Richard Oastler was born in Leeds on 20 December 1789 and is remembered as a campaigner against slavery and the maltreatment of children in mills and factories. He was inspired to take up the cause of child labour following a visit to John Wood’s worsted mill near Bradford in 1830. The following day, Oastler wrote an impassioned letter to the Leeds Mercury pointing out the hypocrisy of those who campaign for the abolition of slavery in the colonies whilst overlooking the abuse of children at home:
“The very streets which receive the droppings of an ‘Anti-Slavery Society’ are every morning wet by the tears of innocent victims at the accursed shrine of avarice, who are compelled (not by the cart-whip of the negro slave-driver) but by the dread of the equally appalling throng or strop of the over-looker, to hasten half-dressed, not half-fed, to those magazines of British infantile slavery the worsted mills in the town and neighbourhood of Bradford!!!”
On 19 June in 1831, Oastler agreed the Fixby Hall compact with local businessmen by which they pledged to reduce the working hours of children employed in their factories, following the defeat of proposed legislation in Parliament. It was the start of a long and bitter campaign for better treatment of child workers during which Oastler continued to compare their treatment in factories with that of slaves in the colonies.
He organised strikes, protests and sabotage and committed so much of his own money to the cause that he was imprisoned for debt in 1840 for three years. He was mockingly dubbed the “Factory King” by his opponents but Oastler happily accepted the soubriquet.
His campaign culminated in the reforms of the Factory Act 1847 which improved the conditions of children in cotton mills (and was the first piece of modern health and safety legislation). The main provision of the Act was to limit the working week of women and children to 58 hours. However, those reforms were not extended to all factories until after Oastler’s death in 1861.
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