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The 1833 Factory Act

By the 1830s, the determination within Parliament to regulate factory conditions had strengthened. To a large extent it was driven by the battle for political reform (which resulted in the famous 1832 Reform Act), and by the anti-slavery campaign. Campaigners did not hesitate to compare the treatment of mill-workers, including children, with that of slaves.

'Ten-Hour Movement'

Even mill-owners were beginning to speak up for improved conditions. A strong humanitarian campaign had grown outside Parliament, championed by the MPs Anthony Ashley-Cooper (later the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury) and Michael Sadler, and by manufacturers in the textile areas of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Ashley-Cooper led the 'Ten-Hour Movement' aiming to reduce the working day for children under 16. Another Factory Act was passed in 1831, limiting the working day to 12 hours for all those under 18. Yet again, there were no procedures for enforcement.

Further parliamentary inquiry and a Royal Commission produced reports full of details of the appalling abuse and mistreatment of children in factories. In 1833 Parliament passed a new Factory Act. Previous Acts had been restricted to the cotton industry, but the 1833 Act also applied to the older woollen producing communities in and around Yorkshire which had been ignored in previous legislation.

No children were to work in factories under the age of nine (though by this stage numbers were few). A maximum working week of 48 hours was set for those aged 9 to 13, limited to eight hours a day; and for children between 13 and 18 it was limited to 12 hours daily. The Act also required children under 13 to receive elementary schooling for two hours each day.

Factory Inspectors

What made the 1833 Act so important was that it established a system to ensure that regulations were enforced. A small, four-man 'inspectorate of factories' was created, responsible to the Home Office, with powers to impose penalties for infringements. In its early days the inspectorate was far too small to enforce the Act in 4,000 mills, and so the Act was widely evaded. It did, however, create the beginnings of a much-needed system of government control.


You can access biographies of

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th earl of Shaftesbury
Michael Sadler

from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for free, online, using your local library card number (includes nine out of ten public libraries in the UK) or from within academic library and other subscribing networks.