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The Factory System 1750-1800


THE ENGLISH regarded themselves as a free people — but they did not seem to believe in freedom for others. Many of them were engaged in the African slave trade. They shipped manufactured goods from England to America, carried slaves across the Atlantic to the West Indies and brought cargoes of sugar and cotton back to England. It was against the law to ship slaves home to England, yet there seemed to be no law to prevent ordinary Englishmen from being treated as slaves by their own countrymen. The government did nothing to protect them from being kidnapped and forced into years of unwilling service aboard ships or on West Indian plantations. Since the public accepted such practices without much protest, it is hardly surprising that another kind of slavery was allowed to develop in England during the early period of the Industrial Revolution. At that time the large factories were run by water power, which meant they had to be located near swift-running streams in the country, often miles from any population centre from which workers could be hired. Factory owners did not have to depend upon adult workers to run their factories. Most of them used children. Hundreds of boys and girls from overcrowded poorhouses and church orphanages were turned over to factory owners. Children as young as four or five were put to work picking up bits of cotton from the floor. Older ones watched machines and tied thread together whenever there was a break. Their working day started at five or six in the morning. They had an hour or less for dinner and continued working until seven or eight in the evening. A West Indian slave master who visited one of these factories was shocked by the long hours. “I have always thought myself disgraced …

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