Richard Oastler was outraged. Born into a Wesleyan Methodist family and educated by Moravians, he was a man of conscience who believed words should be matched with deeds. That is why he took up his pen to write a letter. The letter, blasting "Yorkshire Slavery" was published on this day, September 29, 1830 in the Leeds Mercury.
"It is the pride of Britain that a slave cannot exist on her soil," he began. Richard declared himself in complete sympathy with efforts to end slavery. However, slavery was not limited to the colonies, he said: "Let truth speak out, appalling as the statement may appear. The fact is true. Thousands of our fellow-creatures and fellow-subjects, both male and female, the miserable inhabitants of a Yorkshire town, (Yorkshire now represented in Parliament by the giant of anti-slavery principles) are this very moment existing in a state of slavery, more horrid than are the victims of that hellish system 'colonial' slavery."
Their slavery took a different form, to be sure, but slavery it was, all the same. "Thousands of little children, both male and female, but principally female, from seven to fourteen years of age, are daily compelled to labour from six o'clock in the morning to seven in the evening, with only--Britons, blush while you read it!-- with only thirty minutes allowed for eating and recreation."
Action was needed. "'Vow one by one, vow altogether, vow with heart and voice, eternal enmity against oppression by your brethren's hands; Till man nor woman under Britain's laws, nor son nor daughter born within her empire, shall buy, or sell, or HIRE, or BE A SLAVE!" his long, passionate letter thundered.
From that day forward, Richard was as good as his word. He labored without ceasing to get conditions improved. That very September, one of the factory owners, John Wood, approached Richard, saying, "I have had no sleep tonight. I have been reading the Bible and in every page I have read my own condemnation. I cannot allow you to leave me without a pledge that you will use all your influence in trying to remove from our factory system the cruelties which are practiced in our mills."
Richard promised to do what he could. "I felt that we were each of us in the presence of the Highest and I knew that that vow was recorded in Heaven," he said.
His letter was read by John Hobhouse, a radical member of Parliament. Hobhouse immediately introduced a bill that would not permit children under nine to work, eliminated night work for children, and limited their hours of employment to ten a day. A modified bill without teeth in it soon passed, but Richard had to fight for a stronger act, enforced by penalties.
In another letter written four years later, he said, "The mill-owners obtained their wealth by overworking and by defrauding the factory children. They were praying people, but took care their work people should neither have time nor strength to pray. These hypocrites pretended it was necessary to keep these poor infant slaves at this excruciating labour just to preserve them from 'bad company' and to prevent them learning 'bad habits'."
Richard helped form Short Time Committees in major industrial cities to improve hours of work. He advocated sabotage of machinery in cases where employers were especially cruel. Rejecting laissez faire capitalism, he insisted that producers follow St. Paul's injunction that "The husbandman [i.e.: worker] who labors, must be the first partaker of the fruits."
Next time that you have to work no more than an eight hour day, remember Richard Oastler and his "Yorkshire Slavery" letter which fired the shot that changed your world.
- Cowherd, Raymond Gibson. The Humanitarians and the Ten Hour Movement in England. Boston, Baker Library, Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration, 1956.
- Driver, Cecil Herbert. Tory Radical; the life of Richard Oastler. New York, Oxford University Press, 1946.
- Oastler, Richard. Richard Oastler: king of factory children; six pamphlets, 1835-1861. New York, Arno Press, 1972.
- Spargo, John. Bitter Cry of the Children. New York: Macmillan, 1913. Source of the image.
- Various internet articles such as Oastler's letter to the Leeds Mercury on Yorkshire Slavery http://www.cooper.edu/humanities/core/hss3/r_oastler.html
Last updated June, 2007.