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Dr. Dan Ritschel email@example.com HIST 726B: "TEACHING HISTORICAL RESEARCH ON THE INTERNET" CENTER FOR HISTORY EDUCATION Department of History University of Maryland, Baltimore County
THE WORKFORCE IN THE EARLY FACTORY SYSTEM IN BRITAIN: The early factory system in Britain during the Industrial Revolution (c. 1770 - 1840) relied heavily on child and female labor. Children had been an essential part of the family economy long before the Industrial Revolution, working in the fields and workshops alongside their families. However, the the new factory system vastly increased the demand for their paid work outside of the domestic environment and brought them into the wage economy. In the cotton mills of Lancashire in 1833, the dominant industrial sector in the new industrial heartland of northern England, the workforce was made up of 50% women and 36% children under the age of 16. Children below the age of 11 constituted over 5% of the workforce in the Lancashire cotton mills. These numbers correspond roughly to the figures in the rest of the emerging industrial economy. Women and children were cheaper to hire, easier to train and discipline, and, in light of their smaller size and dexterity, believed to be better fitted for work with machinery. Adult males, by contrast, were regarded as comparatively expensive and recalcitrant, and themselves often viewed the rigidly structured nature of factory work and its associated loss of independence as demeaning and emasculating. THE DEBATE OVER CHILD LABOR: Contemporary opinion was deeply divided on the subject of factory work, and particularly so on the issue of child labour. The debate reveals the contrasting ideological assumptions held by the two main camps in the controversy on such key issues as individual responsibility, the role of the state in society, and public welfare. The debate can therefore be used to teach both the World History standard on "the living and working conditions for the early industrial working class, especially women and children" (188.8.131.52) and the standard on the new social movements and ideologies of the nineteenth century (184.108.40.206). VIEWS OF THE FACTORY REFORMERS: Critics and reformers denounced the conditions in the factories and mines as inhumane and unchristian. Working apart from their families, children were exposed to the most brutal forms of exploitation. Workers as young as four years worked, as all adult workers, 12-16 hours a day. They rose before dawn and returned at nightime without having seen daylight. They labored in ill-ventilated and heavily polluted factories. In the textile industry, they suffered chronic respiratory illnesses from air-borne dust, cotton fibre and other pollutants. The contemporary catch-all of "mill fever" is now interpreted to have covered a wide range of industrial diseases, including tuberculosis, bronchitis and asthma. In other trades, they were exposed to harmful chemicals or poisonous substances in their daily work routine. (1) They also worked with highly dangerous machinery that was designed with little or no attention to workers' safety. In the cotton spinning factories, they were used as "scavengers", moving underneath machinery to pick up loose cotton. "Piecers"
had to lean over the spinning-machine to repair the broken threads. They were worked with little rest at a rapid pace set by the machines and overseers, and those who grew tired or inattentive often paid for such transgressions with their limbs and fingers. Little or no time was allowed for breaks or sit-down meals. Corporal punishment was routinely administered for the slightest slackening of the pace, drowsiness, talking at work, running away, late arrival, or other mis-steps. (2) Though factory masters were nominally required to provide schooling for their young employees, few children had much time or energy during the typical 6-day week. Religious instruction at Sunday school was often the sum total of their access to education. Testimony of contemporary observers tends to suggest that factory work greatly reduced life-expectancy of child laborers and led to chronic physical deformities and crippling injuries. (3)"Factory cripples" were physically deformed by having their immature limbs kept in unatural or strenous positions by the long routine of factory work. Life expectancy of workers in iron and coal mines was estimated at less than 25 years. Though the prevalence of harsh treatment, exploitation and deformities was hotly then and since, there is strong contemporary evidence to support the critics' condemnation of child labor. The contemporary shock is accurately captured by Peter Gaskell's 1833 account:
Any man who has stood at twelve o'clock at the single narrow door-way, which serves as the place of exit for the hands employed in the great cotton-mills, must acknowledge, that an uglier set of men and women, of boys and girls, taking them in the mass, it would be impossible to congregate in a smaller compass. Their complexion is sallow and pallid--with a peculiar flatness of feature, caused by the want of a proper quantity of adipose substance to cushion out the cheeks. Their stature low--the average height of four hundred men, measured at different times, and different places, being five feet six inches. Their limbs slender, and playing badly and ungracefully. A very general bowing of the legs. Great numbers of girls and women walking lamely or awkwardly, with raised chests and spinal flexures. Nearly all have flat feet, accompanied with a down-tread, differing very widely from the elasticity of action in the foot and ankle, attendant upon perfect formation. Hair thin and straight--many of the men having but little beard, and that in patches of a few hairs, much resembling its growth among the red men of America. A spiritless and dejected air, a sprawling and wide action of the legs, and an appearance, taken as a whole, giving the world but "little assurance of a man," or if so, "most sadly cheated of his fair proportions..."(4)
