Leeds man who put an end to slavery of children

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A new collection of essays shines a new life on the campaigning of Richard Oastler – the man who helped stamp out child slavery in the mills of the North.

Mr Oastler was born in 1789, the youngest of 10 children of a linen merchant and his wife, and lived in St Peter’s Square, Leeds.

He grew up to be a dedicated Tory who was set against parliamentary reform and trades unions.

In 1820 he succeeded his father as steward to Thomas Thornhill’s estate at Fixby Hall near Huddersfield.

Until 1830 he led an unremarkable life, but in that year he met John Wood, a worsted manufacturer from Bradford who agonised over the need to employ children in his factory.

Already an abolitionist and great supporter of William Wilberforce’s work to end slavery in the colonies, Oastler decided to join the struggle for factory legislation.

It was a struggle that would eventually change the lives of millions of children and adults working in intolerable conditions across Britain.

John Hargreaves, visiting research fellow at Huddersfield University, has edited a new collection of essays by leading historians on the life, work and significance of Richard Oastler.

He said: “In a sense he took over where William Wilberforce left off and he was a maverick who took on the cause because he could see that the treatment of children in mills and factories was inhumane and immoral.

“It was a stroke of genius that he compared the mills and factories of West Yorkshire with the appalling conditions in fields and plantations in the colonies.

“Children were working 14-hour days and had done so ever since the factory system had begun in the late 18th century and there were stories of youngsters being burned and maimed in factory accidents.

“Children were often used to crawl into spaces where adults could not go, and they were particularly prone to the dangers of moving machinery. They were also prone to abuse from overseers who would beat them.”

Mr Oastler started the campaign that would lead to him being dubbed ‘The Factory King’ by writing a passionate and vitriolic letter to The Leeds Mercury (later to become The Yorkshire Evening Post).

He lambasted Britain as a country of god-fearing and temperance-observing paternalism which nonetheless exploited children on the altar of commercial avarice.

Radical MP John Hobhouse read the letter, and was prompted to introduce a child labour bill in the Commons which would have banned all factory work for children under nine and limited those between nine and 18 to 12 hours a day, 66 hours a week. The campaign led the way to the introduction of what today is called health and safety legislation.

* Slavery in Yorkshire: Richard Oastler and the campaign against child labour in the Industrial Revolution is available from press@hud.ac.uk or: www.store.hud.ac.uk

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