Skip to main navigation
Skip to main content
Weaver to web

Factory conditions

In the 1830s, while the anti-slavery debate was in full swing, campaigns began for improvements in factory conditions, particularly for children. 'How come', asked campaigners such as Richard Oastler, 'well-meaning people can campaign on behalf of slaves in a far-off land and ignore the plight of child slaves nearer home?'. Children as young as seven or eight typically worked long hours in hazardous and accident-prone jobs for low pay, and were often poorly fed and clothed by their masters. John Fielden of Todmorden, Calderdale's premier agitator for parliamentary and industrial reform in the early 19th century, had himself worked in his father's mill - where conditions were better than average - from the age of 10 and child labour was one of his most impassioned causes.

In Calderdale mines, where in seams as narrow as 13 inches a smaller size was an advantage, employed children as young as 6 as 'hurriers', manhandling coal-trucks to and from the coal-face, often in damp or flooded conditions. Inspectors in 1842 found that pits in this area had worse conditions than elsewhere in the West Riding; 34 children had died in local pit accidents in the previous three years and physical deformation and mental and psychological damage were common.

Halifax manufacturers, in a meeting at the Old Cock Tavern in 1831, gave several reasons they could not accede to demands for reducing children's working hours; among them were that children were often the 'main support' of family income, that children between 7 and 14 were more capable of 'long continued labour' than those of 14-21, that reduced working hours would give advantage to foreign competitors and that any legal restraint on manufacturers was 'pernicious'. The failure of the 1831 Bill in the House of Lords was acknowledged by angry demonstrations all round the country, including a gathering of 5000 people in Todmorden. By contrast the passage of the 1832 Reform Bill inspired equally well attended celebrations, but the campaign went on, and brought about a public inquiry, the Factories Inquiry Commission, in 1833.

In the upper Calder valley, the Commission found that weekly working hours at textile mills were generally between 68 and 72. Walker and Edmondson's Mill in Mytholmroyd, for example, worked its employees 77 hours a week - a lunch break of one hour varying the monotony of work between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m (7 p.m. on Saturdays). They employed seventeen children under 8, paying them 2 shillings and sixpence (12½p) per week, rising to 3 shillings at 13. Most of the mills surveyed by the Commission employed children under 9.

As a result of the Inquiry, the 1833 Factory Act limited child labour to 48 hours per week for under-9s and guaranteed under-13s two hours of schooling per day; a further limit of 6½ hours per day and schooling of three hours per day were imposed in another Act in 1844.

Inquiries demonstrated to reformers that longer working hours generally contributed to poor conditions for all workers, not just children. This was another argument unlikely to sway mill-owners, or emotively affect the public, so campaigners argued for improvements for women. The Factory Act of 1847 was a first step in improving conditions in Britain's mills, and because of the then-current division of labour, in limiting a woman's working day to ten hours it effectively limited hours for all workers.

back to historical themes