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Factory Reform 1815
Having opened to the public my “New Views of Society”, my attention was directed to public measures for obtaining some relief for the children, young persons and adults employed in the rapidly increasing manufactories of wool, cotton, flax, hemp and silk. I visited most of the manufactories of the kingdom to enable me to judge the conditions. I saw the importance of the machinery, and its rapid improvements. I became vividly alive to the deteriorating condition of the very young children and others who were made the slave of these new mechanical powers. This white slavery was far worse than the house 113 slaves whom I afterwards saw in the United States.
My first step was to call a meeting of the manufacturers of Scotland in 1815 in Glasgow, 114 to ask the government to remit the heavy duty paid on the importation of cotton, and to consider measures to improve the condition of young children and others employed in the various textile manufactures. The leading manufacturers of Glasgow attended in great numbers. My first proposal for the remission of tax on raw cotton was carried unanimously, but no one would second my motion for the relief of the children and others whom they employed. The meeting came to nothing. I had the address which I had read published in the press and sent copies to every member of both Houses of Parliament. It created a considerable sensation among the upper classes and the manufacturing interest.
I then proceeded to London to communicate with the government. I was referred to Mr Vansittart respecting the remission of the tax. I was well received by him, 115 and he said he would remit it [almost entirely].
I waited on leading members of both Houses, to promote a bill for the relief of the children and others employed in manufactures. I was in general well received. A meeting was called to consider who should introduce the bill in the House of Commons. It was suggested that Sir Robert Peel, an extensive manufacturer, would be a very fit person. I had no objection, 116 and called on him to ascertain his views. He very willingly accepted the office.
He attended the next meeting of the favouring members, at which all the arrangements were concluded for introducing the bill with all the clauses as I had prepared them. But Sir Robert Peel was too much under the influence of his brother manufacturers, and he allowed this bill to be dragged through the House of Commons for four sessions. When it was passed, it had become so mutilated that it became valueless for the objects I had intended.
Children were at this time admitted into the cotton, wool, flax and silk mills at six and sometimes even five years of age. The time of working was usually fourteen hours per day, sometimes even sixteen hours and in many cases the mills were heated to a high state most unfavourable to health.
120 The bill in its original state limited the working day to ten hours, and the age of admission for children to twelve; and [required] the boys and girls to be taught to read and write previously to their admission; the girls also to be taught to sew and cook and do general domestic duties; and the factory to be kept clean.
116 The first plea of the objectors to my bill was that the legislature should not interfere with the masters’ management of their business. This was at length over-ruled. The next attempt was to prove that it was not injurious to employ these young children for fifteen hours per day in 117 overheated close rooms, often filled with fine flying fibres, particularly in cotton and flax spinning mills. A committee investigated this question for two sessions before it could decide that such practices were detrimental to the health of these infants.
Sir Robert Peel, yielding to the clamour of the manufacturers, gave up wool, flax and silk, and they were struck out of the bill at the commencement. I sat with the committee every day, the only uninfluenced advocate for these children, whose minds and bodies were materially and cruelly injured. My evidence, as a master manufacturer, was too strong to be overcome, especially as my practice was in accordance with the bill as I first proposed it.
The manufacturers opposing these measures [sought]to diminish the influence of my evidence. [Two] were dispatched to Lanark on a mission of scandal hunting. They soon learned that the Rev Mr Menzies, the parish clergyman of old Lanark was an enemy to my proceedings at New Lanark. He had preached in the town for twenty years, and there was no perceptible change for the better among his parishioners. 118 The progress at New Lanark had aroused his jealousy. [He reported that] on 1st January this year (1816) on opening my new ‘Institution for the Formation of Character’, I had delivered an address of the most treasonable character against church and state.
119 He willingly went with the manufacturers to London, and the party asked Lord Sidmouth for an interview, which was granted. “We have come to make a charge against Mr Owen.” “Ah, what is it? I know Mr Owen very well.” “On the 1st of January, at the opening of his new “Institution for the Formation of Character”, 120 he delivered one of the most extraordinary, treasonable and inflammatory discourses that has ever been heard in Scotland.” “Is this all the charge you have to make against Mr Owen?” “Yes, my Lord.” “Then I dismiss your complaint as most frivolous and uncalled for. The government has been six months in possession of a copy of that discourse, which it would do any of you credit to have delivered.” And he bowed them out.
121 I was so disgusted at the delays created by interested members, and at the concessions made to them, that I seldom attended the committee during its third and fourth years. My place was occupied chiefly by Mr Nathaniel Gould of Manchester and Mr Richard Oastler of Yorkshire.