Critics of child labor denounced the practice as "Yorkshire slavery". This was not a wild exaggeration. Many children were, in fact, literally "bound" to work in factories and mills by long-term contracts signed between their parents and factory masters or, in the case of "pauper apprentices", by the "Poor Law" authorities. Indeed, "pauper apprentices", assigned by their workhouse guardians to distant factories and often without their parents or relatives' consent, made up a large proportion of the factory workforce. Their contracts bound them to their master until the age of maturity (21). Runaways could be sent to prison or kept in the factory in irons.(5) Perhaps the most compelling arguments in opposition to child labor were voiced by the children themselves in testimony collected by a series of contemporary investigations and official inquiries. Their harrowing tales of misery and deprivation are impossible to read without appreciating the horror of their experience. The following account is by J.R. Clynes, a future Labour Party Cabinet Minister, of his life as a ten-year-old in a cotton mill in Oldham:
The noise was what impressed me most. Clatter, rattle, bang, the swish of thrusting levers and the crowding of hundreds of men, women and children at their work. Long rows of huge spinning-frames, with thousands of whirling spindles, slid forward several feet, paused and then slid smoothly back again, continuing the process unceasingly hour after hour while cotton became yarn and yarn changed to weaving material. I remember no golden summers, no triumphs at games and sports, no tramps through dark woods or over shadow-racing hills. Only meals at which there never seemed to be enough food, dreary journeys through smoke-fouled streets, in mornings when I nodded with tiredness and in evenings when my legs trembled under me from exhaustion.(6)
VIEWS OF THE DEFENDERS OF CHILD LABOR: Yet many contemporaries were strong believers in the necessity and even virtues of child labor. Some defenders simply found labor in the factories to be a healthy and beneficial occupation for young children. Andrew Ure, one of the more enthusiastic observers of the factory system, described factory children as "lively elves", whose work resembled "sport": "They seemed to be always cheerful and alert, taking pleasure in the light play of their muscles - enjoying the mobility natural to their age." (7) Indeed, many argued that hard work was an important element in character-building and training of children for the sort of behavior and values important in later life. In a culture where the working class was viewed as naturally ill-disciplined, indolent and an easy prey According to the Penny Magazine: "In many factories they are not only usefully employed, but, at the same time, are trained up in those habits of morality and good feeling which are most likely to ensure their own lasting happiness and to make them valuable members of society." (8) George Courtauld, a prominent cotton manufacturer, maintained that his mills "will prove a nursery of respectable young women". Other defenders of child labor were concerned that working-class families, who relied for their marginal subsistence on the extra income brought in by their children, would be devastated by any misguided act of philanthropy designed to prohibit child labor in the factories. William James, M.P. for Carlisle, expressed this fear in the parliamentary debates on factory reform: "Undoubtedly the system which is pursued in these manufactories relating to the working of young children is a great evil; but it appears to me that the remedy which the honourable gentleman proposes to apply is worse than the disease. There appears to me to be only a choice of evils - the children must either work or starve." (9) James Haywood, a banker and M.P., echoed this concern: "My fear is, that, from mistaken notions of humanity, we may inflict upon the working classes a deeper wound than we propose to cure. We must remember that food and clothing are as essential to health as air and exercise; and take care that while we give the later we do not take away the former." This was stated most brutally by J.E. Taylor, the founder and editor of the Manchester Guardian: "though child labour is evil, it is better than starvation". Another class of argument relied on the laissez-faire injunction of prevailing classical liberal ideology against any sort of government interference in the economy and society. Samuel Courtauld, a mill owner, summarized this view: "Legislative interference in the arrangement and conduct of business is always injurious, tending to check improvement and to increase the cost of production." A related line of individualistic argument insisted that legislation to exclude children from the mills would constitute an usurpation of parental rights. By discouraging parental responsibility, such state interference would, in fact, only sap the workers' sense of independence and self-reliance, and thereby diminish the protection they offered their children. Henry Thomas Hope cautioned: "I doubt whether parliament can protect children as effectively as their parents." Finally, the concern was that domestic philanthropy was a moral luxury which would merely raise Britain's manufacturing costs and thus give competitive advantage to its foreign rivals. One prominent political economist, Nassau Senior, argued that long hours of work were absolutely essential, since, he reasoned, that the factories worked to pay off their expenses in the first part of the day and only began to make a profit in the last few hours! (13)
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