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The Factory System of the Early Nineteenth Century

Mises Daily: Saturday, January 27, 2007 by

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[Written in 1925, this essay was published in Economica in 1926 and became more widely known when F.A. Hayek included it in Capitalism and the Historians (1954).]


"Coalbrookdale by Night" (1801)
Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg

The early British factory system may be said to have been the most obvious feature of the Industrial Revolution. Forecasting as it did the trend of subsequent industrial development, judgments passed upon it will largely determine the attitude taken with regard to the modern industrial system.

There is reason to believe that the form that factory development abroad assumed was due, in no small degree, to imitation, direct or indirect, in Great Britain, and factory legislation the world over was framed on the British model. There are still parts of the world where industrial conditions seem to resemble those which existed here a century ago, and a recent article on conditions in China reads, in parts, exactly like a quotation from one of the history books which describe the early English system.[1] One suspects that the similarity is partly due to the author having read these modern history books, but a more or less parallel situation undoubtedly exists.

In the course of another line of inquiry, the writer of this essay was led to study a selection of the voluminous parliamentary reports and other literature of the early nineteenth century hearing on labor conditions. He was struck with the fact that the impressions he obtained from these publications were very different from those which certain modern works on the early factory system had given him, namely, A History of Factory Legislation by Hutchins and Harrison and The Town Labourer and Lord Shaftesbury by J.L. and Barbara Hammond. As these works are practically the standard modern works, he felt that a critical examination of the main evidence and more important discussions of the subject was necessary. This essay is the result of an attempt at such an examination.

Perhaps an explanation of the point of view of the authorities just referred to can be found in the weight they attach to the evidence given before what has come to be known as "Sadler's Committee," in 1832.[2] The report of this committee gives us a dreary picture of cruelty, misery, disease, and deformity among the factory children, and this picture is generally accepted as authentic. The Hammonds refer to the report as "a classical document." They continue: "It is one of the main sources of our knowledge of the conditions of factory life at the time. Its pages bring before the reader in the vivid form of dialogue the kind of life that was led by the victims of the new system."[3] Hutchins and Harrison regard it as "one of the most valuable collections of evidence on industrial conditions that we possess."[4]

What do we know of this committee? Sadler was making desperate efforts to get his "Ten Hours' Bill" through Parliament. When it came up for second reading, the House decided that a committee should be set up to investigate the story of gross brutalities in the factories, which he had described at great length and with much eloquence. Sadler himself presided, and it was agreed, for reasons of economy and convenience, that he should call his witnesses first, after which the opponents of the bill should put their case. He exercised the greatest energy to get his case complete by the end of the session, and then, ignoring the demands of justice, he immediately published the evidence "and gave to the world such a mass of ex parte statements, and of gross falsehoods and calumnies … as probably never before found their way into any public document."[5] The question had, in fact, become a party question, and a balanced discussion was impossible.[6]

The Sadler Report gives us a dreary picture of cruelty, misery, disease, and deformity among the factory children, and this picture is generally accepted as authentic.

To say that the report is one-sided as regards the evidence contained in it would be a mild criticism. It consists chiefly of individual and carefully selected instances. Moreover, Sadler had made use of an effective propagandist device in calling evidence of what happened in earlier times and presenting it in such a way as to suggest that the same abuses were still in operation.[7] This was particularly unfair, as the previous thirty years had been accompanied by considerable material improvements and advances, both within and outside the factories, and these changes had been followed by adjustments in social standards. A serious defect in the evidence is that it was not given on oath. If we take into account the religious feeling of the day, the importance of this must be clear. Of the three witnesses who came from Manchester,[8] only one could be got to repeat his evidence before the subsequent commission, and then he would not do so on oath. His evidence was found by the commission to be "absolutely false."

These are not merely charges made by interested manufacturers. The unsatisfactory nature of Sadler's Report was freely admitted by most of the earlier opponents of the factory system who had not become involved in party politics. Even Engels, Karl Marx's comrade-in-chief, describes the Report thus: "Its report was emphatically partisan, composed by strong enemies of the factory system for party ends. … Sadler permitted himself to be betrayed by his noble enthusiasm into the most distorted and erroneous statements."[9] Another, though more sober, opponent of the factory system describes the position thus: "The whole affair assumed at this time the character of a political party question, the Tories for the greater part still smarting under their defeat on the reform question, and endeavouring with delight to bring to the surface everything likely to damage, in the eyes of the public, the industrial middle class."[10]

Can we wonder that the manufacturers were furious at Sadler's maneuver and at their demand for a further inquiry? All Hutchins and Harrison tell us about this is that, although the manufacturers' interests "had been well represented upon it [Sadler's Committee], they were discontented with the results, and now pressed for a further enquiry on the spot."[11] Dr. Slater says that the manufacturers' anger was "at the unusual action of the Committee in taking evidence from the sufferers themselves."[12] Why this consistent unfairness to the manufacturers?

