British Parliament Passes the Factory Act

Great Britain’s Factory Act prohibited the employment of young children and required some schooling for the youngest allowed to be employed. By creating a system of factory inspectors, the law ensured enforcement of its regulations.

Summary of Event

Machinery was introduced into the production of goods in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in what is known as the Industrial Revolution. The rise of industrialization entailed to the widespread establishment of factories, especially in northern England and southern Scotland. To tend the machinery, large workforces were required. Many of the workers were children, some less than ten years old, working often twelve to fifteen hours per day. The gradual realization of the impact of these conditions sparked a movement for reform that led to the Factory Act of 1833. Factory Act of 1833
Great Britain;social reforms
[kw]British Parliament Passes the Factory Act (1833)
[kw]Parliament Passes the Factory Act, British (1833)
[kw]Passes the Factory Act, British Parliament (1833)
[kw]Factory Act, British Parliament Passes the (1833)
[kw]Act, British Parliament Passes the Factory (1833)
Factory Act of 1833
Great Britain;social reforms
[g]Great Britain;1833: British Parliament Passes the Factory Act[1770]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;1833: British Parliament Passes the Factory Act[1770]
[c]Business and labor;1833: British Parliament Passes the Factory Act[1770]
[c]Government and politics;1833: British Parliament Passes the Factory Act[1770]
[c]Social issues and reform;1833: British Parliament Passes the Factory Act[1770]
Cooper, Anthony Ashley
Hobhouse, Sir John Cam
Sadler, Michael Thomas
Oastler, Richard
Ricardo, David
Smith, Adam

Parliament, in 1802 and 1819, had already passed laws prohibiting the employment of young children in factories, particularly at night. These laws lacked an enforcement mechanism, however. At the same time, new economic theories propounded by Adam Smith Smith, Adam and David Ricardo Ricardo, David argued that free markets should determine who was employed and under what conditions, and these views gained widespread acceptance in England in the first half of the nineteenth century. Workers, it was contended, were free agents who could determine whether or not to work at the wages and under the conditions offered.

As the factories expanded, however, the need for workers grew continuously, particularly in the textile Textile industry;labor in
Textile industry;English factories. Children, often employed by adult workers themselves, formed a very large part of the labor force. Most British subjects agreed that children were not free agents in the way that adult laborers were and that it was therefore appropriate to pass laws governing the employment of children. According to some estimates, as many as two-thirds of those employed in textile factories were children, earning between one-sixth and one-third the wages of adults. Many of these children were taken from orphanages in London and other large cities, the orphanage directors being glad to rid themselves of children for whom no other adult was responsible. As these circumstances became known, they inspired outrage in many circles in England, especially those affiliated with evangelical churches.

A large public campaign was sparked by the letters of Richard Oastler Oastler, Richard to many newspapers in northern England, especially the Leeds Mercury. Oastler pilloried the factory owners, who, he said, profited from the work of “thousands of little children . . . sacrificed at the shrine of avarice.” Oastler’s words led to efforts to legislate against the hiring of very small children. Sir John Cam Hobhouse Hobhouse, Sir John Cam , a radical member of Parliament from Westminster, introduced a bill in 1831 prohibiting the employment of children up to age eighteen in cotton textile mills for more than twelve hours per day. Hobhouse’s bill did not win support, though, and the task was passed on to Michael Thomas Sadler Sadler, Michael Thomas , member of Parliament for a small borough in Yorkshire.

Sadler, himself a Tory (a conservative), won widespread support among the landowning classes, who elected many members of Parliament and who had no hesitation in reining in the industrialists establishing the new factories. Just at the moment when Sadler might have succeeded at passing factory-reform legislation, however, the electoral process was transformed by the Reform Act of 1832, and Sadler lost his seat. Leadership was passed to another Tory, Anthony Ashley Cooper Cooper, Anthony Ashley (known as Lord Ashley until he succeeded to the earldom of Shaftesbury in 1851). Lord Ashley introduced legislation similar to that proposed by Hobhouse. However, the opponents of factory reform, now with stronger representation in Parliament, succeeded in sidetracking Ashley’s proposal by requiring a royal commission to examine the subject. The commission, meeting between March and June of 1833, traveled the country to investigate the problem, and as they did so, many public demonstrations, staged mostly by workers, occurred. The workers hoped that a law to restrict the working hours of children would have the effect of restricting their own hours as well.

