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John Fielden (1784-1849)

Taken from Sir Lesley Stephen & Sir Sidney Lee (eds.), Dictionary of National Biography: from the earliest times to 1900 (London, Oxford University Press, 1949).

John Fielden, M.P. for Oldham, was born 17 January 1784 at Lane Side, Todmorden, where his father, originally a yeoman, had about the time of his birth begun cotton-spinning on a very limited scale. As a boy he worked in his father's factory, and in after years often referred to the exhaustion caused by his daily toil. He was educated sufficiently to become at seventeen a teacher in a Sunday school. His father was a Quaker and a tory, but Fielden grew up a radical, and ultimately became a unitarian.

He was admitted into partnership by his father, after whose death in 1811 he conducted with his brothers the business of the firm of Fielden Brothers, Waterside Mills, Todmorden, which grew to be one of the largest cotton-manufacturing concerns in the United Kingdom. He took an active part in the earlier movement for limiting the hours of factory labour, and in the agitation for parliamentary reform. He was an ardent disciple of Cobbett, specially sympathising with his hostility to paper money, and to the second Sir Robert Peel's currency measure of 1819. When the Reform Bill of 1832 made Oldham a parliamentary borough with two members, he consented to become a candidate, only because he hoped to bring in Cobbett along with him. Both were returned by large majorities, Fielden heading the poll.

His first appearance in the parliament of 1833 was as seconder of an amendment moved by Cobbett to the address, and he also seconded Cobbett's resolution for removing Peel from the privy council, which, by order of the House of Commons, was expunged from its journals. In 1835, 1837, and 1841 he was again returned for Oldham. In the House of Commons he did not shine as an orator. His voice was very weak; he spoke with a strong provincial accent, and neither his elaborate industrial statistics nor the minute details of his descriptions of distress in the manufacturing districts were appreciated by the house. His remedy for that distress was a great reduction of national expenditure and the substitution of a property tax for duties on articles of general consumption. To the new poor law he was irreconcilably hostile. He was a strenuous supporter of the Ten Hours Bill, with the conduct of which in the House of Commons Lord Ashley was charged in 1833.

Fielden's industrial position and early personal experience of factory labour gave great value to his parliamentary support of this measure. He indeed went further than his conservative allies, and demanded an eight hours bill in the interest both of masters and men. He held that a lessened demand for cotton would cause the price to fall. This view, enforced by reasoning drawn from his peculiar opinions on the currency question, he explained episodically in the most striking of his pamphlets, The Curse of the Factory System (1836). Attention was drawn to the pamphlet in an article on The Factory System in the Quarterly Review for December 1836.

On Lord Ashley's temporary withdrawal from the House of Commons in January 1846 the parliamentary conduct of the Ten Hours Bill was entrusted to Fielden, who moved its second reading 29 April 1846. It was rejected by a majority of ten. On 10 February. 1847 Fielden again moved the second reading, which was carried by 151 to 88, members of the new whig government voting for it while intimating that in committee they would insist on making the measure an eleven hours bill. This intention, however, they abandoned, and the Ten Hours Bill soon afterwards became law. At the general election of 1847 Fielden's candidature for Oldham was unsuccessful, and he did not attempt to re-enter the House of Commons. He died at Skegness 29 May 1849, and was buried at the unitarian chapel, Todmorden. He was a man of great simplicity and integrity of character. To his sympathisers he was ‘honest John Fielden.’ Some of those of his own class who disliked the factory legislation which he advocated and his pertinacious advocacy of it called him ‘the self-acting mule’. Lord Shaftesbury has recorded his sense of the value of the aid, by no means confined to parliament, given him by Fielden, and of the ‘weight’ which his ‘singular experience, zeal, and disinterestedness’ bestowed on Fielden's support of the Ten Hours Bill in the House of Commons.

Fielden also wrote:

  1. ‘The Mischiefs and Iniquities of Paper Money,’ 1832, with a preface by Cobbett.
  2. ‘National Regeneration,’ 1834.
  3. ‘A Selection of Facts and Arguments in favour of the Ten Hours Bill,’ 1845.
  4. ‘Important Speech on the Sugar Duties, 9 May 1841.’

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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