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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 40

Employment of Females and Children

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Employment of Females and Children.

(By the Late Sir John Richardson.)

Though I have specially addressed this little pamphlet to the fathers and mothers of families, as to those primarily concerned in the well-being of the rising generation, I would ask the kind indulgence of the public generally, and particularly of those given to the consideration of social and economic questions, to what I shall bring before them. I lay no claim to originality of thought, nor to depth of research, I only ask that what I have gathered may be fairly weighed, and that if it produces the conviction that the cause is a good one, it may be followed by earnest and hearty co-operation.

Mr. Mundella, a member of the Imperial Parliament, himself a factory man, who had once worked in a cotton-mill, and who has nineteen-twentieths of his money invested in English industries, has rightly remarked that "in times past no legislation had provoked so much bitter hostility, and so much personal acrimony, as factory legislation." "Within the last 40 or 50 years," he says, "it had arrayed against it some of the most illustrious statesmen and political economists of Great Britain, including Lord Brougham, Lord Macaulay, Sir James Graham, Mr. Cobden, Mr. Roebuck, and Mr. Mill; but all, or nearly all of them lived to see the error of their ways, and they generously and magnanimously acknowledged their error." Mr. Disraeli, speaking in Glasgow, little more than two years ago, observed that, "though originally opposed to the principle of the Factory Acts, he was obliged to confess that nothing had conferred a greater blessing on the people of England." Even John Stuart Mill, who had written more strongly against restrictions on the employment of women and young persons, and yet, excelled by none in the courage to declare his opinions, said not a word, when, as a member for Westminster, the Factory Act, and the Workshops Act, 1867, were passed through the House of Commons. When Sir James Graham was Home Secretary in 1844, though once a stout opponent, he publicly expressed his conviction that "women of all ages, so dreadful was their condition in the mills, must be protected by law."

No less emphatic was the testimony of the late Mr. Cobden, who, speaking of the print works, "was so satisfied that page 7 married women at least were not free agents, that he assented to a clause which provided that 'any husband conniving at the employment of his wife should be subject to a heavy penalty.'" But I should be doing an injustice to the cause of factory legislation were I to confine myself to recording to opinions of able statesmen and politicians. When the bitter controversy commenced, some 40 years since, only two mill-owners stood by the Earl of Shaftesbury, but now, not more than two are against him, to say nothing of the hearty co-operation of many of the mill-owners themselves; and so remarkable and affecting has been the conversion in some cases, that on visiting one of the greatest of the proprietors of a manufactory he was taken into the counting-house, and, being seized by both hands, was told, "I was long your most determined opponent, but you have carried the day, and now never part with a hair's breadth of what you have gained. It will do no harm to us, and it will do great good to the people." And with respect to one of the latest declarations, we have the largest silkowner in the world, Mr. Lister, expressing his conviction in the Bradford Chamber of Commerce that the late Bill was called for, "for the operatives had shown the necessity for shorter hours, and the mill-owners had certainly not shown that such hours could not safely be adopted." Mr. Mason, also, a very eminent occupier of mill property, declares in regard to shortening the hours of labour—"I have not a particle of fear of ruin to our cotton trade by the adoption of fifty-six hours a week." Even the representatives of the Huddersfield Chamber of Commerce, on the passing of the Factory Health of Women Act, in 1874, said—"We were sent to curse, and we do not like to bless, but we do not want to oppose the Bill."

Should we need additional evidence we shall find it in the speech of Mr. Macdonald, a member of the British Parliament, who "had passed his life in the ranks of the working men," and who, while declaring that working men were quite capable of legislating for themselves, both in regard to wages and to hours of labour, accused an opponent of being "willing to hand women and children over to the tender mercies of combination, rather than accept a proposal to give them legislative protection."

Until the year 1833, "children and young persons were worked the whole day and the whole night ad libitum, and human ingenuity, prompted by greed, and deaf to human suffering, devised a complicated system of relieving and shifting hands, moving about the labourers in the factory so as to puzzle the inspectors and elude prosecution;" and it was not till 1848, after a preliminary Act for the protection of women and young children was passed, that the ten hours' labour day was fixed. Nor was it an hour too early, for a labourer in the tapestry factory, in page 8 giving evidence at a Parliamentary enquiry, stated :—"I used to carry my boy to and from the factory when he was seven, and he worked for sixteen hours daily. I often knelt down to feed him as he stood at the machine, for he was not allowed to quit it." Nor is such testimony confined to one class alone, for, as may be learned from the Children's Commission Report of 1863, respectable employers themselves, who suffered most from the un-scrupulous filching propensities of their competitors, demanded protection from the Legislature for themselves and the unhappy victims of human cupidity.

