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Leon Burman

The 1833 Factories Act

By admin 21.06.2022

Social media volunteer, Immy Tozer, looks in to the history of the Factory Acts and their impact on silk mills.

When imagining working conditions in Victorian factories, many would picture gruelling child labour, long hours for little pay, and unsafe conditions compared to the modern day – and rightly so. For the roughly 90,000 children working in the British textile industry in 1830, this was the harsh reality. But when did the shift from perilous mills to today’s regulated standards take place, and what prompted it?

This article examines the early conditions of factories, the 1833 Factories Act, and the subsequent acts inspired by it. These slowly transformed conditions in textile mills across the country, including at Whitchurch Silk Mill.

Conditions in Pre-Factory Act Silk Mills

By 1833, the industrial revolution and the boom of the silk industry was in full swing. There were 100,000 looms in England, compared to just 2,400 in 1803.

Before the implementation of factory acts, textile production was immensely dangerous, particularly for children. Risks included unfenced machinery, harsh treatment from stewards, and long-term health conditions such as lung disease, resulting from years of exposure to hazardous substances.

Despite these dangers, it was considered easier and more efficient to hire children. This was due to their size and speed, alongside being less likely than adults to demand better pay and conditions. Many children earnt around three shillings per week, which is just 15p in modern currency, compared to 15 shillings (75p) for men, and seven shillings (35p) for women. Dangerous jobs included climbing around and under moving machinery to remove scraps of material, known as a ‘scavenger’.

A study of Macclesfield Mill by historian Tom McCunnie has revealed some of the horrific consequences of this. The Macclesfield Courier newspaper recorded the deaths of child workers, including that of five-year-old Ralph Boothby, who was killed after being caught by a factory wheel. Another child, an unnamed seven-year-old girl, was crushed after her clothes were tangled in a machine. Mistreatment also had tragic outcomes. Sarah Stubbs, aged just 11, was employed as a piecer and was beaten 58 times for failing to tie broken silk threads together quickly enough, resulting in her death.

Such incidents, while horrifying today, were commonplace in hazardous Victorian mills, demonstrating the bleak conditions before health and safety acts were introduced in factories.

While there had been other acts preceding the 1833 Factories Act, for instance, the 1819 Cotton Mills and Factories Act stating that children under nine were forbidden to work, the lack of enforcement meant that these had a limited effect.

The 1833 Factories Act

The motivation for the 1833 Act was largely child welfare.

Known as the ‘Ten Hour Bill’, MP Michael Thomas Sadler aimed to reduce children’s shifts to 10 hours per day in 1832. Critics deemed this too ambitious, and after objections and poor health, Sadler withdrew the bill. His cause was taken up by Lords Ashley and Althorp, and the government passed the act in 1833.

This act aimed to improve conditions in factories. For instance, age certificates, and 2 hours of schooling per day for child workers were now required. 9-13 year olds could not work for more than 9 hours, and 13-18 year olds could not work for more than 12.

Notably, silk mills were excluded from the clause forbidding children under nine from working. This demonstrates the resistance to improving child labour conditions in these factories. Instead, children under 13 had their working hours capped at 10.

‘It shall not be lawful for any Person whatsoever to employ in any Factory or Mill as aforesaid, except in Mills for the Manufacture of Silk, any Child who shall not have completed his or her Ninth Year of Age’.

  • Factories Act, 1833

‘In Mills for the Manufacture of Silk, Children under the Age of Thirteen Years shall be allowed to work Ten Hours in any One Day’.

  • Factories Act, 1833

While these laws are still a far cry from modern child welfare standards, if enforced, their introduction would certainly have improved conditions for teenage workers. However, the everyday reality was rather different, and conditions in silk mills did not change overnight. The 1833 Factories Act, rather than being a revolutionary act in itself, was more significant in being the first step towards fair and safe conditions. It raised awareness over the terrible conditions amongst those in government who had the power to enact change.

Subsequent Acts

Further steps were soon taken to improve conditions, although loopholes were exploited by factory owners.

For instance, by 1848 the working week had been reduced to 58 hours. Many mill owners, therefore, used a relay system. Often, two sets of children were employed, one half working while the other was educated. This ensured greater output, without exceeding the number of hours permitted per person.

By 1901, the minimum working age had been raised to 12. Provisions over education, lunch breaks and safety measures such as fire escapes were also brought in at this time. Thus, by the end of the Victorian period, conditions had already come a considerable way, despite the irregularity of enforcement.

This continued into the twentieth century. The 1937 Factories Act had sections for health and safety and employee welfare, as well as provisions for accidents, diseases, and the employment of women and young people.

‘Every part of electric generators, motors and rotary converters, and every flywheel directly connected thereto, shall be securely fenced’.

  • Factories Act, 1937

This safety provision concerning machinery would have prevented deaths like Ralph Boothby’s.

Whitchurch Silk Mill was no exception, with the 1937 Act improving the working conditions there. This act was sent to mills across the country, and you can even visit the Whitchurch copy of this act in the Mill today.

The Legacy of Factory Acts

Although factory acts were irregularly enforced, and their effects not immediately felt, conditions in silk mills were slowly transformed in England.

Children went from having no health and safety, and being poorly treated by stewards, to not being permitted to work at all until the age of 16, with strict limits on hours. When observing the tacklers and weavers in the Silk Mill today, it is evident just how far conditions have changed from 1833.

Finally, it is important to remember, that while conditions in England’s factories today are regulated, with child labour banned altogether, an estimated 250 million children still work in unsafe sweatshop conditions globally. Therefore, with any garment, whether a 19th century silk product, or with modern day fast fashion, it is important to consider the age and working conditions of those who created it.

Further Reading

The Factories Act, 1833 – http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/acts/1833-factories-act.html 

The Factories Act, 1937 – https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1937/67/contents/enacted

Bolin-Hort, P., Work, Family and the State: Child Labour and the Organization of Production in the British Cotton Industry, 1780-1920 (Lund: Lund University Press, 1989).

Langley, Anne, ‘Brandon Silk Mill and Child Labour During the Industrial Revolution in Nineteenth-Century Warwickshire’, Midland History, Vol. 28, No. 1 (2003), pp. 71-87.

Marvel, Howard P., ‘Factory Regulaton: A Reinterpretation of Early English Experience’, The Journal of Law & Economics, Vol. 20, No. 2 (1977), pp. 379-402.

McCunnie, Tom, ‘Regulation and the Health of Child Workers in the Mid-Victorian Silk Industry’, Local Population Studies, Vol. 74 (2005), pp. 54-74.

Nardinelli, Clark, ‘Child Labor and the Factory Acts’, The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 40, No. 4 (1980), pp. 739-755.

Peacock, A. E., ‘The Successful Prosecution of the Factory Acts, 1833-55’, Economic History Review, 1984, Vol. 37, No. 2 (1984), pp. 197-210.

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