Richard Oastler - Anti Slavery Campaigner
A Leeds-born preacher and anti-slavery campaigner is to be commemorated with the unveiling of a blue plaque near his birthplace in the city.
Richard Oastler fought against child labour in textile mills and his work led to the introduction of the Ten Hour Day Act in 1847.
The Leeds Civic Trust blue plaque will be sited on the Wardrobe Bar close to his birthplace in St Peter's Square. Tuesday's unveiling is part of a series of Heritage Open Days in Yorkshire.
Deputy leader of Leeds City Council Andrew Carter will reveal the plaque with the help of children from Fulneck School in Pudsey, where Oastler was educated in the 18th Century.
Oastler's letter to the Leeds Mercury about 'Yorkshire Slavery' in 1830 began the campaign to reduce the working day of factory children to 10 hours.
His campaign was supported by workers and doctors who witnessed the ill-health of factory employees.
The first parliamentary bill limiting factory hours for women and children to 12 hours was passed in 1844, followed three years later by the Ten Hour Day Act in 1847.
Vice chair of the Leeds Civic Trust Lynda Kitching said it was about time Oastler was commemorated in his home town.
"It is strange that this famous campaigner against the exploitation of factory children, who spent most of his early life in Leeds, has a statue in Bradford but is not prominently commemorated in Leeds," she said.
Richard Oastler (1789-1861)
Richard Oastler was born in St. Peter's Square, Leeds, on 20 December 1789. He was the son of Robert Oastler and one of the daughters of Joseph Scurr of Leeds: Oastler was the youngest of eight children born to the couple. Robert Oastler originally was a linen merchant in Thirsk; he then moved to Leeds and became steward of the Fixby estates in Huddersfield. These were the property of the Thornhills of Riddlesworth in Norfolk. Robert Oastler was disinherited by his father for becoming a Methodist - Oastler was one of the earliest followers of John Wesley, who frequently stayed at his house when he visited Yorkshire.
Richard Oastler was educated at the Moravian school at Fulnek; he wanted to become a barrister; but instead, he was articled to the architect Charles Watson in Wakefield. Oastler was a powerfully built man, over six feet tall, and had a commanding presence. His voice was - according to Trollope - ‘stentorian in its power and yet flexible, with a flow of language rapid and abundant’. He suffered from a vision problem and was forced to give up his career as an architect; instead, he became a commission agent, and by sheer hard work, accumulated considerable wealth. On 16 October 1816, Oastler married Mary Tatham of Nottingham. She died at Headingley (Leeds) on 12 June 1845, and was buried at Kirkstall. Oastler's two children by her, Sarah and Robert, both died in infancy. After his wife's death Oastler lived at South Hill Cottage, Guildford, Surrey.
Oastler's father died in July 1820 and Thomas Thornhill - the absentee landowner - appointed him to the stewardship at a salary of £300 a year. Oastler moved from Leeds to Fixby Hall on 5 January 1821 and devoted himself to his new duties. The estate contained at that time nearly one thousand tenants, many of them occupying very small tenures.
Oastler was an Anglican, Tory, and a protectionist, who by the 1820s was well known in the West Riding. Since 1807 he had been an advocate of the abolition of slavery in the West Indies. He also supported Queen Caroline and opposed Roman Catholic emancipation. On 29 September 1830 John Wood of Horton Hall, a Bradford manufacturer who had introduced many reforms into his factory, told Oastler of the evils of children's employment in the Bradford district, and made Oastler promise to work towards removing them. Oastler said that he 'had been on terms of intimacy and of friendship with many factory masters, and ... all the while fancied that factories were blessings to the poor’. On the same day as Wood spoke to him about factory conditions, Oastler wrote a letter to the Leeds Mercury called ‘Yorkshire Slavery’ in which he described what he had been told. Oastler's statements were met with denial and criticism from the factory owners.
In a letter called ‘Slavery in Yorkshire’in the Leeds Intelligencer on 20 October 1831, addressed ‘to the working classes of the West Riding’, Oastler urged voters to use their influence 'to prevent any man being returned who will not distinctly and unequivocally pledge himself to support a “Ten-Hours-a-day and a Time-book Bill."’ He also formed the ‘Fixby Hall Compact’ with the working men of Huddersfield, by which they agreed to work together for the reduction of working hours. Oastler was also in constant correspondence with Michael Sadler, the parliamentary leader of the movement. The introduction of Sadler's Factory Bill was followed by numerous meetings at which Oastler advocated the claims of the children. He was examined at length by the Select Committee on Sadler's Bill. He was responsible for organising a meeting on 24 April 1832 when thousands of working people from the clothing districts joined in a ‘pilgrimage of mercy' to York in favour of the bill. His opponents nicknamed him ‘the factory king,’ a title by which he soon became known throughout Lancashire and Yorkshire.
