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Evidence of Richard Oastler on `Yorkshire Slavery'

Richard Oastler was active during the campaign for a ten-hour working day in the factories of the north of England. He gave evidence to the parliamentary Select Committee, where he said that conditions in England were worse than those on the plantations of the West Indies.


Has your mind been latterly directed to the consideration of the condition of the children and young persons engaged in the mills and factories of this country, with a view to affording them permanent legislative relief?


It has . . . : The immediate circumstance which led my attention to the facts, was a communication made to me by a very opulent spinner that it was the regular custom, to work children in factories 13 hours a day and only allow them half an hour for dinner; that that was the regular custom, and that in many factories they were worked considerably more. I had previously observed a difference in the working classes of the West Riding of the county of York, I mean in the clothing districts. I had observed an amazing difference from what they are now, in comparison of what they were when I was a youth; but I must say that my attention had not been particularly called to the subject of the factory system, until I had that fact communicated to me . . .. I resolved from that moment that I would dedicate every power of body and mind to this object, until these poor children were relieved from that excessive labour; and from that moment, which was the 29th of September 1830, I have never ceased to use every legal means, which I had it in my power to use, for the purpose of emancipating these innocent slaves.

The very day on which the fact was communicated to me, I addressed a letter to the public in the Leeds Mercury upon the subject. I have since that had many opponents to contend against; but not one single fact which I have communicated has ever been contradicted, or ever can be . . .. I have refrained from exposing the worst parts of the system, for they are so gross that I dare not publish them. The demoralising effects of the system are as bad, I know it, as the demoralising effects of slavery in the West Indies. I know that there are instances and scenes of the grossest prostitution among the poor creatures who are the victims of the system, and in some cases are the objects of the cruelty and rapacity and sensuality of their master. These things I never dared to publish, but the cruelties which are inflicted personally upon the little children not to mention the immensely long hours which they are subject to work, are such as I am very sure would disgrace a West Indian plantation.

On one occasion I was very singularly placed; I was in the company of a West India slave master and three Bradford spinners; they brought the two systems into fair comparison, and the spinners were obliged to be silent when the slave-owner said, "well, I have always thought myself disgraced by being the owner of black slaves, but we never, in the West Indies thought it was possible for any human being to be so cruel as to require a child of 9 years old to work 12½ hours a day; and that, you acknowledge, is your regular practice."

I have seen little boys and girls of 10 years old, one I have in my eye particularly now, whose forehead has been cut open by the thong; whose cheeks and lips have been laid open, and whose back has been almost covered with. black stripes; and the only crime that that little boy, who was 10 years and 3 months old, had committed, was that he retched three cardings, which are three pieces of woollen yarn, about three inches long. The same boy told me that he had been frequently knocked down with the billy-roller, and that on one occasion, he had been hung up by a rope round the body, and almost frightened to death; but I am sure it is unnecessary for me to say anything more upon the bodily sufferings that these poor creatures are subject to. I have seen their bodies almost broken down, so that they could not walk without assistance, when they have been 17 or 18 years of age. I know many cases of poor young creatures who have worked in factories, and who have been worn down by the system at the age of 16 and 17, and who, after living all their lives in this slavery, are kept in poor-houses, not by the masters for whom they have worked, as would be the case if they were negro slaves, but by other people who have reaped no advantage from their labour.

These are the particular facts which I wish to state; and one which I would also call the attention of the Committee to, is the domestic system of manufacture which obtained in the West Riding of Yorkshire, when I was a boy; it was the custom for the children at that time, to mix learning their trades with other instruction and with amusement, and they learned their trades or their occupations, not by being put into places, to stop there from morning to night, but by having a little work to do, and then some time for instruction, and they were generally under the immediate care of their parents; the villages about Leeds and Huddersfield were occupied by respectable little clothiers, who could manufacture a piece of cloth of two in the week, or three or four or five pieces, and always had their family at home: and they could at that time make a good profit by what they sold; there were filial affection and parental feeling, and not over-labour; but that race of manufacturers has been almost completely destroyed; there are scarcely any of the old-fashioned domestic manufacturers left, and the villages are composed of one or two or in some cases of three or four, mill-owners, and the rest, poor creatures, who are reduced and ground down to want, and in general are compelled to live upon the labour of their little ones; it is almost the general system for the little children in these manufacturing villages to know nothing of their parents at all excepting that in a morning very early, at 5 o'clock, very often before 4, they are awakened by a human being that they are told is their father, and are pulled out of bed (I have heard many a score of them give an account of it) when they are almost asleep, and lesser children are absolutely carried on the backs of the older children asleep to the mill, and they see no more of their parents generally speaking, till they go home at night, and are sent to bed. Now that system must necessarily prevent the growth of filial affection. It destroys the happiness in the cottage family, and leads both parents and children not to regard each other in the way that Providence designed they should. . ..

With regard to the fathers, I have heard many of them declare that it is such a pain to them to think that they are kept by their little children, and that their little children are subjected to so many inconveniences that they scarcely know how to bear their lives; and I have heard many of them declare that they would much rather be transported than be compelled to submit to it. I have heard mothers, more than on 10 or 11 occasions, absolutely say that they would rather that their lives were ended than that they should live to be subjected to such misery. The general effect of the system is this, and they know it, to place a bonus upon crimes; because their little children, and their parents too, know that if they only commit theft and break the laws, they will be taken up and put into the House of Correction, and there they will not have to work more than 6 or 7 hours a day. Such being the general state of things in the manufacturer's cottage, I think we need not be surprised at the present discontented, nay, one might almost say the disaffected state of' the working classes. I think that arises from no other circumstance but that complete inversion of the law of nature making the little children into slaves to work for their fathers and mothers, and leaving their fathers destitute in the streets to mourn over their sorrows; I believe that is the foundation of the disaffection and unpleasantness of the present age . .

Report from the Committee on the Bill to regulate the labour of children in the mills and factories . . . 1832: Parliamentary Papers, 1831-1832, xv, pp. 454-5.

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