In the reports issued by the subsequent commission[13] we can find effective answers to nearly all the charges made before the committee, but few writers mention this; for the most part they proceed as though the stories brought before the committee were confirmed.[14] We can judge of the difference in the character of the evidence by noticing that R.H. Greg, a fierce critic of Sadler's Committee, could nevertheless refer to the evidence published by the Factory Commission as "an official and authenticated mass of evidence to which all must bow." In particular, the charge of systematic cruelties to children was shown to have been entirely without foundation, and we do not think that any careful student reading these reports could doubt that such deliberate cruelties as did exist were practiced on the children by the operatives themselves, against the will and against the knowledge of the masters. The masters were, on the whole, as many of their opponents admitted, "men of humanity."

In spite of the mass of material which we have, it is difficult for us to obtain a clear picture of the physical and moral condition of the factory children. A good deal, perhaps the most valuable part, of our information comes from the evidence of medical men, but neither the Hammonds nor Hutchins and Harrison make any attempt to assess the value of their evidence. It is not an easy thing to do, even when we believe the doctors to have been free from a particular bias. There are two main difficulties. First, the state of mind of many of those who set out to observe the state of health of a particular group of people suggests le malade imaginaire; second, the condition of medical knowledge was such that medical opinions (as opposed to observations) are valueless. "Bleeding" was still the favorite remedy for most complaints.[15] The doctors were, however, at least deliberate observers, and, while their experiences are illuminating, their abstract theories do not help us at all. One would almost think that the Hammonds and Hutchins and Harrison hold the reverse. They both accept the medical evidence given before Peel's Committee in 1816,[16] which was favorable to the reformers' case, but reject as biased that given before the Lords' Committee[17] two years later, which was favorable to the manufacturers' case.

Let us compare the medical evidence contained in the reports of these two committees. The nine doctors called before Peel's Committee gave practically nothing but a mass of abstract opinions. Six of them confessed to knowing nothing whatever of "manufactories" except by hearsay; one had known a factory "as a very young man"; one confessed to being a personal friend of Nathaniel Gould; and the other (Kinder Wood), although a friendly witness, largely contradicted the evidence of the rest. They were questioned in the following style: "Supposing that children at an early age…?" They replied by giving their opinion as to what would happen (or should happen) under those conditions, never having actually observed children under those circumstances.

"The unsatisfactory nature of Sadler's Report was freely admitted by most of the earlier opponents of the factory system who had not become involved in party politics."

Now let us consider the Lords' Committee of 1818. The Hammonds seek to discredit it by observing that it "discovered doctors of standing ready to swear that factory life was most wholesome for children, and that it was doubtful whether it would hurt them to work twenty-three hours out of the twenty-four."[18] They add nothing to this, so we must take it as intended to convey their impression. Hutchins and Harrison say: "Some of the medical evidence before the Lords' Committee suggests that at least one or two of the doctors summoned were literally suborned by the masters, so extraordinary were their shifts and evasions to escape answering the questions put to them."[19] There is little to justify either of these observations. The doctors called had, in this case, practical experience of "manufactories" and had observed children employed in them, and their evidence, generally, suggested that, whatever the hours factory children were actually working at that period, they were at least as healthy as children not employed in factories. The only "shifts and evasions" that we find were merely attempts, under severe cross-examination by Sarjeant Pell, who had been briefed for the purpose, to avoid expressing abstract opinions not based upon actual observation. One doctor (E. Hulme) was asked: "You, as a medical man, then, can form no opinion, independent of evidence, as to the number of hours that a child might, or might not be employed, that would or would not be injurious to his health?" The answer was, "I can't." Is this a shifty or evasive reply? Again and again before this committee we come across the declaration that a speculative opinion, or one founded on abstract grounds only, as to the number of hours a child could work without harm was impossible. To illustrate the futility of attempting to determine a theoretical limit by mere speculation, Hulme replied as follows: "If there were such an extravagant thing to take place, and it should appear that the person was not injured by having stood twenty-three hours, I should then say it was not inconsistent with the health of the person so employed." A comparison of this passage with the Hammonds' description of the incident, quoted above, may help us to appreciate their scientific attitude.[20] As Hulme explained: "My answer only went to this effect, that it was not in my power to assign any limit."[21]

