Factory Act

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Factory Act

Great Britain 1833


In 1833 the British Whig government passed a factory act that applied to textile manufactures. This was the culmination of intensive lobbying on the part of working-class organizations and humanitarian individuals. The act forbade the employment of children under age nine and limited the employment of children under age 13 to nine hours a day and children under 18 to 12 hours. The act also forbade night work for children and set up the first system of factory inspectors. Although a disappointment to those hoping and working for a 10-hour day for all laborers, the Factory Act was the first major state intervention in the conditions of factory labor and set precedents for further factory acts in 1844, 1847, 1850, and 1853.


  • 1809: Progressive British industrialist Robert Owen proposes an end to employment of children in his factories. When his partners reject the idea, he forms an alliance with others of like mind, including the philosopher Jeremy Bentham.
  • 1813: Jane Austen publishes Pride and Prejudice.
  • 1818: Donkin, Hall & Gamble "Preservatory" in London produces the first canned foods.
  • 1824: Ludwig van Beethoven composes his Ninth Symphony.
  • 1829: Greece wins its independence after a seven-year war with Turkey.
  • 1831: Polish revolt against Russian rule is unsuccessful.
  • 1834: British mathematician Charles Babbage completes drawings for the "analytic engine," a forerunner of the modern computer that he never builds.
  • 1834: American inventor Cyrus H. McCormick patents his reaper, a horse-drawn machine for harvesting wheat.
  • 1835: American inventor and painter Samuel F. B. Morse constructs an experimental version of his telegraph, and American inventor Samuel Colt patents his revolver.
  • 1837: Victoria is crowned in England.
  • 1841: Act of Union joins Upper Canada and Lower Canada, which consist of parts of the present-day provinces of Ontario and Quebec, respectively.
  • 1846: American inventor Elias Howe patents his sewing machine.

Event and Its Context

The Ten Hours Movement

The first few decades of the nineteenth century in Britain saw a movement for the amelioration of factory conditions. These movements became stronger in the early 1830s and brought together workers who were organized into Short Time Committees in the textile districts of the North of England and Scotland. The committees had allies among the landed classes, notably the Tory activist Richard Oastler and a minority of factory owners. In 1830 Oastler's letter to the Leeds Mercury, titled "Yorkshire Slavery," compared the lot of child laborers in the Bradford worsted factories unfavorably to that of African slaves in the West Indies, and attracted much attention. Factory reformers usually set their goal as the protection of children from excessive work. There was much greater reluctance to prescribe the hours of labor of adult men, as it was commonly believed that adult men should be free to set their own conditions of work. In practice this usually meant accepting what was offered by the factory management. The interdependency of the different processes in a factory, however, meant that limitation of the hours of children's labor would lead to the limitation of adult hours as well. Supporters of the "Ten Hours Movement" believed that limiting children to 10 hours of work daily would ultimately limit all factory workers to 10 hours. The movement cut across political lines; Tories, Radicals, and Whigs could all be found supporting and opposing it. The Tory Oastler and the Radical working-class leaders of the Short Time Committees reached an agreement, the Fixby Hall Compact of June 1831, in which they agreed to set aside political and sectarian differences to work together on factory issues.

In 1831 Sir John Cam Hobhouse introduced the first bill under the Whig government, which was led by Prime Minister Earl Grey, to limit the hours of children's factory labor. The bill would have extended the prohibition against workdays greater than 12 hours from 16-year-olds to 18-year-olds. The bill received no encouragement from the government, which was committed to laissez-faire principles. Yorkshire employers petitioned Parliament against the bill. Although eventually passed into law, it was so encumbered with amendments put forth by the manufacturers that it had little to no effect. It applied only to cotton textiles and contained no provision for enforcement other than requiring factory managers to keep a record of hours worked.

Sadler's Bill

The following year, Michael Thomas Sadler, a Member of Parliament for Leeds who had been elected as a Tory/Radical fusion candidate, introduced a new bill. Sadler presented a bill in March 1832 that would have prohibited the employment of children under nine in factories, restricted to 10 the hours of children between nine and 18, and forbidden night work to all under age 21. The bill's principal opponent in the House of Commons was John Charles Spencer, Viscount Althorp, who expressed his opposition in terms of classical political economy, claiming that the regulation of child labor would lead to unemployment and the loss of manufacturing capacity. The opposition to the bill tried to stall by appointing a parliamentary select committee of enquiry, headed by Sadler, to gather information on factory conditions. The committee included supporters and opponents of factory reform as well as the undecided. It sat between 13 April and 7 August (when Parliament was suspended) and met on 43 days. Supporters of factory reform dominated the list of witnesses heard by the committee. Of the 87 witnesses who spoke for the committee, 60 were themselves workers, including three women. (The manufacturers were also slated to testify, but the committee was suspended with the adjournment of Parliament before it could hear them.) The committee issued a massive report of nearly a thousand folio pages that included accounts of protracted hours, of workers being locked in factories for 48 or more continuous hours, and of children deformed by the requirements of their work or beaten to prevent them from falling asleep. It shocked the press and roused public opinion, and made the passage of some form of factory legislation inevitable.

