‘Health and safety’ legislation is sometimes satirised today for excessive caution – the ‘nanny state’. But early factories were dirty and ill-ventilated. Unguarded machinery killed and injured thousands of workers, young and old. The first factory inspectors fought mill-owners’ hostility and public apathy to make factories safer and ensure children were not over-worked.
Mill-owners used women and children as cheap labour. Working hours were incredibly long (fourteen hours or more in Yorkshire). Children did not have time to go to day school.
The Factory Act of 1833, an educational measure, set a minimum age of nine years. It limited hours for children and young people in textile mills (with some exceptions). Night work was banned, and children must have two hours’ schooling per day. Inspectors were appointed to enforce the legislation.
But many industries were left unregulated for decades, despite calls for reform by Lord Shaftesbury and other reformers. Children and teenagers endured miserable conditions in brick-making, straw-plaiting, the metals industries, and so on.
Why did it take so long for change to come? These children’s needs were ignored or forgotten by society – the nation’s prosperity was considered too important to trifle with.
You can find out more about the bitter battle for change fought by Lord Shaftesbury, the factory inspectors, and other reformers in The Children History Forgot.
India Mill, Darwen. Cotton spinning factory built in the mid-1860s. © Sue and Nigel Wilkes.