Jump to content
The Education Forum

The Debate on Child Labour

John Simkin

Recommended Posts

Robert Owen, the son of a saddler and ironmonger from Newtown in Wales, was working in Manchester that he heard about the success Richard Arkwright was having with his textile factory in Cromford. Richard was quick to see the potential of this way of manufacturing cloth and although he was only nineteen years old, borrowed £100 and set up a business as a manufacturer of spinning mules with John Jones, an engineer. In 1792 the partnership with Jones came to an end and Owen found work as a manager of Peter Drinkwater's large spinning factory in Manchester.

As manager of Drinkwater's factory, Owen met a lot of businessmen involved in the textile industry. This included David Dale, the owner of Chorton Twist Company in New Lanark, Scotland, the largest cotton-spinning business in Britain. The two men became close friends and in 1799 Robert married Dale's daughter, Caroline.

With the financial support of several businessmen from Manchester, Owen purchased Dale's four textile factories in New Lanark for £60,000. Under Owen's control, the Chorton Twist Company expanded rapidly. However, Robert Owen was not only concerned with making money, he was also interested in creating a new type of community at New Lanark. Owen believed that a person's character is formed by the effects of their environment. Owen was convinced that if he created the right environment, he could produce rational, good and humane people. Owen argued that people were naturally good but they were corrupted by the harsh way they were treated. For example, Owen was a strong opponent of physical punishment in schools and factories and immediately banned its use in New Lanark.

David Dale had originally built a large number of houses close to his factories in New Lanark. By the time Owen arrived, over 2,000 people lived in New Lanark village. One of the first decisions took when he became owner of New Lanark was to order the building of a school. Owen was convinced that education was crucially important in developing the type of person he wanted.

When Owen arrived at New Lanark children from as young as five were working for thirteen hours a day in the textile mills. He stopped employing children under ten and reduced their labour to ten hours a day. The young children went to the nursery and infant schools that Owen had built. Older children worked in the factory but also had to attend his secondary school for part of the day.

Owen's partners were concerned that these reforms would reduce profits. Unable to convince them of the wisdom of these reforms, Owen decided to borrow money from Archibald Campbell, a local banker, in order to buy their share of the business. Later, Owen sold shares in the business to men who agreed with the way he ran his factory.

Robert Owen hoped that the way he treated children at his New Lanark would encourage other factory owners to follow his example. It was therefore important for him to publicize his activities. He wrote several books including The Formation of Character (1813) and A New View of Society (1814). In 1815 Robert Owen sent detailed proposals to Parliament about his ideas on factory reform. This resulted in Owen appearing before Robert Peel and his House of Commons committee in April, 1816.

Owen toured the country making speeches on his experiments at New Lanark. He also publishing his speeches as pamphlets and sent free copies to influential people in Britain. In one two month period he spent £4,000 publicizing his activities. In his speeches, Owen argued that he was creating a "new moral world, a world from which the bitterness of divisive sectarian religion would be banished". His criticisms of the Church of England upset many people, including reformers such as William Wilberforce and William Cobbett.


Link to comment
Share on other sites

One of the most important campaigners against child labour was Frances Trollope. In 1839 Trollope decided to write a novel on young factory workers. She had become interested in the subject after reading a copy of the book on the life of Robert Blincoe in 1832. Before writing the novel she carried out a fact-finding mission to Manchester. Frances Trollope was accompanied by the French artist, Auguste Hervieu, who had been commissioned to produce illustrations for the book. Trollope and Hervieu spent several weeks visiting factories and having meeting with people involved in the campaign for factory reform. This included Richard Oastler, Joseph Raynor Stephens and John Doherty, the editor of The Poor Man's Advocate.

The first part of Michael Armstrong: Factory Boy, was published in 1840. Frances Trollope was the first woman to issue her novels in monthly parts. Costing one shilling a month, it was also the first industrial novel to be published in Britain. The conservative The Athenaeum, gave it a hostile reception and compared Trollope to James Rayner Stephens: "The most probable immediate effect of her pennings and her pencillings will be the burning of factories and the plunder of property of all kinds. The Rev. James Rayner Stephens has recently been sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment for using seditious and inflammatory language. The author of Michael Armstrong deserves as richly to have eighteen months in Chester Gaol. But if the text be bad, still worse are the plates that illustrate it. What, for instance, must be the effect of the first picture in No. V1 (mill children competing with pigs for food), on the heated imaginations of our great manufacturing towns, figuring as they do in every book-seller's window."


The illustration that they thought would cause a riot:

post-7-074303300 1311861641_thumb.jpg

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Abraham Whitehead was a cloth merchant from Holmfirth who joined the campaign for factory legislation. He told a parliamentary committee in 1832: "The youngest age at which children are employed is never under five, but some are employed between five and six, in woollen-mills, as piecers.... I have frequently seen them going to work between five and six in the morning.... They get their breakfast as they eat; they eat and work; there is generally a pot of water porridge, with a little treacle in it, placed at the end of the machine." He was concerned about the impact the work was having on the children. "I have seen a little boy, only this winter, who works in the mill, and who lives within two hundred or three hundred yards of my own door; he is not yet six years old, and I have seen him, when he had a few coppers in his pocket, go to a beer shop, call for a glass of ale, and drink as boldly as any full-grown man, cursing and swearing."


Link to comment
Share on other sites

Please sign in to comment

You will be able to leave a comment after signing in

Sign In Now
  • Create New...