The Factory Acts


The period of the Industrial Revolution witnessed unprecedented changes and transitions in society. Massive numbers of people moved from the country to the emerging industrial cities and towns. People who previously worked on the land or in cottage industries (e.g. hand spinning and weaving) became workers in factories undertaking largely non-skilled manual jobs. The Revolution brought about both positive and negative consequences including massive pollution and overcrowded and wretched living conditions for these workers. The phrase “dark Satanic Mills” is often used to describe the early Industrial Revolution and its destruction of nature and human relationships (although this interpretation is often disputed). As a result of these negative consequences a series of Factory Acts were campaigned for by workers themselves and their radical supporters and established during the 19th century. These Acts were passed by the UK Parliament and addressed the conditions that workers routinely endured in factories and other workplaces e.g. coal gas production, office, typists, India rubber processing. The working conditions during the Industrial Revolution were hideous because the main aim of employers was to maximise profits. Workers were exploited through very low wages, long working hours, dangerous working environments. The wide spread disregard for workers’ health and safety included conditions associated with poor ventilation, lack of accident prevention, medical facilities and sanitation.

Employment regulation, conditions, working hours and related laws were non-existent particularly for women and children and trade unions were still to become active and effective. In fact employers were very hostile to the creation of trade unions or any form of workers’ movements. Initially the membership of the first Trade Unions was exclusively for skilled workers and these were resistant indeed hostile to membership by non-union workers. Conditions of service were also unknown in regard to length of working hours, medical care and holidays. Analysing the impact of the successive Acts shows that they were largely ineffective and the legislative content took a long time to be fully enacted. The topics and themes addressed were very relevant and appropriate but as so often the major problems were in their implementation and arose largely because of indifference and hostility by employers

Reasons given for the slow implementation of the legislation were that the pace of the Industrial Revolution was so great that employers were able to ignore or circumvent any regulations and inspection regimes. Other commentators characterised it as a typical example of English practical empiricism. However in retrospect whatever the reasons any analysis highlights that the impact of the successive Acts were largely ineffective and the eventual legislative enactment did take a long time.

One of the first and articulate critics of the Factory Acts was Eleanor Marx in a series of seminal lectures and publications (1). She analysed in great detail the content and subsequent impact of successive Acts and starkly showed that the legislation was ineffective and mostly unenforced. She was a voice alone in highlighting and bringing these facts to the attention of the wider public. Eleanor was a leading figure in the creation of trade unions and advocate for the working classes including their education.

A Factory Inspectorate was finally established in 1833 but again had little impact until much later. It was only after the 1860s onwards that more industries were brought within the orbit of the Factory Act. In 1910 Sidney Webb, an influential economist, reformer and co-founder of the London School of Economics and active member of the Fabian Society stated that the Factory Act and its associated legislation had been ineffective and were only then becoming effective.

A list of some of the Factory Acts is given below with the remit:

Note: The early Acts mainly concentrated on regulating the hours of work and moral welfare of young children employed in cotton mills. Later Acts extended their remits to other industries and issues associated with factories and the workers including women and apprentices.

1802: Health and Morals of Apprentices Act. This limited the workday for apprentices to 12 hours.

1819: Cotton Mills and Factories Act. Cotton mills could not employ young people under the age of 9 and limited workdays for 9 to 16 year olds to 12 hours. Key figure Robert Peel.

1825: Cotton Mills Regulation Act.

1829: Act to Amend the Laws relating to the employment of Children in Cotton Mills & Manufactories.

1832: The first ‘Ten Hour Bill’ – Sadler’s Bill (1832).

1833: Labour of Children, etc., in Factories Act – Althorp’s Act. This extended the 1819 Act to all textile mills except silk and lace. No child worker under 9 years of age. Workdays for children 9-16 years old limited to 8 hours and for 13-18 limited to 12 hours. In addition children could not work at night. Interested to note young people under 13 had to receive education for 2 hours per workday, paid for by the worker. Employers were also required to have an age certificate for young workers and four factory inspectors had to be appointed to oversee the regulations and law.

1842: The Mines Act. Women and young people under the age of 10 prohibited from working underground.

1843/44: Graham’s Factory Education Bill. Act limited to textile mills. Workday for women and young people aged 8 to 13 limited to 6.5 hours a day. Young people had to receive a minimum of 3 hours education each day. Women prohibited to undertake night work and limited to 12 hours of work Women forbidden to do night work and limited to 12 hours of work.

1847: Factory Act. Workday for women and young people aged 13 to 18 limited to 10 hours a day or 58 hours per week.

1850: Factory Act – the ‘Compromise’ Act.

1853: Employment of Children in Factories Act. Young people aged 8 to 13 could not before 6 am or after 6 pm, or 2 pm on Saturday.

1856: Factory Act. National Association of Factory Occupiers to enforce adherence of the regulations and laws.

1867: Factories Act Extension Act and Hours of Labour Regulation Act: Extended earlier factory legislation to include non-textile factories and workshops. The Act prohibited the employment of young people less than 8 years of age. Young people aged between 8 and 13 had to receive a minimum of 10 hours of education per week.

1867: Agricultural Gangs Act. Prohibited the employment of young people under 8 and the employment of women and young people in a field gang that included men.

1871: Factory and Workshop Act.

1878: Factory and Workshop Act. Factory code applied to all trades. Compulsory education for young workers up to 10 years of age. 10 to 14 year olds could only be employed for half days. Maximum hours for women limited to 56 hours per week

1891: Factory Act. Raised working age from 10 to 11and introduced working conditions on women who were pregnant

1895: Factory and Workshop Act. Review the impact and effectiveness of the previous Acts.

As can be seen from the above detail successive Acts dealt with the same issues and in some cases reviewed the enforcement or lack of the legislation in earlier Acts. For example the various Acts often advocated education for children workers BUT did not say how this was to be operated or inspected.

  1. See biography on website .

I intend to expand this topic later.



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