QR Factories Act 1847

This agreement between the Sunderland employers and workers is an important achievement in its own right, but it also forms one part of a wider story.

Legislation aiming to protect Britain’s workers from explicit exploitation developed over the course of the 19th and 20th century. This was born of a mix of workers demands, campaigning of paternalists and government action.

One such paternalist was Richard Oastler. In the 1830’s and 1840’s Oastler campaigned for parliament to pass acts limiting the working day for women and children. As a Tory party supporter, Oastler was not a typical campaigner. But he believed the ruling class should protect the vulnerable.

In 1836 he urged workers to strike and sabotage to push the 10 hour day. As a result Oastler was sacked and his unpaid debts called in. Unable to pay, he was jailed in December 1840.

From Fleet Prison he wrote the ‘Fleet Papers’, discussing factory and poor law questions. Copies of these papers are at the Working Class Movement Library, and a flavour – including the first and last entries –  is given in this slideshow.

Oastler was released in 1844 after friends and family raised money to pay off his debts.

In 1847 a Parliament Act ruled that children aged 13 to 18 and women working in the textile industry could not work longer than a 10 hour day. In 1867 this legislation was made applicable to all workplaces. And once the 10 hour day became the norm, demands for further reductions became more common, which is where the Sunderland Employers’ banner comes back in.

In addition to Oastler’s Fleet papers, the Working Class Movement Library has various other letters and papers about the Ten Hour Act, including a letter from radical and factory reformer John Doherty to the Lancashire factory operatives. As well as the Ten Hour Act, the Library collection also includes papers relating to the Eight Hour Act and numerous other 19th century acts seeking amendments to employment law.

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