The most interesting contribution from the medical antagonists of the factory system came from Dr. Turner Thackrah, under the title of The Effects of the Principle Arts, Trades and Professions on Health and Longevity (1831). This book became almost a bible to Oastler and Sadler and was copiously quoted by a long succession of reformers. Yet it was in no sense a partisan work, and its author had not been drawn into any party political movement. The Tory press of London must have felt very undecided as to how to take him, for he reminded the editors that, while they were supporting Sadler in his "Ten Hours'" agitation, their own staffs were worked, "I am told, fifteen to seventeen hours a day!"[22] Thackrah set out to examine scientifically and to compare the health of people engaged in all the principal occupations of the day, and it was only by partial quotation that the reformers were able to make such a wide use of his work. Certainly he opposed child labor with considerable warmth (whether inside or outside the factories) on the ground that "the term of physical growth ought not to be a term of physical exertion,"[23] but he was unable to represent the health of the operatives who had been through it as in any way worse than that of most other classes of the community, even of the more wealthy classes. He was hardly less indignant over the schools which the children of the well-to-do were forced to attend than he was over factories. It is surprising that the relevance of his evidence has not been more widely realized. Hutchins and Harrison give one quotation from his book but entirely ignore his general conclusions.[24]

The contribution of Gaskell[25] (also a medical man) is valuable for the same reason as that of Thackrah, namely, that he was an avowed antagonist of the factory system.[26] His work is well known, but it appears to have exercised so little influence on most discussions of this subject that some examination of his opinions seems desirable here.

"Dr. Turner Thackrah was hardly less indignant over the schools which the children of the well-to-do were forced to attend than he was over factories."

He gave no support to the view that the coming of the factories had coincided with the economic degradation of the workers. On the contrary, he was quite clear that, apart from the effect on the hand-loom weavers, it had resulted in abundant material progress and that the wages of cotton operatives, "with proper economy and forethought, would enable them to live comfortably, nay, in comparative luxury."[27] It was the moral degradation of the worker that worried Gaskell. He condemned factories for the vice which he thought they had been instrumental in producing through causing the operatives to lose their "independence."[28] Children were forced to spend their most impressionable years amid surroundings of the utmost immorality and degradation, and he painted a truly appalling picture.

It seems to the writer a fact of the deepest significance that, in spite of Gaskell holding these opinions, and in spite of his regarding factory labor in general as "singularly unfitted for children," he could not bring himself to advocate the abolition of child labor. "The employment of children in manufactories," he wrote, "ought not to be looked upon as an evil, till the present moral and domestic habits of the population are completely re-organised. So long as home education is not found for them, and they are left to live as savages, they are to some extent better situated when engaged in light labour, and the labour generally is light which falls to their share."[29] It was the home life of children, prior to their factory days, which primarily led to such physical degeneracy as there was, and Gaskell emphasized this view. "This condition, it must be constantly borne in mind, has nothing to do with labour — as yet the child has undergone none."[30]

Can we decide how far the appalling immorality which Gaskell believed to exist in his day was due to the new industrial regime? He undoubtedly very much exaggerated the extent of the vice and degradation which existed. A Poor Law Commission some years before had painted a very gloomy picture, and he seems to have accepted quite uncritically the charges made by opponents of the system.[31] About 1830 a whole crop of literature bemoaning the morals of the people had burst forth, and it may, perhaps, be enlightening for us to examine an essay, dated 1831, which, although published anonymously, seems to have influenced and perhaps inspired many of the subsequent writers in a like vein.[32] It was entitled An Enquiry into the State of the Manufacturing Population. Not only was Gaskell influenced by it, but Dr. J.P. Kay's essay on The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes (1832) was indebted to it, and a number of other contemporary works quoted from it. Hence we can fairly assume that the following compliment to a foreign power expresses a point of view not uncommon in those days among the educated classes.

Spain, the most ignorant, degraded, and uncommercial of all countries pretending to civilisation is, in respect of crimes against property, three times less vicious than France, and more than seven times less vicious than England. This fact is a fearful one and speaks volumes. Spain ranks cannibalism among her list of crimes, but robbery is rare, and petty theft still rarer.

The factories were blamed for this. The weight that can be attached to such opinions can be judged by a further quotation from the same essay in which tea drinking is condemned as a sign of demoralization!

