that children under nine were not working in the factories. There was no definite means whereby the ages of the children could be proved, and it was often necessary to get a certificate from a surgeon or physician that stated that a child was 'of the ordinary strength and appearance' of a nine year old. This practice of certification, allowed under Section 13 of the act, was open to abuse through dishonesty and ignorance. The inspector for the Manchester District, Mr. Rickards, in an attempt to reduce the misapplication of this rule appointed a limited number of surgeons that were authorised to give this certification. This move met with some opposition but it was eventually accepted that he had the authority to implement this system, and the other inspectors in their districts implemented the practice. [19]

The fact that all the inspectors implemented the scheme of 'authorised signatories' demonstrates the effectiveness of the inspectors' reporting system. They were required to report individually at least twice a year to the government, and to meet twice a year and make a joint report to the government.

Another area where the inspectors had difficulties was the enforcement of children's (9-13) and young persons (14-18) working hours, and as a result the education of the children. Abuses of the 'relay system' allowed under the act meant that not only were both these groups kept within the factory environment in excess of the hours allowed, but also that the children were precluded from attending school. [20] The factory masters operated within the law by dividing the hours of work of the children and young persons so that they had to be present at the factory for the full 15 hours allowed by the act. (The law stated that these groups could not work before 05:30 hrs or after 20:30 hrs, but did not define actual start and finish times.) Therefore, while the factories were operating within the letter of the law, the spirit of the law was ignored.[21]

Mr. Horner, initially the Scottish inspector, recognised that these abuses of the system were occurring and also that he (and the other inspectors) had difficulty in enforcing the law because of them. In his reports of 1841 and 1842 he strongly recommended that a 'half-time' system be introduced and enforced by the law. This system would ensure that the children's hours were completed either in the morning or the afternoon. He also recommended that young persons were not employed in or about the factory for longer than 13½ hours (12 hours work and 1½ hours meal breaks) from their start time. [22]

It had been expected that the restriction of children's and young persons working hours would also have been a de facto restriction of factory motive power, and therefore the adult working hours. That this was a goal of the Short Time Committees is demonstrated in some of their resolutions prior to the 1833 act; [23] it was certainly an expectation of the factory inspectors. [24] It was even admitted that this was the unwritten purpose of the act by Sir James Graham during a speech in the House of Commons in May 1844. [25]

The 1833 act had children and young persons as the main focus because it could be easily demonstrated that they were not 'free agents', that is they were unable to look after their own interests. This eased the progress of the legislation because groups, such as the Benthamites, felt that the government had a duty to protect people that were not free agents. The failure of the act to reduce the working hours of the free agents, that is adults, through the protection of non free agents (children and young persons) led to women being included under the mantle of non free agents. [26] In addition to this, the debate began to focus more on female operators as their mode of dress was considered to make them more vulnerable to accidents in the workplace. [27]

As a result of this debate, and the reports of the inspectors, a new act was passed in 1844 to amend the 1833 act. Its main points were,

Other amendments were made which greatly improved the powers of the inspectors to enter and inspect factories and factory schools, to appoint certifying surgeons and to disqualify incompetent teachers.

The new act, while now also protecting adult females, had still not achieved the ultimate aim of the Ten Hour Movement that is, a 10-hour working day for all. The act still stated that protected persons could work between the hours of 05:30 and 20:30, which resulted in the adult male workers still working excessive hours. The Ten Hour Movement continued to agitate for the reduced working day for all.

The arguments against the 10-hour working day began to lose strength after 1844 because the general trade depression at that time tended to materially reduce working hours in the factories. It was possible therefore for Fielden to successfully promote a Ten Hour Act in 1847.This stated that women and young persons could work for no longer than 10 hours per day. [28]

Again, the expectation was that this would also restrict the working hours of the adult males in the factories. This was not the case as the restricted hours could still be worked at any time in a 15-hour period between 05:00 and 20:00. A relay system was introduced which enabled the employers to lawfully make their adult male workers complete the full 15 hours. [29]

In 1850 Grey's Act finally defined the 'normal working day' as being between 06:00 and 18:00. This still did not meet with the full approval of the Ten Hour Movement as it meant that adult males still worked 10½ hours per day, but people such as Lord Shaftesbury felt that this compromise was the only way around the problem of the relay system.