The factory owners, hastily organized into an "Association of Master Manufacturers," and their allies in Parliament attempted to recoup by having a Royal Commission appointed to investigate factory conditions. The Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, limited the effectiveness of the new commission as a stalling device by allowing only six weeks for it to make its report. The commission included several Benthamites, including its leading spirit Edwin Chadwick, who were suspicious of humanitarianism. The workers and their allied supporters of reform boycotted the commission and greeted it in the North with massive demonstrations of protest. The commission's report, which attacked the Ten Hours Movement as a front for trade-union agitators, was generally more sympathetic to the factory owners than that of the Parliamentary Select Committee. The commission report principally warned that the restriction of child labor would lead to the restriction of adult labor, rather than opposing limitations on child labor per se. It supported some legislative action to remedy the worst abuses inflicted on children under the age of 13.

The Factory Act

The parliamentary election of 1832, the first carried out after the great Reform Bill, seemed to hinder the progress of the bill as Sadler was defeated at Leeds by the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, a Whig opponent of the bill. Leadership of the factory reformers in the House of Commons in the new session passed to Anthony Ashley Cooper, Viscount Ashley, the Tory member of Parliament for Dorsetshire. Cooper, a deeply religious conservative who was strongly opposed to trade unions, had been converted to the cause of factory reform on humanitarian grounds by the report of the parliamentary select committee. He would remain a leader in the cause for many more years. His first move was to reintroduce Sadler's bill to forestall any attempt by manufacturers to preempt the bill with an Eleven Hours Bill of their own. Althorp countered the move by introducing an amendment (along lines suggested by the commission's report) to lower the age for the 10-hour limit from 18 to 13. Cooper withdrew his bill, and the final bill was Althorp's, which was based on the commission's report with some modifications.

The Factory Act in its final form, unlike Hobhouse's bill, applied to all textile manufacturers (with some exceptions for silk). It forbade the employment of children under nine, limited the employment of children under age 13 to nine hours a day and 48 hours a week, and that of children under 18 to 12 hours a day and 69 hours a week. The act also forbade night work for children by restricting the time they could work to the period from 5:30 A.M. to 8:30 P., and required children under 13 to attend school for two hours a day. The Factory Act was a disappointment to many supporters of factory reform, including Oastler. Supporters were frustrated that the original goal of the 10-hour workday, as set forth in Sadler's bill, was lost. Many blamed the government for protecting the manufacturers. The act had much more effect, however, than any previous legislation. Not only did it go further than previous acts, but it also provided a force of inspectors empowered to see to its enforcement. It also established a clear precedent for government regulation of working conditions, and it was followed by further legislation in 1844, 1847 (when an actual Ten Hours Bill was passed), 1850, and 1853.

Key Players

Chadwick, Edwin (1800-1890): A follower and friend of the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, Chadwick was a leader in the imposition of the new Poor Law of 1834 and sanitary reform.

Cooper, Anthony Ashley, seventh Earl of Shaftesbury (1801-1885): A deeply religious conservative with a strong belief in social reform and the amelioration of the lot of the laboring poor, Cooper led the cause of better factory conditions in the House of Commons until he succeeded his father as Earl and moved to the House of Lords in 1851. Cooper was also active in many philanthropic causes, chairing the Ragged School Union for 39 years.

Grey, Charles, Earl (1764-1845): Grey was a long-serving Whig politician who became prime minister in 1830. His government carried the abolition of slavery, the Factory Act, and the Great Reform Bill of 1832, which extended the British parliamentary franchise. He resigned as prime minister in 1834.

Hobhouse, Sir John Cam (1786-1869): A long-serving London radical Member of Parliament and a friend of the poet Byron, Hobhouse served as president of the Board of Control from 1835 to 1841 and from 1846 to 1852.

Oastler, Richard (1789-1861): Oastler was for decades a tireless speaker and writer in favor of factory reform and against the Poor Law of 1834. He earned the nickname "The Factory King" and is often considered a founder of the British tradition of conservative social reform.

Sadler, Michael Thomas (1780-1835): A Tory and an opponent of Catholic emancipation, Sadler wrote an attack on Thomas Malthus's population theory, The Law of Population (1832), in which he argued that rising income leads to declining fertility. Sadler served in Parliament from 1829 to 1832 as a champion of factory reform and the improvement of conditions of agricultural laborers.

Spencer, John Charles, Viscount Althorp and third Earl of Spencer (1782-1845): Althorp was a Whig politician and supporter of parliamentary reform. He was chancellor of the exchequer from 1830 to 1834, when he retired from politics.



Driver, Cecil. Tory Radical: The Life of Richard Oastler.New York: Oxford University Press, 1946.

Newbould, Ian. Whiggery and Reform, 1830-1841: The Politics of Government. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class.New York: Pantheon Books, 1964.

Woodward, Llewellyn. The Age of Reform: England 1815-1870. 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Additional Resources


Cowherd, Raymond. The Humanitarians and the Ten Hour Movement in England. Boston: Baker Library, 1956.

Henriques, Ursula R. Q. The Early Factory Acts and Their Enforcement. London: Historical Association, 1971.

Ward, John Trevor. The Factory Movement, 1830-1855.New York: St. Martin's Press, 1962.

—William E. Burns