"Under any circumstances we should deprecate the too liberal use of weak tea, as extremely debilitating to the stomach; but the practice is fatal to the constitution of all hard working men … it affords a temporary relief at the expense of a subsequent reaction, which, in its turn, calls for another and stronger stimulus." This led to the mixing of gin in the tea, a practice which prevailed "to an inconceivable extent among our manufacturing population." This is no attempt to ridicule by a carefully chosen passage from a crank. The opinion was common. Dr. J.P. Kay (who later became famous as Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth) said exactly the same thing in almost the same words the following year.[33]

It is but one case of the kind of argument which we constantly find, intended to prove that moral degradation had resulted from the factories and illustrated by examples which could quite easily suggest to us economic and social advance. Thackrah lamented the fact that children were no longer contented with "plain food" but must have "dainties."[34] The Reverend G.S. Bull deplored the tendency of girls to buy pretty clothes "ready-made" from shops instead of making them themselves, as this practice unfitted them to become "the mothers of children."[35] Gaskell saw decadence in tobacco. "Hundreds of men may be daily seen inhaling the fumes of this extraordinary plant."[36] He also saw moral decline in the growth of workmen's combinations. The men were no longer "respectful and attentive" to their "superiors."[37]

The factory owners' most usual reply to the charge of immorality against the factory operatives was to the effect that, insofar as there was any truth in such a charge, the cause could be found in irreligion. But this way of thinking was general in all camps. Gaskell lamented the frequent absence of a belief "of a state of future rewards and punishments. … Thus deprived of the most ennobling characteristic of the human mind, what wonder can be felt that it is a wild waste?"[38]

Of the specific causes suggested for such decadence as there appeared to be, there are two which seem to have some plausibility. The first is the high earnings of the operatives which led to intemperance. Both Thackrah and Gaskell treat this as axiomatic. "The pocket-book makers have high wages and are not compelled to keep hours. Hence they are often very dissipated."[39] "The high wages allowed in some departments, induce drunkenness and improvidence."[40] "Higher wages, moreover, very often, if not generally, lead men to intemperance."[41]

"So long as home education is not found for them, and they are left to live as savages, they are to some extent better situated when engaged in light labour, and the labour generally is light which falls to their share."

– Dr. Gaskell, an opponent of child labor

The second suggestion, which seems to have some measure of truth, is that moral degradation was due to the flood of Irish immigrants who came over to take the place of those children who were forced out of industry by the Factory Acts. The children's wages, seldom more than from four to five shillings a week, were, nevertheless, a big inducement to a race as poor as the Irish. Engels believed that the continued expansion of English industry could never have occurred had there not been this reserve at hand.[42] They were described as "an uncivilised race," and it may be that their inferior social tradition reacted upon the rest of the population. As they replaced children, the effect upon wages was probably not very great. Family earnings must have suffered, particularly where the displaced children could not get work in the mines or agriculture. Dobb's suggestion that the influx of Irish had the effect of depressing wages "to a brutally low level"[43] is certainly not borne out by the available statistics.[44]

The most impressive of the condemnations of the early factory system is the charge that it produced deformities and stunted growth in children. It is said that Oastler had noticed for many years the prevalence of deformity and lameness among factory operatives but that the causes were unknown to him. One day a friend informed him "to his horror" that these deformities were due to their lives in factories. He was "deeply impressed with all he had heard," and the very next morning he sat down and wrote his celebrated letter to the Leeds Mercury on "Yorkshire Slavery."[45] But we find that there was a general and widespread prevalence of deformities at that time,[46] and they seemed to be quite independent of the occupation pursued. There is ample confirmation of this opinion in the evidence from many sources contained in the reports issued by the Factory Commission in 1833 and 1834.[47] That the contrary impression gained credence seems to have been entirely due to the energetic propaganda of Ashley, Oastler, Sadler, and their supporters. If there was a slightly larger proportion of deformity or puniness among the factory children, this might be accounted for by bearing in mind the frequent statement that children who were insufficiently strong for other employments were sent to the cotton factories because of the lightness of the work there.[48]

William Cooke Taylor tells of a cripple, deformed from birth, who was "exhibited as a kind of show in the hail of a benevolent nobleman," a spectacle that was repeated night after night to impress upon the fashionable world of London the belief that this unhappy wretch was a fair specimen of the injurious results produced by factory labor.[49] He was also paid to go on tour for this purpose. Later, he offered his services to the manufacturers, to expose the methods of the party that had originally engaged him, an offer which was "unfortunately refused."[50]

The propagandists had an excellent social medium in which to carry on their work. There never was an age more fond of sickly sentiment. It was the age of Mrs. Hemans, and is it to be wondered at that many of her admirers sought inspiration for tears in the factories? Mrs. Trollope and Mrs. Browning (Elizabeth Barrett) found in them a useful theme, and even Sadler was prompted to perpetrate "The Factory Child's Last Day" in the approved style.