To know anything of the deep degradation and fearful condition of the working classes formerly employed in factories, we must go back to the year 1832, when, for the first time the Legislature, wrung with anguish at the pitiable sight disclosed by the Imperial Commissioners and other trustworthy persons, stepped forward to protect those, who, in many instances, were worse cared far than the "very animals which worked in the mines." The introduction of water as a motive power, and the subsequent employment of steam in connection with machinery, gave a marvellous impulse to cotton manufactures, and were the cause of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children concentrating in certain localities in and around Manchester, and other similar cities, laying the foundation of gigantic fortunes to the employers of labour, and of vast physical suffering and mental and moral degradation to the employed. Excessive labour, common alike to men, women, and children, left no time for education, while it unnerved the mind, benumbed the moral faculties, and prostrated the body, so that the few hours of relaxation, falsely so called, passed in darksome lanes and loathe-some dens, where the work people lived, were spent by them in low and degrading pursuits. The groaning machinery untiringly and methodically worked its way, while the attendant human machinery, consisting of toiling tens of thousands, mechanically followed its movements for the long weary hours of the day, heedless of anything but a cessation from work, and scarcely even of that. No wonder, then, that the "educational, moral, and physical condition of England's workmen began to be felt as altogether unbearable." No wonder, then, that the Parliament of Great Britain, casting aside delusive theories and vain philosophies, felt it to be an imperative duty to arrest the course of deterioration and destruction, more fearful and certain than those epidemics which periodically carry off their millions. Unaided philanthropy proving powerless in the presence of so gigantic an evil, it became necessary to invoke the strong and protecting arm of the law.

Were I to confine myself to such vague generalities, unsupported by illustrations, it is to be feared that the public mind page 9 would not be sufficiently sensible of the wonderful transforming blessings which have accompanied a wise and just legislation, and, therefore, revolting as the record may be, I cannot refrain from depicting in their true colours, so far as propriety admits, the state of the manufacturing classes in or before the year 1833. Let us view the subject in its physical, moral, and mental aspects, and then decide whether legislative intervention was necessary, and whether it came an hour too early.

If we regard the subject from a physical point of view let the Earl of Shaftesbury, formerly Lord Ashley, speak. "Well can I recollect," he says, in the earlier period of this movement, "waiting at the factory gates to see the children come out, and a set of sad dejected creatures they were; but, now, it is far different, and you may perceive in them health, elasticity, and joy. In Bradford especially, the proofs of long and cruel toil were most remarkable. The crippled and distorted forms might be numbered by hundreds, perhaps by thousands. The sight was piteous, the deformities incredible; but now there is scarcely a crippled child in the town. Under these circumstances and in the presence of facts it is idle to say that Parliamentary inquiry and protective legislation were an interference with personal liberty. I pause not to inquire whether all this good might not otherwise have been effected. We know that the evil existed, and that legislation has removed it."

Mr. Baker, speaking of a period prior to the passing of the Act of 1833, said : "It cannot be denied that the factory cripples of Lancashire and Yorkshire were a remarkable sight, it being a common expression that they seemed almost as numerous in proportion to the industrial towns of those countries as sailors were in Liverpool to its general population; but no sooner was the excessive work stopped, and the age of admission to work advanced, than cripples disappeared entirely. On one occasion, in 1832, the working men determined to rescue their wives and children from the excessive toil that was killing them, and they exhibited the factory children in a great street procession just as they left their work—"stunted, distorted, and pale as spectres, and as it passed along, the people who lined the sides of the streets were awe-struck; and when the children struck up a hymn, asking God to bless those labouring in their cause, their plaintive cries opened the fountain of sympathy, and men and women burst into tears." It was long after this, however, that women and children were worked in factories for 12, sometimes 14, and sometimes 16 hours a day; but the hour of their redemption was drawing near, notwithstanding the determined hostility and lugubrious prophecies of factory owners. Is more testimony needed? We shall find it, without search, in the page 10 practical evidence of many awakened employers of labour, who have by a benevolent alchemy transmitted the pestilential and deadly dross of former days into those magnificent workshops which work off disease and promote health.

