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Anthony Ashley Cooper, Lord Shaftesbury (1801-1885)

Shaftesbury is known in history by several names: Anthony Ashley Cooper; Lord Ashley, the Earl of Shaftesbury and Lord Shaftesbury. Although technically he did not hold the title Shaftesbury until 1851, he will be referred to as such throughout this page.

Shaftesbury was born in London in 1801, and was educated at Harrow and Christ Church, Oxford. He had a bleak and unhappy childhood: his father was severe and his schooldays were gruelling. His upbringing was strictly utilitarian. G.F.A. Best, in his 1964 biography of Shaftesbury, said:

Parents, home, and school must together have contributed to form that melancholic air, that tense and rigid self-possession, that hyper-sensitive heart and that secret longing for love and admiration which marked him for the rest of his life.

Shaftesbury disliked trade unions, but decided as a schoolboy to give his life to the interests of the poor. He hated cruelty and unmerited suffering. He was extremely aristocratic in bearing, manner and opinions.

The Factory Cause

Shaftesbury adopted the factory cause in 1832 from religious zeal. He was an Anglican evangelical, as were most of the Ten-hour men. Shaftesbury clung to the factory movement as a crusade, saying, "to me it appeared an affair less of policy than of religion". He was an impractical man.

Shaftesbury's Diary, 3 July, 1834

To all subjects I prefer Theology. Finance, Corn Laws, Foreign Policy or Poor Laws would give me more public usefulness, but they would not give me more private happiness.

He often advised meetings of Short-Time Committees to pray, as their best course of action. It is difficult to assess how much he was concerned for factories to forward his own political career, or for an impersonal principle.

Shaftesbury's Diary, December 1842

I am beginning to be a little anxious; I wonder now whether I am so for myself, or on behalf of the cause. I know full well that there is in all these thing a leaven of personality

Shaftesbury's other causes

There were far too many of these, so his energies were dissipated (unlike those of Cobden and Bright)

He was unable to give concentrated attention to ONE cause - Chartism personified! Also he was difficult to work with since he took all criticism as a personal slight and as being anti-religious.

Hodder (a personal friend of Shaftesbury) said, "The labours of Lord Ashley were all-consuming. His time was so broken to pieces by small details, public and private, that if he had a quarter of an hour to spare, he hardly knew what to do with it; so many things offered themselves that the period was exhausted in making the selection".

Sir Robert Peel and Sir James Graham were able to rely on the free traders and the party vote to block Shaftesbury's 10-Hour clause in 1844 and his Bill of 1846. They wanted to avoid the debate on the Corn Laws through factory legislation.

1846 Shaftesbury's Bill was rejected. He resigned his seat, 'hurt' at the failure of his Bill.
1850 Shaftesbury became M.P. for Bath. He was responsible for the 'compromise' 10½ hour Acts of 1850 and 1853. As a result he was hated by the practical campaigners. He had the unhappy knack of angering virtually all parties.

Joseph Rayner Stephens said that 'the unsteadiness, time-serving and tergiversation of Lord Ashley [is] inglorious, inconsistent miserable [and] contemptible' and commented that 'the name of Lord Ashley would for ever stink in the nostrils of honest men'. Richard Oastler's assessment was, 'Never was a man so deeply pledged, never so much trusted. Talk of the treachery of others; Lord Ashley has betrayed the poor'.

Nevertheless, despite his limitations,

He was the victim of his own limitations and of the 'Condition of England Question' and ultimately, factory reform was not the primary answer.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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