It was easy to make an impression on the Tories, who for the most part not only were ignorant of the conditions in the factories[51] but were predisposed to condemn the factory owners. "The ancient feeling of contempt," says Ure, "entertained by the country gentlemen towards the burghers … is still fostered by the panegyrists of their order, and displayed itself, not equivocally, in the late Parliamentary crusade against the factories."[52] The children were thought of as slaves, and the advantage of the considerable wages which they brought to their families was not put into the balance; neither was there any attempt to compare them to the poor of other sections of the community. This attitude goaded William Cooke Taylor into the deepest irony. People entered, or imagined that they entered, a mill and saw the little factory hands engaged in monotonous routine; and they thought "how much more delightful would have been the gambol of the free limbs on the hillside; the sight of the green mead with its spangles of buttercups and daisies; the song of the bird and the humming of the bee… [but] we have seen children perishing from sheer hunger in the mud hovel, or in the ditch by the wayside."[53] Compared to the factory workers, the agricultural laborers lived in abject poverty, and the work to which country children were put was far more exhausting than factory labor.[54] It was, however, "rarely witnessed by casual spectators except during fine weather."[55] Lord Shaftesbury, asked by Thorold Rogers why he had not sought to extend protective legislation to children in the fields when he knew that their work "was to the full as physically injurious" as premature labor in the factories, replied that it was a question of practical politics, and that, if he had sought the emancipation of all, he would have obtained the support of no party at all.[56]

The mill owners were, if anything, apathetic toward the anti-factory propaganda. William Cooke Taylor says that they were persuaded that the calumnies which were circulated would never have been credited, but that their silence in trusting to the common sense of their countrymen was taken for a confession of guilt.[57]

Some of the exaggerations die hard.[58] For instance, the Harmnonds twice repeat Fielden's statement that he had found from actual experiment that the factory child walked twenty miles a day in the course of his work in the mill.[59] Fielden never explained this experiment. He said that he would not "go into minute details" of his calculation because he would be "obliged to use terms that the ordinary reader would not understand."[60] Possibly he thought his estimate moderate, as Condy tried to show that altogether they walked about thirty miles in a day! As a matter of fact R.H. Greg did make detailed calculations and set them forth clearly. The average distance a piecer could cover in a day he showed to he not more than eight miles.[61]

"Compared to the factory workers, the agricultural laborers lived in abject poverty, and the work to which country children were put was far more exhausting than factory labor."

Let us try to take a balanced and detached view of conditions in those days, at the same time passing judgments only in the light of contemporary standards. The salient fact, and one which most writers fail to stress, is that, insofar as the working people then had a "choice of alternative benefits," they chose the conditions which the reformers condemned. Not only did higher wages cause them to prefer factory work to other occupations, but, as some of the reformers admitted, when one factory reduced its hours, it would tend to lose its operatives as they would transfer their services to establishments where they could earn more. The support of the artisan class for the Factory Acts could be obtained only by persuading them that as a result they would get the same or more money for less work. It was believed that technical considerations made it impossible for children's hours to be reduced without a corresponding reduction being conceded to adults, and the "Ten Hours' Movement" (as Hutchins and Harrison do not deny) was only concerned in its public utterances with the welfare of the children. Later, the operatives were brought to look upon children as competitors to themselves, and this possibly acted as an even stronger motive in the support of the Factory Acts, particularly when the idea of working children in shifts developed.

We can ignore the platitude that the child, at least, was not a free agent. There were two lines of argument. On one side, "Against none do children more need protection than against their own parents"; and, on the other, "The parent is the only natural and efficient guardian of the child." We shall not attempt to value the implications involved in these ideas, but the second one is significant. The human emotions from which parental affections spring were no different then from what they are today, and it is to the different social and economic medium in which they were expressed that we must look for the cause of apparent callousness and cruelty.

It is hard to believe that rich philanthropists felt more strongly than parents about the welfare of their children. Protection against the effects of drunkenness may, perhaps, have been needed, but, in general, upper-class support for legal restrictions on child labor was based upon a complete lack of understanding of the difficulties with which the working masses had to contend.

