THIS week we ran a feature by DAVE WELBOURNE on shocking cases of child labour in 19th century mills.

Here Dave writes about working conditions following the 1833 Factory Act, which followed campaigning by social reformers including Richard Oastler who fought in Bradford to end child labour. Oastler gave evidence to a committee investigating the employment of children:

The evidence from this committee (1831-3) shocked those who read it. Children were questioned and they described the conditions in which they had worked, and doctors, overlookers, magistrates, and parents were also interrogated.

The investigation resulted in the passing of the 1833 Factory Act. This made it illegal to employ anyone under the age of nine, and that children between nine and 13 must not work more than nine hours a day, and must have two hours of schooling in the factory. Inspectors were appointed to visit each factory and make their report. The law had some disadvantages because there were not enough inspectors, and because there were no birth certificates, there was no way of proving how old they were.

In 1836, to solve this problem, it became compulsory to register every birth, death and marriage. Inspectors were able to assess school standards, and reported on some terrible schools.

William Ackroyd’s Mill, Otley, was inspected in 1834. It was a worsted mill by the River Wharfe, and relied on water power. Occasionally there were problems when work was interrupted by floods, and it was claimed “the work people cheerfully made up the loss of time.” They were sometimes obliged to dock their wages, “or ruin themselves.”

Working excess hours was regarded as unavoidable by Ackroyd, to make up for lost time. On average the workers worked 12-and-a-half hours a day for five days, and 12 hours on Saturday. The day started at 6am until 7pm. They had half an hour for dinner which many brought with them because they lived too far away.

When the weather was fine the children were allowed to play in a field adjoining the mills; in wet weather they had to stay in.

Ackroyd believed that if the hours of work were less than 69 a week, it would result in lower wages. The under-12s were used in spinning, and no apprentices were employed. He commented that only in emergencies would children be employed during the night.

If children were disobedient they would be dismissed, and corporal punishment would be inflicted if parents preferred this to dismissal. It was the overlookers who carried this out but severe punishment was forbidden.

Ackroyd claimed that no proceedings had been taken against him or an overlooker in the last three years. In fact over the last ten years, “the general health of the work people had always been good”.

There was a Sunday school and evening school. There were seats in the windows and a nail for hanging up hats, cloaks and aprons. There was a wash house erected in 1817. Ventilation depended on the overlooker who would open a window, but there was no ventilation at night. The temperature in the mill was about 60 degrees. Lighting at night, and in winter mornings and evenings, was by candle. To protect the workers, all dangerous machinery was fenced off.

So despite some misgivings, the 1833 Act, and others later in the 19th century, did improve working conditions for children, and the introduction and expansion of education served to provide ‘an alternative’ for young children.