Richard Oastler and the Luddites

In 2012 I blogged about the Luddites on the 200th anniversary of their rebellion and how to keep rebellion down 10% of the population of Huddersfield was the garrison stationed there, and that when the country was involved in two wars. One to stop Napoleon Bonaparte invading and one trying to contain rebellious settlers in the American colonies. I recently reblogged it here.

Statue of Richard Oastler at Fulneck

Richard Oastler succeeded his Father Robert to be steward of Fixby, a large estate to the north of Huddersfield (Fixby Hall is now the home of Huddersfield Golf Club).

Luddites

Up until this time reform in Britain had been on a Whig laissez-faire agenda, the idea that governments should not interfere in the workings of the free market. Oastler was against this idea, believing that this policy had worsened the conditions of the poor which led to discontent. The official government position was to be harsh, a concensus among bothpolitical parties, the Whigs and the Tories, later to become the Liberals and Conservatives, there was a death penalty for breaking weaving frames and several Luddites were hanged, Oastler thought this could only end badly, saying:

The great mistake in the minds of those raised above the working class is, that they think the people want plunder and anarchy. I know they want no such thing – they want peace and rest – and their rights. They want to be able to go out in a morning, get a good day’s work done, and come home with a fair remuneration…

In the 20th century political beliefs reversed, the Conservative Party, successors to the Torys, taking up the ideas of laissez-faire.

The ten hours bill

Oastler was unusual amongst those fighting for factory reform, being a Tory. When Richard Oastler was six his elder brother, Robert aged 12, had died in a fire in a flax mill. Oastler also believed that politics should not overrule Biblical injunctions to help the poor, saying :

I believe that man is a fallen, selfish, ignorant being, and that every unregulated and unrestrained action of his is fraught with evil – that, if left without the restraining and regulating laws of God (which, by our Constitution, must be part and parcel of the laws of the land), instead of preferring such schemes, in the search of his own advantage, as would be advantageous to the society, his selfishness would lead him to injure all for his own benefit. I learn this from the Holy Bible. I have often witnessed it.

Despite being plagued by ill health all his life, failing eyesight meant that he could not follow the career for which he had trained, an architect. A lot happens so I am ditching narrative and going for a simple list.

  • 1830, Oastler meets John wood of Bradford, a mill owner who says that his competitors will not apply the terms of the Factories Act, which only applied to cotton mills to wool and worsted mills. The next Day Oastler writes to The leading West Yorkshire newspaper, the Leeds Mercury, about “Yorkshire Slavery” the next day. The letter is published two weeks later.
  • 1831, Oastler convinces MP John Hobhouse to present a bill to parliament restricting child labour. Local millowners and the Leeds Mercury oppose the bill. The bill is delayed due to a General Election.
  • When the bill is published workers start forming Short Time Committees, in order to help the bill run through Parliament, firstly in Huddersfield and Leeds, and within a few months, with Oastler’s help, in most industrial towns.
  • September 1831, after the General Election, the bill is passed after Hobhouse makes major compromises. Oastler is not pleased. The Short Time Committees remain active. Oastler becomes leader of the Ten Hour Movement.
  • 1836, Oastler begins advocating workers to use strikes and sabotage in their campaign for factory legislation and changes in the poor law. Thomas Thornhill sacks Oastler from his post as steward of Fixby.
  • 1840, with no income and being sued for debts Oastler enters debtor’s prison. He is released in 1844 after funds have been raised. He immediately returns to campaigning.
  • 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 Act only applied to parts of the textile industry.
  • 22 August 1861, Oastler dies.
  • 1867, The factories Acts become applicable to all places of manufacturing. What Oastler has been fighting for becomes law six years after his death.

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