Until the development of the industrial system had caused a general rise in material prosperity, such restrictions could only have added misery. No careful attempt to estimate the sufferings of children who were driven from employment by the various Factory Acts is known to the writer. Their condition was described by some of the first factory inspectors appointed in 1833, but the evil was soon lost sight of in the general prosperity following.[62]

There would have been some fall in hours and some elimination of child labor following increasing real wages, legislation or no legislation.[63] Both are expressions of a demand for leisure, and leisure is only demanded after the more primary of human wants are amply satisfied.

Moreover, until man has something to do in leisure, or until the commodities for use in leisure are sufficiently cheap and plentiful, what is the use of it to him? When he has these things, he can make a "choice between benefits," between leisure and other things. Legal enactments often enforce the choice of an authority, which thinks it knows better. Perhaps, in the case of factory legislation, the authority was, indirectly, right. By bringing the operative a greater degree of leisure "artificially," it may have taught him to value it for its own sake and prefer it to the extra money which he habitually spent in the "alehouse" or the "dram shop." But until the Industrial Revolution had so far advanced as to bring other and more desirable things into competition with those institutions, it is possible that reduced hours may have had the reverse effect and led him to waste even more of his income than formerly. In the same way the moral welfare of children was probably safer in the factory than in the home before the social and moral changes, which the new industrial system made possible, had matured.

"The salient fact, and one which most writers fail to stress, is that, insofar as the working people then had a 'choice of alternative benefits,' they chose the conditions which the reformers condemned."

That the apparent benefits wrought by the early Factory Acts are largely illusory is suggested by the steady improvement which was undoubtedly taking place before 1833, partly as a result of the development of the factory system itself. All authorities, it is believed, admit that conditions were at their worst where domestic work prevailed and in the smaller factories and workshops, and there was a constant tendency for these to be eliminated through the competition of larger and more up-to-date establishments. The effect of the Act of 1833 was actually to set up a countertendency, for work was inclined to drift to workshops and the smaller factories which were more easily able to evade its provisions.

The chief obstacle to amelioration appears to have been apathy—the apathy of ignorance—rather than the cupidity of manufacturers. Masters and men, particularly the men, simply could not be brought to believe that certain practices were dangerous or injurious to health. The operatives were very stow to learn. Efforts to improve the factories had to be carried out in face of the opposition of the very workers whom it was intended to benefit. One mill owner was threatened with a strike because he installed a ventilating machine, and the spinners said that it increased their appetites; the substitution of zinc paint for white lead to prevent "painters' colic" was opposed by the painters; and the Sheffield grinders for years fought against the introduction of the magnetic mouthpiece. But it was not until the sixties and seventies, when the ignorance of the operatives had been largely overcome, that "dangerous trades," as such, were subjected to state regulation.

The effect of the Factory Acts upon production is a question which has not been squarely faced in modern treatises. There was obviously a sacrifice of productive power.[64] This sacrifice can, no doubt, be shown to have been good, for social reasons, but the economic loss cannot be overlooked. In the case of children's labor the effects went further than the mere loss of their work; they lost their training and, consequently, their skill as adults. A child can acquire dexterity much more easily than an adult, but such skill acquired in childhood is not easily lost.

$28
Even today, social scientists and historians continue to treat the Industrial Revolution as if it were the beginning of the end of civilization. What the essays in this book do is show the opposite.

Some critics seem to imagine that, when they have exploded Senior's "last-hour theory," they have proved that no reduction of output followed shorter hours. We get vague theories about "the economy of short hours." Shorter hours were not obtained without sacrifice; they may be said to have been purchased by the workers in their acceptance of diminished wages and by the community in lower productivity. The fact that these results are not easily discernible arises entirely from the general increase of wealth which continued through the century and which made possible and itself caused the demand for the leisure which the artisan class eventually possessed. Hutchins and Harrison make the common assumption that the reductions of hours were actually a main cause of the greater productivity which followed. They do not realize, apparently, that this is inconsistent with their argument that manufacturers were prevented from reducing hours of their own accord, because the force of competition gave an unfair advantage to those who did not make reductions. How far there is any truth in the theory of the economy of short hours will depend entirely upon the particular process concerned; in some cases output will be reduced proportionately, in others, less than proportionately, with curtailments of the working day.

The two main conclusions suggested by this discussion are, first, that there has been a general tendency to exaggerate the "evils" which characterized the factory system before the abandonment of laissez faire and, second, that factory legislation was not essential to the ultimate disappearance of those "evils." Conditions which modern standards would condemn were then common to the community as a whole, and legislation not only brought with it other disadvantages, not readily apparent in the complex changes of the time, but also served to obscure and hamper more natural and desirable remedies.