About the time when the Roman Catholic Emancipation Bill had been carried, and the Reform Bill had become law, self-taught and thoughtful men among the industrial classes threw their weight into the Liberal scale, and, as a just reward, yet an unsolicited one, they received the staunch and energetic support of the Liberal party when vital social questions affecting these classes, originating among themselves, came under consideration, and though the disinterested and unflagging labours of Ashley, Morpeth, Merden, Sadler, Ostler, the Peels, Hobhouse, and others are ever to be held in grateful remembrance, "the credit of this arduous conflict, ending as it triumphantly did, belongs, in the sacrifices it called forth, as well as in the blessings it has brought to the community, to the working men of England." Similar in its support by the working men concerned, was The Inspection of Mines Act, previously to 1860, when the delegates themselves brought forward a new Bill, explaining their case, and reasoning with the Opposition of the House of Commons so that "in the hot weather, and in a bad atmosphere, after miles of walking, and hours of standing, they were so weary as to long for the pit, the pick, and home again." Long and toilsome was the way which the emancipationists had to tread before they were privileged to reap the reward of their labours. So early as 1802 they had begun to frame and pass the Acts which were to liberate the factory class, but which were of no avail for 30 years, owing to want of authority to enforce them. In 1844 factory women were for the first time protected by legislation in a Bill introduced by Sir James Graham, and it was on this occasion that Mr. Cobden gave utterance to his opinion on this subject in these words, "I object to all legislation of this kind, but I cannot resist the fearful evidence of the sufferings to which women are exposed." Concession begot opposition, and legal authority was not powerful enough to protect the factory hands from dismissal; but in the long run, humanity could not be denied, and in 1853, after a half century of ceaseless strife, and after struggles in the Courts of law, the Factory Acts could no longer be called a "mere humbug and a parliamentary fiction." Then followed the Acts of 1864 and 1867, which now cover a population of 2,000,000.

It is an interesting study to watch the progress of these legislative enactments—a progress sturdily resisted, energetically pursued, and thoroughly successful, because based upon the unalterable laws of truth and justice.

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By the legislation of 1833 the Earl of Shaftesbury put a stop to the labour of children under nine years of age.

In 1844 Sir James Graham extended the system of protection so as to include women.

In 1850 Sir George Grey limited the hours of work in textile manufactures to between the hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

In 1874 a Bill was passed limiting employment to ten hours. This Act was termed "An Act to make better provision for improving the health of women, young persons, and children employed in manufactories, and the education of such children, and otherwise improve the Factory Acts."

The wise provisions of this wise Act justly entitled it to be designated by the Earl of Shaftesbury, at a meeting held at Belfast, when addressing the Irish operatives, as "the greatest charter of their liberties." It limits the employment of children after 1878 to those above ten years of age; defines that a "child" shall be so called "till 14 years old," after that a "young person." It directs that every child shall attend school; that children may be employed either in the morning or afternoon of every day, or for the whole day on alternate days; it enforces simultaneous hours for meals, and forbids the employment of operatives during meal times.

There are those who more or less readily acknowledge that legislative protection is needed in behalf of children and young persons, yet who strenuously oppose extending this protection to adult women. This is the crucial point of the whole question, and requires more direct attention. It is a fact beyond all doubt, that of the 4,500,000 of persons employed in textile factories, 74 per cent, were women and children; indeed, practically speaking the factories in England were being more and more worked by women and children. When the Health of Women Bill was before Parliament and carried in the House of Commons by a majority of 216, Mr. Cross asserted that the manufacturers from Yorkshire and Lancashire gave an unanimous testimony "that the strain upon women was at present too great." It was an accepted fact that the monotony of the work, combined with the long hours and the created intensified physical labour owing to the improved machinery and vastly increased speed, so wore out the women, that the work of the last hour of the day was not to be compared to that of the earlier hours; and that more bad work accumulated during the last half-hour or hour than during the whole of the day. Mr. Brassey well observed that "by employing the labour of the weak, the immature, and those of tender age—that is, women and children—there arises a large amount of misery, mortality, and destruction of family life;" and it is confidently affirmed that the "mortality of children is page 12 greatest when women are employed in factory labour, and where the children, from the want of proper food, and from the use of opiates, become the victims of unnatural parents." Then again, we have the testimony of Mr. Cross, who says : "I have from my youth been intimately acquainted with a large manufacturing town, and represented one for some years, and what I have seen and heard has satisfied me that to a great extent women could not be regarded as free agents." "Partly from need of money, partly from the pressure, perhaps, of the mill-owners, or of her husband and family, she worked at times when utterly unfit, and in the long run, both she and her family suffered." It has been confidently asserted that "the strain upon operatives, especially upon female operatives, had very considerably increased of recent years, and that the prolonged hours of labour had exercised a most injurious influence in producing the excess of infant mortality in the manufacturing districts." "The case of married women was the strongest of all, and there was an almost unanimity of opinion on the part of employers in favour of restricting the employment of married women." Mr. Mundella observes that "his attention had been called to the Blue-book on infant mortality in connection with the factory system, and he must say that the revelations which it made were simply horrible, appalling, and disgraceful to us as a Christian people."

