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Richard Oastler

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Richard Oastler (20 December 1789 - 22 August 1861) was an English labour reformer; most noted for the Factory reform.

A statue currently situated in Northgate, Bradford stands as a memorial to Richard Oastler. Showing Oastler with two small children, it was the result of a national subscription; with most of the donations coming from Bradford, and given Oastler's close association with Yorkshire, Bradford was considered the most suitable site. The figures, sculpted by John Birnie Philip, were cast from three tons of bronze and cost £1,500. Significantly, the Earl of Shaftesbury, one of the great reformers for better conditions for children unveiled the statue, in 1869. [1]

(From the Leader.)
The History of the Factory Movement from the year 1802 to the Enactment of the Ten Hours Bill in 1847.
By Alfred. 2 vols. Simpkin, Marshall, & Co.
This history forms three distinctly marked divisions —it presents a picture of the factory system as it originally existed, a narrative of the agitation for reform, and a slight summary of the results derived from eleven years' experience of the legislation of 1847. The writer has mastered the details of his subject, and proves himself to be peculiarly fitted, in one important respect, to describe the progress of such movement as that to which his two well-written volumes are devoted. We mean, that he does justice to the acts and motives of public men of all shades of opinion. He is, perhaps, led by enthusiasm to overvalue some of his political favourites ; but brought, as he has probably been, into intimate association with them, he is, naturally enough, cordial and complimentary. With a few defects of manner and method, his work is meritorious, and will be useful the record of a great advance in the social legislation of the country. We have no desire, in this place, to reopen the debate between the colleagues and the opponents of Richard Oastler; but a broad view of the entire question in its several developments—such as a view in this book supplies—cannot be without its effect. It establishes, at least, two points—that factory children under the old system were liable to cruel and scandalous tyranny, and that their condition, under the new law, has been largely ameliorated. It was Michelet who, descanting upon the unnatural innovation of infant labour, ascribed to Pitt the words Take the children, in reply to certain manufacturers who complained that industrial production was inadequate to meet tbe pressure of taxation. In this, as in many other instances, the French historian has distorted the circumstance be describes. Pitt recommended the institution schools of industry during discussion on Whitbread's Labourers' Wages Bill, and remarked the advantages derived from the early earnings of a working man's family ; but he did not suggest that children should be employed to work the Midland cotton mills, under the lash or billy-roller, for thirteen hours day. How that practice arose it is impossible to say; it seems have been aggravated after the introduction of steam ; and its most miserable victims were, at first, the parish apprentices. The working classes in general, until demoralised by habit, objected to employ their children; a parent sometimes refused to open the door to his young daughter, because she had been to a factory ; consequently, the manufacturers resorted to the poor-law overseers. These gentry selected a number of children who were frequently told that, upon arriving at their destination, they would be fed on roast beef and plum pudding, allowed to ride their masters' horses, have silver watches, little or nothing to do, and plenty of money. They were sent off in boats and waggons, and, upon reaching Manchester or other towns, were taken into large empty rooms or cellars, to which the manufacturer came in order to examine the limbs and stature of the little slaves. After this, the fate of the young workpeople depended, of course, on the characters of their masters and overseers; too often it meant labour only limited by exhaustion, and converted into torture by continual whippings, stinted food and sleep, disease, vice, and misery. It was allowable to offer one idiot with twenty sane children, and as to the idiots, no one knew what became of them. Sometimes the working day was protracted to sixteen hours ; even the Sunday was invaded ; in heated rooms, and amidst dust and machinery, the children sometimes snapped their fingers at their toil, or dropped down fainting, or worked in irons. At Litton mill, a smith was employed to put iron anklets on the girls who were suspected of running away ; long links and rings connected the iron near the foot with a chain about the waist. Above all the overseer was armed with strap, a whip of many thongs, or a heavy rod; with this he moved about the building, touching up the children who appeared to slacken at their tasks ; usually, the blow or the lash, fell on them as they stood at the frames, but when the taskmaster was particularly irritated, he took his young helot into a corner, or private room, and there inflicted pitiless and inhuman flagellation. The lord of the mill sometimes stood at the door at five o'clock in the morning, and if any of the apprentices came in after the bell had rung, followed them with a horsewhip, lashing them all the way to their places. Mr. Sadler, in the House of Commons, when he spoke on this part of the subject, struck the table with ‘some black, heavy leathern thongs, fixed in a sort of handle,' and the blow, ' resounded through the House.' Mr. Oastler, at a great public meeting ' struck the front of the platform with a long, heavy strap,' and told how he had seen factory children of both sexes marked with black weals from head to foot, and one beaten naked with hazel stick until the skin was flayed off. Nor were these charges brought against the manufacturers merely in declamatory speeches; evidence was accumulated before parliamentary committees, and it was demonstrated, beyond the possibility of doubt, that numbers of factory children, besides being worked through an unnaturally lengthened day, were tortured with sticks, straps, and whips to stimulate them, when they gave way to absolute physical exhaustion. But the exhaustion was even worse than the flogging. Give a factory child good food and a fair amount of labour, and then, even if an irritable overseer makes an improper use of his authority, the result may not be actually brutal. The whipping, however, was intended to keep the children at their work when they should have been at school, in the playground, or, still oftener, in their beds. From five in the morning to nine at night was constantly in particular factories the allotted task of a boy or girl thirteen years of age, while in many from twelve to fourteen hours' labour was exacted. All the testimony collected, not from sciolists, but from physicians and others who dealt practically with the matter, went to prove that the worst form of American slavery was not more inhuman than the sufferings systematically inflicted in English factories. Illustrations are multiplied in the work before us ; but they are too painful to dwell upon. We prefer to note the agencies by which the reform was effected. The Earl of Shaftesbury, Lord Ellesmere, Mr. Richard Oastler, Mr. Sadler. Mr. Wm. Dawson, and Mr. Hearne were among the workers in the good cause. Other names possess almost equal claims upon the gratitude of the operative class — Brooke, Whitacre, Cook, Raud, and Kay, all well known in Lancashire, besides nearly thirty working men ‘who distinguished themselves by their persevering and anxious labours.' Landor, Southey, Wordsworth, and James Montgomery wrote on behalf of the factory children; Mrs. Trollope gave much offence by her Michael Armstrong, but was an assistance to the reformers! Charlotte Elisabeth published Helen Fleetwood in the interest of the movement; and the press generally adopted, as a basis of argument, Richard Oastler's 'fact' that 'infants of seven years of age, in the mills of Bradford, positively work thirteen hours per day, with an intermission of half an hour for dinner.' In May of the present year Lord Feversham, to whom is due the lasting gratitude of the industrious classes, wrote: “Of all the measures I supported, whilst a representative of Yorkshire, I look upon the Ten Hours Bill as the best, and most fraught with beneficial effects; it was a measure of justice, philanthropy, patriotism, and policy." The Fieldens of Todmorden also bear witness to the benefits conferred upon the factory operatives by the act of 1847. Moreover, the writer of these volumes observes, 'it was the working men of Huddersfield who first united with Mr. Oastler in active efforts to instruct and direct public opinion on the factory question ; the ' History' pays a debt also to Pitkethly, to David Weatherhead, to John Leech, to Hindley, to Robert Blincoe, concluding with warm promise to all earnest reformers, that ‘a small band of men, united together, for a common (and just) purpose, and pledging their word that will succeed,' and will become masters of public opinion, and not only fulfil their work, but witness the gathering of its fruits.'[2]

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. Wikpedia
  2. Leeds Intelligencer - Saturday 24 October 1857