William Harold Hutt (1899–1988) was born in London to working-class parents. He earned a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the London School of Economics in 1924, after which he spent four years working for publisher Sir Ernest Benn. Benn was so impressed with "The Factory System of the Early Nineteenth Century" — Hutt's first published article — that he promoted Hutt to manage The Individualist Bookshop, Ltd.

Written in 1925, this essay was published in Economica in 1926 and became more widely known when F.A. Hayek included it in Capitalism and the Historians (1954).

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Notes

[1] "Labour Conditions in China," International Labour Review, December, 1924.

[2] Report of Select Committee on Factory Children's Labour, 1831–32.

[3] J.L. and Barbara Hammond, Lord Shaftesbury (London: Constable, 1923), p. 16.

[4] B.L. Hutchins and A. Harrison, A History of Factory Legislation (London, 1903), p. 34.

[5] R.H. Greg, The Factory Question (London: A. Cobbett, 1837).

[6] See speech of Wilson Patten in House of Commons (Hansard, XVII, 79 [1833]).

[7] Fielden made use of the same device in The Curse of the Factory System (1836). It is improbable, even in the early days of the factory system, when work-house apprentices made up the greater part of child labor, that the picture of horror which Sadler and Fielden drew could have been in the least typical. Even Robert Owen admitted that, when he purchased his mill in 1799, the apprentice children were "well fed and clothed and lodged, and, to a superficial observer, healthy in their countenance?" (Report of Select Committee on the State of the Children Employed in the Manafactories of the United Kingdom [1816] ["Peel's Committee"]).

[8] And there were only three called, although the inquiry practically resolved itself into one on cotton factories!

[9] Friedrich Engels, Condition of the Working Classes in 1844 (London, 1892), p. 170.

[10] E. von Plener, English Factory Legislation (London, 1873), p. 10.

[11] Hutchins and Harrison, op. cit., p. 35.

[12] Gilbert Slater, The Making of Modern England (London: Constable, 1913), p. 122.

[13] First and Second Reports of the Commission on the Employment of Children in Factories (1833) and the Supplementary Report (1834).

[14] Wing did argue definitely that these reports abundantly confirmed the evidence given before Sadler's Committee (Evils of the Factory System [London, 18371, p. xix). H. de B. Cibbins devotes three pages of his Industry in England to a discussion of the evidence given before this committee but says nothing about the commission which followed. His account of the factory system seems to have been based almost entirely upon an uncritical acceptance of the violently partisan writings of Whately Cooke Taylor and Samuel Kydd.

[15] There were speculations among some doctors as to the purifying qualities of smoke, gas, emanations, etc. (Philip Caskell, The Manufacturing Population of England [London, 1833], p. 265).

[16] Op. cit.

[17] See Lords' Sessional Papers, 1818, Vol. IX.

[18] Hammond and Hammond, Lord Shaftesbury, p. 11; see also The Town Labourer (London and New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1917), p. 167.

[19] Op. cit., p. 26.

[20] Perhaps they have relied upon the mangled version in Whately Cooke Taylor's Modern Factory System (London, 1891).

[21] Lord's Sessional Papers, 1818, IX, 22.

[22] Effects of the Principal Arts, etc., p. 222.

[23] Ibid., p. 45.

[24] They refer to Dr. Turner Thackrah as "Dr. Thackrah Turner," an error which is repeated in the Index. Apparently they never noticed this mistake, for it persisted in the second edition of their history, published after an interval of eight years.

[25] Op. cit.

[26] It was thought desirable in an argument amounting to a defense of the early factory system to quote chiefly from the evidence of opponents, but the most telling arguments in its favor are to be found in the writings of interested parties, Baines, Dr. Ure, and R.H. Greg. There is so voluminous a mass of material from the various commissions and committees that it would be possible to make out a case for almost any contention by a judicious selection of passages from them; but, read critically, they are enlightening.

[27] Op. cit., p. 216.

[28] "Loss of independence" is a vague, much-used, and much-abused phrase. One of the main social results of the factory regime seems to have been the evolution of the idea of a wage contract, replacing the former idea of servitude. In the Second Report of the Factory Commission (1834) we notice the words "independence," or "independent," used over and over again, by employer witnesses living in all parts of the country (over five hundred put in evidence), as being the most obvious ones to use in describing the attitude of the operatives. The words were generally used in reply to a question about intimidation by the masters.

[29] Gaskell, op. cit., p. 209.

[30] Ibid., p. 198. It is interesting to note that Gaskell did not share the common belief that factory life stunted the intellectual faculties; he believed it had the reverse effect. He also denied the frequently made charge that the temperature and the composition of the atmosphere in which children worked was injurious to their health.