If we needed a practical argument to enfore the necessity of restricting the hours of labour, we find it in the recorded fact that, during the cotton famine of 1862-3 the infant mortality in Lancashire was much lower than in busy times; and why? because, even though the necessaries of life were more scanty, the women had time to attend to their children, and, instead of depriving them of that nutriment which Providence had devised as the best, they were present at suitable intervals to obey maternal instincts; and it is a curious attesting fact that, while "the death rate fell enormously during the cotton famine, when the people were fully employed the rate of mortality again rose."

Nor need we confine our attention to what we see and hear in the Old Country, for what is the experience of France on this question? France has a declining population, both in numbers and physique, because "they have worked their children and young women without restriction." In Belgium, too, children were admitted to the mills at the age of eight, and the effect, both physically and morally, on the people was manifest; and, moreover, in both cases a strong feeling was growing up in favour of a law for regulating the labour of women and children.

It has been idly said, that protective legislation for women would cause them to be thrust out of the factories, with no alternatives but prostitution or starvation, but there is not the page 13 slightest doubt, as statistics amply prove, that immorality under the existing Acts has marvellously decreased. It is equally idle to assert that the limitation of the hours of labour was a Trades Unionist movement, designed, under the influence of jealousy of female competition to restrict the field of work to men; for, what is the fact? The women employed are the wives, the daughters, or the sisters of the very few men who were employed in the mills. While employers of labour, who were members of the British House of Commons, were amongst the principal originators of the movement, giving time and money toward its furtherance, yet it is a very significant and unanswerable fact, that of the whole amount of money raised, 60 per cent, came from the women, and the rest from the employers of labour.

Mr. Broadhurst declares his conviction that "the reduction of the number of hours of labour always led to the improvement of wages, and that the improvement of the condition of working men had led to the withdrawal of married women from work, and consequently of raising wages of women generally." Miss Sim-cox, representing the London Society of Shirt and Collar Makers, observes, "That working women were uniformly of opinion that what had been done hitherto had been very valuable to them." It has been represented that interference with the age at which children may enter the factories will tend to their running wild in the streets : to which it is answered, that the new Education Act provides a remedy, and that when they do enter, it is in the vigour of unimpaired health, and not as the cripples of former times, of whom it was said that "such were their crooked shapes that they were like a mass of crooked alphabets."

It has been said as an argument against the restriction of labour, that short hours bring with them short wages; but it is replied by Mr. Mason, that there is no fear of ruin by the adoption of 56 hours a week in the cotton trade; but the Bill of 1874 is intended not to regulate the hours of labour, but to promote the health of women and children, and the education of the latter. Earl Shaftesbury observed that the cry of danger from "foreign competition, consequent loss of trade, reduced wages, and universal distress, is all met by increased production, equal profits, higher wages, and universel prosperity." He says: "There are few men remaining who can compare the present with the past. I am one of the few, and I am bold enough to say that the existing generation, in its physical, moral, and political character, seems to have sprung from a higher class of men." And Mr. Macdonald, no mean authority, adds his testimony, that reduction of hours has had the effect of increasing wages universally.

Nor is there any fear in the reduction of labour ruining trade, for Mr. Baxter, himself a foreign merchant, declares that trade page 14 has marvellously increased through foreign competiton. The ten-hour system did not ruin trade, nor will it—did not reduce the work done, nor will it—for he himself years ago had reduced the hours of labour, and had turned out in consequence, more work in ten hours than in twelve or fifteen. He earnestly pleads for restricting the hours of labour, because of the additional strain upon the operatives, and declares that there is no diminution of profits, because machinery does more work. What has to be feared in the competitive race with foreigners, is cheating, in the adulteration of cotton goods by size and china clay, which has led India, formerly our best customer, to erect mills of its own.

