Why was it difficult to improve factory conditions in the 1830s?
In the mid 1830s, calls for factory reform were at their height, as Richard Oastler, leader of the Ten Hour Movement, urged workers to use strikes and sabotage to bring down the millowners. Most factory owners in the 1830s were opposed to factory reform, the agitation for which they found disruptive and the implementation of which would undoubtedly increase their labour costs by restricting the utility of their cheapest workers. The compromise legislation which was the 1833 Factories Act had addressed only the subject of child labour and organisations such as the Ten Hour Movement were now agitating for a shorter working day for all factory employees.
Within each industrial town, factory owners and their supporters comprised a large voting bloc and accordingly, particularly after the widespread enfranchisement which had followed the 1832 Great Reform Act, they exercised great influence in Parliament. In general these factory owners belonged to the bourgeoisie which the Whigs had attracted in 1832 and the loss of whom would destabilise the precarious Parliamentary position of this party.
The factory owners, as educated middle-class men were also, on the whole, far better able to express their opinion in print than the often illiterate factory workers. Influential men such as Andrew Ure, who supported factory owners in his 1835 book The Philosophy of Manufacturers, were opposed by only few men such as Richard Oastler who were able to present the case for factory reform. Although it has been noted that Sir Robert Peel, the Conservative leader, was himself from a manufacturing family the actual number of opportunities for the working classes to enter Parliament were few.
The factory owners were not, however, the only opponents of factory reform. Although many Tories supported factory reform, most notably Lord Ashley and Richard Oastler, the Whigs, who held a Parliamentary majority, were greatly troubled by the probability that any reform of factory conditions would lose them support among largely Whig-supporting factory owners.
The London and Westminster Review, brings attention to another source of opposition to factory reform – the parents of working children. These individuals, often themselves living in poverty, needed or desired the small income which their children brought in and which would have been restricted by the introduction of protective legislation. Many people also feared that, deprived of their income, parents would force their children to turn to crime, a prospect that was alarming to many members of the middle class. This source also points out that if such legislation were introduced then a ‘considerable trouble and some expense’ would be imposed on the workmen who were required to supervise the conditions of the regulated child workers.
The Whig government of the mid 1830s was losing political support among both moderates and radicals as a result of its policy of reform. Factory owners comprised a powerful lobby group both inside and outside Parliament through their votes and their social influence. The lobbying force of the reformists was irrelevant by comparison and accordingly this group was paid little attention by the Whig government. The opposition of factory owners was thus the major reason why it was difficult to improve factory conditions in the 1830s.