[31] The commissioner, Tufnell, reported that "the whole current of testimony goes to prove that the charges made against cotton factories on the ground of immorality are calumnies" (Supplementary Report, 112 [1834]).

[32] The author was R.H. Greg, who, although a prolific essayist, never claimed this early effort, and it is indexed under "Enquiry" in the British Museum. He very soon reversed his opinions. See his article in the Edinburgh Review, 1849, p. 497.

[33] J.P. Kay, The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes (London, 1832).

[34] Thackrah's evidence before Sadler's Committee, op. cit., p. 514.

[35] Sadler's Report, p. 423.

[36] Gaskell, op. cit., p. 110.

[37] Gaskell, Artisans and Machinery (London, 1836), p. 22.

[38] Gaskell, Manufacturing Population, pp. 282–83.

[39] Thackrah, op. cit., p. 24.

[40] Ibid., p. 111.

[41] Thackrah, before Sadler's Committee.

[42] Engels, op. cit., p. 90.

[43] M.H. Dobb, Capitalist Enterprise and Socialist Progress (London, 1925), p. 331.

[44] Bowley, Wages in the United Kingdom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Pross, 1900), table facing p. 119.

[45] Samuel Kydd, History of the Factory Movement (London, 1857), I, 96–98.

[46] Andrew Combe, Principles of Physiology (2d ed; London, 1834). Combe blamed the practice of swaddling and bandaging infants more than anything else for the presence of deformities (p. 159).

[47] One of the commissioners (Cowell), to test the charge that factory children were stunted, took the trouble to ascertain their ages and then measure and weigh them. Their average height was found to be identical with that of nonfactory children. Their average weight was slightly less. Cowell attributed this to the relative lightness of their work.

[48] See evidence before the Lord's Committee, Sessional Papers, 1818, Vol. IX.

[49] William Cooke Taylor, The Factory System (London, 1844), pp. 71 and 72.

[50] Robert Blincoe, whose Memoirs had so strong an influence, may have lent his name to a more or less true story; but, in spite of his supposed sufferings, he lived to old age and was described by Samuel Kydd as being, in 1857, "a comparatively prosperous man."

[51] Even Lord Shaftesbury "declined an offer to guide him through the principal spinning establishments as gratuitous and unnecessary" (William Cooke Taylor, op. cit., p. 11), and Sir Robert Peel, a factory owner, was, according to Andrew Ure, but little conversant with the nature and condition of the cotton trade (Philosophy of Manufactures [3d ed.; London, 1861], p. 6).

[52] Ure, op. cit., p. 277.

[53] William Cooke Taylor, op. cit., pp. 23 and 24.

[54] Weeding, stone-picking, potato-planting, etc.

[55] William Cooke Taylor, op. cit., p. 26.

[56] Thorold Rogers, The Economic Interpretation of History (London, 1888), p. 355.

[57] Op. cit., p. 11.

[58] The growth of a vested interest in a class of state-employed factory inspectors seems to have helped to keep in the limelight the supposed honors of unregulated industry. A comparison of the writings of Whately Cooke Taylor (a factory inspector) with those of his father, William Cooke Taylor, certainly suggests this. Compare Herbert Spencer's prophetic remarks on the "pressing desire for careers," in upper-and middleclass families and its encouragement to legislative control (The Man versus the State [R.P.A. ed.; London, 1884], p. 28).

[59] The Town Labourer, p. 158, and Lord Shaftesbury, p. 44. This charge could only apply to those children engaged upon a particular process, "piecing." The Hammonds do not trouble to make this clear.

[60] Op. cit.

[61] R.H. Greg, op. cit.

[62] Gaskell admitted a short time after the Factories Regulation Act had been passed that, in causing large numbers of children to be turned adrift, it had only "increased the evils it was intended to remedy, and must, of necessity be repealed" (Artisans and Machinery, p.67).

[63] The elimination of child labor was, in part, due to technical changes. The development of steam power led to the use of larger machines less suitable for children to work with. Strangely enough, among the banners carried in the processions of the "Ten Hours' Movement," we find not only "No Child-Murder" but "Muzzle the Monster Steam" (Kydd, op. cit., p. 61).

[64] "Obviously" may seem an exaggeration in view of many vague arguments to the reverse effect. The most confident of the writers who put the cart before the horse was George Gunton, who argued that "the standard of living and, consequently, the total income of the family, is the lowest where the wife and children contribute the most towards its support" (Wealth and Progress [London, 1888], p. 171).