[The following material comes from Readings in European History Since 1814, edited by Jonathan F. Scott and Alexander Baltzly (Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1930.) The headnotes preceeding each sections are by Scott and Baltzly.]

The Physical Deterioration of the Textile Workers

The physical deterioration of the manufacturing class in England was still noticeable in the 1930s, more than a century after the height of the Industrial Revolution. A medical observer's description of what the work did to the worker follows.

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..."

Factory labour is a species of work, in some respects singularly unfitted for children. Cooped up in a heated atmosphere, debarred the necessary exercise, remaining in one position for a series of hours, one set or system of muscles alone called into activity, it cannot be wondered at--that its effects are injurious to the physical growth of a child. Where the bony system is still imperfect, the vertical position it is compelled to retain, influences its direction; the spinal column bends beneath the weight of the head, bulges out laterally, or is dragged forward by the weight of the parts composing the chest, the pelvis yields beneath the opposing pressure downwards, and the resistance given by the thigh-bones; its capacity is lessened, sometimes more and sometimes less; the legs curve, and the whole body loses height, in consequence of this general yielding and bending of its parts. [P. Gaskell, The Manufacturing Population of England. London, 1833, pp.161-162, 202-203.]

A Cotton Manufacturer on Hours of Labor

John Fielden, although himself a Lancashire factory owner, was one of the staunchest fighters for protective legislation for the cotton worker. His difficulties are such as today in the Southern states of the United States are commonly urged by manufacturers.

Here, then, is the "curse" of our factory-system; as improvements in machinery have gone on, the "avarice of masters" has prompted many to exact more labour from their hands than they were fitted by nature to perform, and those who have wished for the hours of labour to be less for all ages than the legislature would even yet sanction, have had no alternative but to conform more or less to the prevailing practice, or abandon the trade altogether. This has been the case with regard to myself and my partners. We have never worked more than seventy-one hours a week before Sir JOHN HOBHOUSE'S Act was passed. We then came down to sixty-nine; and since Lord ALTHORP's Act was passed, in 1833, we have reduced the time of adults to sixty-seven and a half hours a week, and that of children under thirteen years of age to forty-eight hours in the week, though to do this latter has, I must admit, subjected us to much inconvenience, but the elder hands to more, inasmuch as the relief given to the child is in some measure imposed on the adult. But the overworking does not apply to children only; the adults are also overworked. The increased speed given to machinery within the last thirty years, has, in very many instances, doubled the labour of both. [John Fielden, M.P., The Curse of the Factory System. London, 1836,pp. 34-35.]

Opposition to the Chimney Sweepers Regulation Bill

Sending boys up chimneys to clean them was a common practice, and a dangerous and cruel one. Lord Ashley became the chief advocate of the use of chimney-sweeping machinery and of legislation to require its use. Even earlier, however, such a law had been proposed, but it met with strong opposition. In a debate on this subject in the House of Lords in 1819 the Earl of Lauderdale well represented a large body of conservative opinion.

Their lordships had lately heard complaints of the encouragement given to machinery, in preference to manual industry. Now, though he differed most completely from those who cherished the prejudice he alluded to--though he was convinced that the introduction of machinery had not only had the effect of enriching the proprietor, but also of enabling the workman to live better and cheaper than he otherwise could have done--yet there certainly was some difference to be drawn between their encouraging and enforcing the adoption of machinery, and especially when those persons who best understood its application in the way of trade were against its introduction at all. ...If their lordships were determined to adopt such a course, they must introduce a code of moral legislation unknown to their ancestors, and quite unsuited to their habits and laws. The better way, in his judgment, would be to leave reforms of this kind entirely to the moral feeling of, perhaps, the most moral people, on the whole face of the earth. [Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, March 8, 1819. New Series, 39 (8 March year??): 901.]

The Benefit of the Factory Legislation

When Sadler was defeated for reelection in 1833 by Macaulay, his successor as leader in the campaign for shorter hours was Lord Ashley, later Earl of Shaftesbury, whose achievements in this field exceeded any other man's. More than a generation later the old Earl of Shaftesbury, speaking for a bill to relieve conditions of textile workers in India, commented on the great gains brought about by similar legislation in England.

The other is the old, the often-repeated, and as often-refuted, argument that the work is light. Light! Why, no doubt, much of it is light, if measured by the endurance of some three or four minutes. But what say you, my Lords, to a continuity of toil, in a standing posture, in a poisonous atmosphere, during 13 hours, with 15 minutes of rest? Why, the stoutest man in England, were he made, in such a condition of things, to do nothing during the whole of that time but be erect on his feet and stick pins in a pincushion, would sink under the burden. What say you, then, of children--children of the tenderest years? Why, they become stunted, crippled, deformed, useless. I speak what I know--I state what I have seen. When I visited Bradford, in Yorkshire, in 1838, being desirous to see the condition of the children--for I knew that they were employed at very early ages in the worsted business....I asked for a collection of cripples and deformities. In a short time more than 80 were gathered in a large courtyard. They were mere samples of the entire mass. I assert without exaggeration that no power of language could describe the varieties, and I may say, the cruelties, in all these degradations of the human form. They stood or squatted before me in all the shapes of the letters of the alphabet. This was the effect of prolonged toil on the tender frames of children at early ages. When I visited Bradford, under the limitation of hours some years afterwards, I called for a similar exhibition of cripples; but, God be praised! there was not one to be found in that vast city. Yet the work of these poor sufferers had been light, if measured by minutes, but terrific when measured by hours. [Hansard's Parliamentary Debates. 3rd Series, CCXLV (4 April 1879): 355-56.]

Related Material

  • Evidence Given Before the Sadler Committee
  • Mr. Cobbett's Discovery
  • The Physical Deterioration of the Textile Workers
  • A Cotton Manufacturer on Hours of Labor
  • Opposition to the Chimney Sweepers' Regulation Bill
  • The Benefit of the Factory Legislation
  • Testimony Gathered by Ashley's Mines Commission
  • Chadwick's Report on Sanitary Conditions


    Readings in European History Since 1814. Ed. Jonathan F. Scott and Alexander Baltzly. Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1930.

    Last modified 2 May 2018