The report of the royal commission modified the proposal advanced by Hobhouse Hobhouse, Sir John Cam in 1831 and proposed instead to restrict the application of the law to young children. Legislation to enact the recommendations of the commission was proposed and voted into law as the Factory Act. The act completely prohibited employing children under the age of nine, and those between nine and thirteen years old were allowed to work no more than eight hours per day or forty-eight hours per week. Furthermore, the law required that such children must attend school at least two hours per day, and in effect it required any factory owners who employed children to create and maintain schools, since a system of government schools did not then exist in England. Most important, the law created a system of factory inspectors, appointed by the national government so that they would be less subject to local influences, with the right to enter any factory.

The Factory Act of 1833 was just a beginning. It was agreed to reluctantly by the Whig Whig Party (British);and reform[Reform] government that had been elected to the first reformed Parliament in 1833, but its effects were somewhat limited. Some textile factories were exempt from the application of the law, including those producing silk or lace, and the number of inspectors for the entire country was exactly four, so although they were able to carry out inspections, they could not revisit many sites. Finally, although the workers who had played a large part in the demonstrations had hoped that the law would enact the “ten-hour day,” long a worker objective, it did not do so. The Factory Act was the first step in a long campaign that did, eventually, restrict the hours of employment in factories.

Lord Ashley, sponsor of the Factory Act of 1833, sponsored a select committee of Parliament in 1840 to examine the operation of the act. The most important witness before the committee was Francis Horner, one of the first four factory inspectors appointed. Horner’s testimony showed that legislation of this kind could indeed make a profound difference: He asserted that the law had virtually banned children from factories in Scotland. Ashley sponsored new legislation, passed in 1844, requiring that dangerous machinery be fenced in and that the working day of women and children older than thirteen be restricted to twelve hours. Horrific stories of women and children employed in coal mines had led to the Mines Act of 1842, which forbade the employment of women or children under the age of ten in mines.


The most important feature of the Factory Act of 1833 was the inclusion of a government enforcement mechanism. The factory inspectors, appointed by the national government, grew in number over the years and were the first stage in assembling a bureaucracy monitoring the conditions of work that has since become widely accepted. Despite the continued reign of free market economic theory, practicality dictated some control over the actions of employers. Moreover, the campaign for the Factory Act of 1833 showed that public demonstrations could, in fact, bring about legislative action to solve widely perceived social problems.

Further Reading

  • Evans, Eric J. The Forging of the Modern State: Early Industrial Britain, 1785-1870. New York: Longman, 1996. Contains much useful information about the development of legislation and the bureaucracy supervising the growth of factories. A basic source.
  • Fay, C. R. Round About Industrial Britain, 1830-1860. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1952. Contains a number of useful details about the act.
  • Halevy, Elie. History of the English People, 1830-1841: The Triumph of Reform. London: Ernest Benn, 1950. Although an older work, it is a classic and contains extensive details on the parliamentary maneuvering that led to the passage of the act.
  • Morgan, Kenneth. The Birth of Industrial Britain: Social Change, 1750-1850. Harlow, England: Pearson/Longman, 2004. Contains a compact summary of the efforts to control employment through legislative action.
  • Thomis, Malcolm I. Responses to Industrialisation: the British Experience, 1780-1850. Newton Abbot, England: David & Charles, 1976. Focuses on the early developments.
  • Tuttle, Carolyn. Hard at Work in Factories and Mines: The Economics of Child Labor During the British Industrial Revolution. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999. Subjects much of the material cited by those arguing about the employment of children to careful quantitative scrutiny.

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