On 23 February 1833 Oastler addressed a meeting at the City of London Tavern, convened by the London society for the improvement of the factory children. This was the first meeting held in London, and was the first under the parliamentary leadership of Lord Ashley. After the defeat of Ashley's bill and the passing of the mild government measure known as Lord Althorp's Act, Oastler continued to write and speak in favour of a ten-hours day.
Thomson's bill to allow twelve year olds to be employed for eight hours a day caused a fresh outburst of activity, during which Oastler went from town to town addressing meetings. On 15 September 1836 at the Blackburn meeting organised by the short time committee, he accused the magistrates of refusing to enforce the Factory Acts and threatened to teach the children to ‘apply their grandmothers' old knitting-needles to the spindles’ if the magistrates refused to listen to their complaints. This provoked criticism so Oastler published a pamphlet, ‘The Law and the Needle,’ in which he justified himself on the grounds that if the magistrates refused to put the law into execution for the protection of children, there was no remedy but an appeal to force.
Meanwhile Oastler's views on the new Poor Law were involving him in serious difficulties. He believed that the powers with which parliament had invested the Poor Law Commissioners for the supply of the factory districts with labourers from the agricultural counties would lead to a fall in wages and a deterioration in conditions for the working classes. He objected to the new poor law on the grounds that it severed the connection between ratepayers and their dependents, and undermined the parochial system. Another of his objections to the new poor law was that it would prove fatal to the interests of the Church and the landed proprietors, and that the repeal of the corn laws would inevitably follow its enactment. He defined his Toryism to the Duke of Wellington as ‘a place for everything, and everything in its place.’ He hated ‘Liberal philosophy,’ and was bitterly opposed to the Whig manufacturers. When he resisted the commissioners in Fixby, Frankland Lewis, on their behalf, asked Thornhill to assist them in enforcing the law. Until this time, Thornhill had regarded Oastler's public work with approval and had introduced Oastler to several statesmen including the Duke of Wellington, with whom Oastler carried on a long correspondence. However, Thornhill would not support Oastler's opposition to the poor-law commissioners and discharged him on 28 May 1838.
Oastler moved to Brompton and was supported by the gifts of anonymous friends in Lancashire and Yorkshire; however, Oastler owed Thornhill £2,000 and Thornhill sued him to recover it. The case was tried on 10 July 1840 in the Court of Common Pleas before Lord Chief Justice Tindal. Judgment was given against Oastler who was nable to pay the debt. On 9 December 1840 Oastler was sent to the Fleet (debtors') Prison where he remained for more than three years.
Although he was in prison, it did not mean that Oastler was not active. On 2 January 1841 he published the first of The Fleet Papers: Letters to Thomas Thornhill Esquire of Riddlesworth from Richard Oastler his prisoner in the Fleet. With occasional Communications from Friends. The letters appeared weekly: in them, Oastler pleaded the cause of the factory workers, denounced the new poor law and defended the corn laws. The publications were very important in influencing public opinion. ‘Oastler Committees’ were formed in Manchester and other places to help him and ‘Oastler Festivals' were arranged by working men - the proceeds of which were forwarded to him. In 1842 an ‘Oastler Liberation Fund’ was started and at the end of 1843 it amounted to £2,500. Some of Oastler's friends guaranteed the remaining sum necessary for his release and in February 1844 he was freed. He made a public entry into Huddersfield on 20 February. From then until 1847 he continued to agitate for a ten-hours day but with the passing of Lord Ashley's Ten Hour Act his public career practically ended. He died at Harrogate on 22 August 1861 and was buried in Kirkstall churchyard. A stained-glass window was erected to his memory in 1864 in St. Stephen's Church, Kirkstall.
Richard Oastler, the son of a clothing merchant, was born in Leeds on 20th December, 1789. Richard attended a Moravian boarding school from 1798 to 1810 and became a commission agent. Oaster did this job for ten years and in 1820 was appointed as steward for Thomas Thornhill, the absentee landlord of Fixby, a large estate near Huddersfield. In 1830 Oastler met John Wood, a worsted manufacturer from Bradford, who agonised over the need to employ children in his factory. After a lengthy meeting Oastler decided to join the struggle for factory legislation.
