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 by being the owner of slaves,” he said, “but we never in the West Indies thought it possible for any human being to be so cruel as to require a child of nine years old to work twelve and a half hours a day.” Slave owners of the West Indies, having paid a great deal of money for their slaves, were naturally interested in caring for them well enough to keep them alive. Factory owners had no such worry. They had paid nothing for the boys and girls working in their factories. If some of them died from poor food, lack of medical care, or overwork, they could be replaced at little or no cost by bringing in more children from an orphanage.

One of these replacements was a boy named Robert Blincoe, some of whose childhood experiences in cotton mills were later published. Blincoe was living in an orphanage near London in 1799 when men came asking for volunteers to work in a cotton mill. No one would be forced to go, they said. Those who went would have a chance to become ladies and gentlemen at the mill. They would be fed “on roast beef and plum pudding, be allowed to ride their masters’ horses, have silver watches and plenty of cash in their pockets.”

Blincoe volunteered. So did many of his friends, all of them from seven to nine years old. Even before they left the orphanage they began quarreling about who among them would be first to ride the horses. Blincoe soon learned the truth when he arrived at the cotton mill. There were no horses to ride. Instead of roast beef and plum pudding, there was a steady diet of black bread, oatmeal and never quite enough of either to take away the pains of hunger. Blincoe rarely had enough to eat except when he could slip unnoticed into the yard where the pigs were being fattened and help himself to some of the food in their troughs.


During the long hours of the day in the mill, the children often felt the sting of the foreman’s whip to keep them awake. Those who fell asleep were kicked and beaten with fists. The foreman made a game of inventing savage forms of punishment. Blincoe once had his teeth filed. Another time he was hung up by his wrists, so that he was forced to hold up his legs to keep them from being caught in the moving machinery below him.

Under the law, these children were completely at the mercy of the mill owners for seven years. Those who attempted to escape had their feet put in irons. In some of the worst mills children tried to put an end to their suffering by committing suicide.

A member of Parliament named Wortley answered complaints about child labour by saying that England would suffer if children could no longer be employed in factories. Adults hired to take the place of the children, he pointed out, would have to be paid salaries and this would greatly increase the cost of labour and also the price of cotton goods.


Children sent to the factories by orphanages were rarely paid anything. Factory owners felt they were doing the nation a service by taking over the housing and feeding of children who would otherwise have to be supported at public expense. Even the government was pleased that boys and girls could be kept off the street and made to support themselves at so early an age.

In most factories nothing was done to protect their health or to educate them. As a result, they grew up broken in health and unfit for anything except the simple factory work they had been doing for many years.


Adult factory workers, too, had to put up with long working hours and overcrowded conditions. The number of adults in cotton factories slowly increased as new inventions created work too difficult for children to do. Many improvements were made in machinery, but little was done to improve the lot of the workers. One published pamphlet reported: “At Tydesley they work fourteen hours a day. . . the door is locked in working hours, except half an hour at tea time: the work people are not allowed to send for water to drink, in the hot factory: and even rain water is locked up, by the master’s order, otherwise they would be happy to drink even that.”


The factory system developed into a mighty force that was making England the richest industrial nation in the world. Workmen who complained were regarded as unpatriotic because they were placing their own personal interests above the best interests of the nation If workmen were to be granted all their demands, the cost of manufacturing would climb sharply upward, as would the price of finished goods. Other countries would then be able to make better use of the factory system and capture many world markets by selling their products much cheaper than the English could.

One of the results of this kind of thinking was that factory employees lost many of their rights and liberties. Employees with special skills were not allowed to leave the country. The Combination Act of 1799 made it unlawful for two or more workmen to join forces together for the purpose of trying to improve their working conditions, shorten their working hours, or increase their wages. Those found guilty could be sent to jail for three months. This law gave factory owners almost absolute power over their employees.

One employer reduced the wages of all his employees in the fall, explaining that the cut represented the cost of candles the employees used in the factory during the winter months. The following spring, when the days grew long the employer continued to take the candle fee out of their wages. The employees said nothing. They were afraid to complain because they did not want to be sent to jail under the Combination Act. The next fall, the employer reduced wages once again. He pretended to forget that he was already taking one candle fee out of their salaries, feeling certain that none of them would dare to complain. Factory owners did not like anything that took the minds of the workers off their work. Any form of entertainment, therefore, was bad and so was education. After all, their employees did not need any education for the kind of work they were doing.


When Watt’s steam engine became available for use in cotton mills, many large new factories were built, most of them in towns and cities near important markets. These places grew into large industrial centers. They grew so rapidly that houses could not be built fast enough to take care of the increasing populations. The serious housing shortages created overcrowded slum areas, which in turn led to crime and disease.


Some people were forced to live in storage rooms, others in cellars without windows. A medical report of l793 said that some cellars “were so damp that they were unfit for habitation. . . The poor mostly suffered from the insufficiency of windows in cellars. Fever is the usual effect and I have known very often cases of consumption which can be traced to such causes.” The report then went on to tell about rooming houses. “The horror of these houses cannot easily be described: a lodger fresh from the country often lies down on a bed filled with infection by its last tenant, or from which the corpse of a victim to fever has only been removed a few hours before.”

The government did nothing to solve all the new problems, hoping that somehow the people would solve them for themselves. The factory owners did nothing. They felt that their only duty was to pay wages. Living conditions became so bad that finally the workers gained the attention and sympathy of the public. Churches and newspapers took up the fight for better treatment of factory workers. Workers living together in crowded cities began to see their problems more clearly and began to work together for the things they all wanted. They formed secret societies, held midnight meetings and kept their records buried in places known only to their most trusted officers. In this way labour unions came into being but many years were to pass before the government recognized them as lawful organizations.

The Industrial Revolution was much more than a few inventions and the introduction of the factory system. It brought about the growth of big business. It created work for millions and a rapid increase in population. It was largely responsible for the shitting of people from the country to the city It created new social classes, wealthy businessmen on the one hand and wage earning labourers on the other and new social problems as well.

Although the Industrial Revolution quickly spread to other countries, England had such a head start that for years she continued to be the world’s leading industrial nation and banking centre. England became the model which other countries tried to follow in order to become modern industrial states.

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