The purpose of the factory legislation between 1833 and 1850 would therefore appear to be to reduce the number of hours worked in the factories at the time, and to some extent this was successful. The legislation however only applied to the textile factories while other industries for the main part were unregulated and it was still some time before health and safety legislation was universally applied within factories. The 1833 act was probable the pivotal point however in the development of health and safety legislation.

Other less obvious goals were also achieved in the legislation in this period. The Benthamites for instance saw this legislation as a vehicle to begin to achieve some of their goals such as compulsory education and central government control.

The education aspect of this legislation suffered for want of a comprehensive Education Act, [30] but the central control in the form of the four government inspectors did prove successful. The inspectors at the time had a great influence in the development of the legislation up to 1850, and beyond. We can still see the their legacy in the Health and Safety Commission and Executive (HSC & HSE) set up under the Health and Safety at Work Act, 1974.

The discussion about hours of work however still goes on with the current debate focused on the European Working Time Directive; but perhaps the discussion in the 19th century, as now, was not about how long people worked. The issue is not so much balance about time, but sovereignty over time. We don't object to working long hours as long as we choose to work the hours and can control when they are worked. [31]


[1] Grandjean, E., Fitting The Task To The Man (4th Ed.), Tailor and Francis, 1988, pp 200-202.
[2] Burnes, B., Managing Change, Pitman, 1996, pg. 7.
[3]Ibid., pp 7-8.
[4] Mathias, P., The First Industrial Nation (2nd Ed.), Routledge, 1990, pg.181.
[5] Halévy, E., The Triumph of Reform 1830-1841, Ernst Benn Ltd., 1961, pg. 107.
[6] Hutchins, B.L. & Harrison, E., A History of Factory Legislation, P.S. King & Son, 1911, p. 45.
[7] Mathias, p.182.
[8] Hutchins, B.L. & Harrison, E. p. 46.
[9] Ibid. 48.
[10] Taylor, D., Mastering Economic and Social History, MacMillan, 1988, p. 202.
[11] Ibid., p. 203.
[12] Hutchins, B.L. & Harrison, E. p. 55.
[13] Class Handout No.7.
[14] The Peel Web, Parliamentary Papers 1833/XX.
[15] Taylor, p. 204.
[16] Halévy, p. 112.
[17] Hutchins, B.L. & Harrison, E. p. 39.
[18] Halévy, p. 101.
[19] Hutchins, B.L. & Harrison, E. p. 73.
[20] Ibid., pp. 74-77.
[21]Ibid., pp. 77-80.
[22] Ibid., pp. 71-81.
[23] Ibid., pp. 52-53.
[24] Ibid., pp. 79-80.
[25] Ibid., p. 83.
[26] Ibid., p. 84.
[27] Ibid., p. 85.
[28] Taylor, p. 205.
[29] Ibid., p. 206.
[30] Hutchins, B.L. & Harrison, E. p. 79.
[31] Will Hutton, Workers' playtime, The Observer, 14 May 2000.


Burnes, B., Managing Change (2nd Ed.), Pitman, 1996.
Class Handouts supplied by Patsy Calder.
Grandjean, E., Fitting The Task To The Man (4th Ed.), Tailor and Francis, 1988.
Halévy, E., The Triumph of Reform 1839-1841, Ernest Benn Ltd., 1961.
Hutchins, B.L. & Harrison, A., A History of Factory Legislation, P.S. King & Son, 1911.
Mathias, P., The First Industrial Nation (2nd Ed), Routledge, 1990.
Murphy, D. (ed), Britain 1815-1918, Collins Educational, 1999.
Taylor, D., Mastering Economic and Social History, MacMillan, 1988.
The Observer, 14 May 2000.
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