Unlike most of the people in the factory reform movement, Oastler was a supporter of the Tory Party. He strongly opposed universal suffrage, trade unions and was a warm supporter of the rigid class structure of the early 19th century. However, Oastler believed it was the responsibility of the ruling class to protect the weak and vulnerable. For example, Oastler thought the 1834 Poor Law was too harsh and campaigned for it to be reformed. Richard Oastler
Oastler thought the best way to protect children was to obtain a maximum ten hour day. On 29th September 1830, Oastler wrote a letter to the Leeds Mercury attacking the employment of young children in textile factories. John Hobhouse, the Radical M.P. read the letter and decided to introduce a bill restricting child labour. Hobhouse proposed that: (a) no child should work in a factory before the age of 9; (b) no one between the ages of 9 and 18 should work for more than twelve hours; © no one aged between the ages of 9 and 18 should work for more than 66 hours a week; (d) no one under 18 should be allowed to do night work.
After details of Hobhouse's Bill was published, workers began forming what became known as Short Time Committees in an effort to help promote its passage through Parliament. The first Short Time Committees were formed in Huddersfield and Leeds but within a few months, with the help of Richard Oastler, they were established in most of the major textile towns.
Parliament was dissolved in April, 1831 and so Hobhouse's Bill had to be reintroduced after the General Election. Hobhouse's proposals for factory legislation were discussed in Parliament in September 1831. Richard Oastler and the Short Time Committees were furious when Hobhouse agreed to make changes to his proposals. Although Hobhouse's Bill was passed it only applied to cotton factories and failed to provide any machinery for its enforcement.
Unhappy with what Hobhouse had achieved, the Short Time Committees continued to work for factory legislation. A magnificent orator, Richard Oastler soon became leader of what was now known as the Ten Hour Movement.
In 1836 Oastler began advocating workers to use strikes and sabotage in their campaign for factory legislation and changes in the poor law. When Thomas Thornhill heard about this he sacked Oastler from his post as steward of Fixby. He also began legal proceedings against Oastler for unpaid debts. Unable to pay back the money he owed, Oastler was jailed for debt in December 1840. His friends began raising money to help him but it was not until February 1844 that the debt was paid and Oastler was released from Fleet Prison. Once released, Oastler returned to his campaign for the ten hour day.
In 1847, Parliament passed an act that stated that children between 13 and 18 and women were not to work for more than ten hours a day and 58 hours a week. However, the 1847 Factory Act only applied to parts of the textile industry. It was not until 1867, six years after the death of Richard Oastler, that the existing Factory Acts applied to all places of manufacturing.
RICHARD Oastler was undisputed leader of the Ten-Hour Movement aimed at improving the conditions of millworkers, and he was a staunch campaigner against the cruelties of the factory system.
The son of a clothing merchant, Oastler was 31 when he was appointed steward to Thomas Thornhill's estate near Huddersfield in 1820. A less likely candidate for a reforming radical it is hard to imagine - he was a dedicated Tory, against parliamentary reform and trades unions, a paternalist who believed the upper classes had a duty to protect the weak.
Still, he felt strongly about the exploitation of children in factories, and a chance meeting with Bradford worsted manufacturer John Wood in 1830 pointed the way forward. "John Wood turned towards me," he wrote later, "and reaching out his hand in the most impressive manner, pressed my hand in his and said: 'I have had no sleep tonight. I have been reading the Bible and in every page I have read my own condemnation. I cannot allow you to leave me without a pledge that you will use all your influence in trying to remove from our factory system the cruelties which are practised in our mills.'
I promised I would do all I could. I felt that we were each of us in the presence of the Highest and I know that that vow was recorded in heaven."
The same month, Oastler wrote on the subject to the Leeds Mercury. Radical MP John Hobhouse read his letter and was prompted to introduce a child labour bill in the Commons which would have banned all factory work for children under nine, and limited those between nine and 18 to 12 hours a day, 66 hours a week.
Unfortunately, Parliament was dissolved before the bill could be passed, and when it was reintroduced in 1831 Hobhouse had agreed to changes: As passed, the bill applied only to cotton factories and there were no provisions for its enforcement.
Oastler and the short-time committees that were now forming in industrial towns were irate. The man they called the Factory King continued the battle as leader of what was now known as the 10-Hour Movement and by 1836 he was urging workers to use strikes and sabotage. This proved his downfall.
His employer, Thornhill, hearing of his speeches, sacked him as his steward and called in unpaid debts. Oastler was unable to pay up and was jailed for debt in December 1840. It took his friends more than three years to raise the cash and release him from the Fleet Prison.
Oastler went straight back to his campaign and achieved some sort of success when the 1847 Factory Act restricted children to a 10-hour day in cotton mills. But it was not until six years after his death in 1861 that the act was widened to encompass children working in all factories.