One of the prevailing cries is that the employment of women will interfere with the labour of men, but it is to be observed that women are not to be debarred from the free exercise of their powers of mind and body. They have a natural right to provide a living for themselves or their families, if married. There are many women, who are orphans or widows, who, of necessity, become bread winners, having perhaps relations depending on them; to such as these, common justice demands that we should not cripple their means of subsistence. Driven, by the introduction of machinery and large manufactures, from those home employments, so suitable in more primitive times, they are obliged to go outside the family circle to get that work which was once ready to hand, or to enter into new lines of labour, the old familiar ones being in some measure closed to them. It is with them not a matter of choice, but of obedience to the iron law of necessity; and it is a righteous rule, to allow both men and women to work at what they choose, and what they are best fitted to do. In the presence of such an unanswerable argument I dare not stop to inquire what may be the effect on man's labour market—nor is it needful that I should do so, for the matter is in process of adjustment. It may be an inevitable result that by shortening the hours of labour for women, it becomes in some measure, and to some trades, necessary to substitute men for women, for the work of both is so inextricably mixed that the shortening of the hours of woman's work, involves the shortening of man's or the woman loses a portion of her working time, by the necessity under the conditions of the Act, of becoming a "half-timer" on the same footing as children. We may lament such a state of things, but the moral, mental, and physical necessity for legislation is so urgent that we must not expect a great gain without an occasional hardship in exceptional cases. These disturbances will adjust themselves in time, and men and women, as a general rule, will fall into their respective grooves. Such is the objection brought forward by those who ostensibly desire to allow woman a certain amount of liberty, but who page 15 object earnestly to any legislative interference with the hours and conditions of moman's labour. Others say that woman's work is at home, and that she should not be allowed to interfere in the occupations of man, and reduce by her cheaper labour, the wages paid to man. The answer to this I have already given, and even if women should be profitably employed in some trades, there is an abundance of trades from which her physical powers exclude her, and the unappropriated fields of labour at home and abroad would, if taken advantage of by men, render them and the whole of mankind the richer. Let each bring their goods to the best market.

It has been urged that legislative protection in some trades ana employments and not in others is unequal and unjust, and that there are classes, like house servants, who are wrought right through the week, early and late, knowing no holidays, no family hearth, no rest. We acknowledge the melancholy fact, and we give it due weight, but it must not be allowed to interfere with the scant meed of rest of those poor married women, who, where there is no protection, work all day for the mill-owner, and late in the night for their husbands and children, to the great moral and physical injury of themselves and offspring.

I think I have said sufficient to justify the position I have assumed, and I may conclude in the words of an eminent statesman and philanthropist :—"By legislation you have ordained justice and exhibited sympathy with the best interests of the labourer, the surest and happiest mode of all government. By legislation you have given to the working-class the full power to exercise for themselves and for the public welfare all the physical and moral energies that God has bestowed on them; and by legislation you have given them to assist and maintain their rights, and it will be their own fault, not ours, if they do not, with these abundant and mighty blessings, become a wise and understanding people."

When the future reader of English history dwells with glowing pride on the noble struggles of those noble men who resolved, come what might, that their sister islanders, so long in bondage, should be emancipated; when they read how, at the expense of millions of gold and years of earnest pleadings and exhausting labours, others of the untitled nobility proclaimed liberty to the slave, and the opening of the prison doors to their fellow-men, there is many a name will spontaneously arise in grateful remembrance; but the records of generous chivalry would be incomplete did they not read of those heroic deeds of that earnest band which stayed not till they had freed from a scarcely less horrid bondage, the women and children of their native land—their brothers and sisters in the flesh. Priceless as page 16 these efforts were in themselves, they were equally priceless in their consequences, for from them was evoked that spirit which called to life and liberty the toiling millions of America, the pariahs of freedom's chosen seat, and not only so, but gave rise to the growing protection to the worn-out operatives of Belgium, France, and Germany, whose philanthropists seeing the footprints on the sands of time had followed in the wake with no laggard step. We are justly proud of such men, and wisely emulous of their noble deeds : and, if they can look down from the mansions where they are reaping the reward of their labour, it must be no small an ingredient in their cup of joy, to find that there is a little island nestling in the western Pacific where the lessons they taught and illustrated are being learned and practised, and that Bradshaw's Factory Act shines with a peculiar lustre among the Statutes of New Zealand. Heroism in the field may earn a cross or a star; pre-eminence in science may extort the plaudits of thousands of the choicest spirits of all nations, and the special recognition of the great and the good of all ages; but in preference to these rewards I should be content to be known in time to come as the author of Bradshaw's Act—a rapid progression towards the relief of those whom the past has unmistakeably shown as needing our kindly sympathies and judicious guardianship.