Working Hours

On 16th March 1832 Michael Sadler introduced a Bill in the House of Commons that proposed limiting the hours of all persons under the age of 18 to ten hours a day. After much debate it was clear that Parliament was unwilling to pass Sadler's bill. However, in April 1832 it was agreed that there should be another parliamentary enquiry into child labour. Sadler was made chairman and for the next three months the parliamentary committee interviewed 48 people who had worked in textile factories as children. Sadler discovered that it was common for very young children to be working for over twelve a day.

Lord Ashley carried out a survey of doctors in 1836. In a speech he made in the House of Commons he argued that over half of the doctors interviewed believed that "ten hours is the utmost quantity of labour which can be endured by the children" without damaging their health. However, Lord Ashley admitted that some doctors that came before his committee did not believe that long hours caused health problems.

William Hutton admitted that in the winter period he struggled to get to work on time: "In the Christmas holidays of 1731 snow was followed by a sharp frost. A thaw came on in the afternoon of the 27th, but in the night the ground was again caught by a frost, which glazed the streets. I did not awake, the next morning, till daylight seemed to appear. I rose in tears, for fear of punishment, and went to my father's bedside, to ask the time. He believed six; I darted out in agonies, and from the bottom of Full Street, to the top of Silk mill Lane, not 200 yards, I fell nine times! Observing no lights in the mill, I knew it was an early hour, and the reflection of the snow had deceived me. Returning, the town clock struck two."

Children who were late for work were severely punished. If children arrived late for work they would also have money deducted from their wages. Time-keeping was a problem for those families who could not afford to buy a clock. In some factories workers were not allowed to carry a watch. The children suspected that this rule was an attempt to trick them out of some of their wages.

David Bywater, worked in a textile factory in Leeds: "We started at one o'clock on Monday morning, and then we went on again till eight o'clock, at breakfast time; then we had half an hour; and then we went on till twelve o'clock, and had half an hour for drinking; and then we stopped at half past eleven for refreshment for an hour and a half at midnight; and then we went on again till breakfast time, when we had half an hour; and then we went on again till twelve o'clock, at dinner time, and then we had an hour: and then we stopped at five o'clock again on Tuesday afternoon for half an hour for drinking; then we went on till past eleven, and then we gave over till five o'clock on Wednesday morning." Bywater claimed that this led to physical deformities: "It made me very crooked in my knees."

Elizabeth Bentley claimed that it was very difficult for young children to arrive at the factory on time: "I worked from five in the morning till nine at night. I lived two miles from the mill. We had no clock. If I had been too late at the mill, I would have been quartered. I mean that if I had been a quarter of an hour too late, a half an hour would have been taken off. I only got a penny an hour, and they would have taken a halfpenny."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) William Hutton, The Life of William Hutton (1816)

In the Christmas holidays of 1731 snow was followed by a sharp frost. A thaw came on in the afternoon of the 27th, but in the night the ground was again caught by a frost, which glazed the streets. I did not awake, the next morning, till daylight seemed to appear. I rose in tears, for fear of punishment, and went to my father's bedside, to ask the time. He believed six; I darted out in agonies, and from the bottom of Full Street, to the top of Silk mill Lane, not 200 yards, I fell nine times! Observing no lights in the mill, I knew it was an early hour, and the reflection of the snow had deceived me. Returning, the town clock struck two.

(2) Elizabeth Bentley, interviewed by Michael Sadler's Parliamentary Committee on 4th June, 1832.

I worked from five in the morning till nine at night. I lived two miles from the mill. We had no clock. If I had been too late at the mill, I would have been quartered. I mean that if I had been a quarter of an hour too late, a half an hour would have been taken off. I only got a penny an hour, and they would have taken a halfpenny.

(3) Frank Forrest, Chapters in the Life of a Dundee Factory Boy (1850)

In reality there were no regular hours, masters and managers did with us as they liked. The clocks in the factories were often put forward in the morning and back at night. Though this was known amongst the hands, we were afraid to speak, and a workman then was afraid to carry a watch.

(4) James Patterson, interviewed by Michael Sadler's Parliamentary Committee, 30th June, 1832.

I worked at Mr. Braid's Mill at Duntruin. We worked as long as we could see. I could not say at what hour we stopped. There was no clock in the mill. There was nobody but the master and the master's son had a watch and so we did not know the time. The operatives were not permitted to have a watch. There was one man who had a watch but it was taken from him because he told the men the time.

(5) Lord Ashley, speech in the House of Commons, 9th May, 1836.

Of the thirty-one medical men who were examined, sixteen gave it as their most decided opinion that ten hours is the utmost quantity of labour which can be endured by the children, with the slightest chance of preserving their health. Dr. Loudon reports, "I am of the opinion no child under fourteen years of age should work in a factory of any description more than eight hours a day." Dr. Hawkins reports, "I am compelled to declare my deliberate opinion, that no child should be employed in factory labour below the age of ten; that no individual, under the age of eighteen, should be engaged in it longer than ten hours daily."

(6) David Bywater was interviewed by Michael Sadler and his House of Commons Committee on 13th April, 1832.

Question: At what age were you when you entered upon night work in the steaming department?

Answer: I was nearly fourteen.

Question: Will you state to this committee the labour which you endured when you were put upon long hours.

Answer: We started at one o'clock on Monday morning, and then we went on again till eight o'clock, at breakfast time; then we had half an hour; and then we went on till twelve o'clock, and had half an hour for drinking; and then we stopped at half past eleven for refreshment for an hour and a half at midnight; and then we went on again till breakfast time, when we had half an hour; and then we went on again till twelve o'clock, at dinner time, and then we had an hour: and then we stopped at five o'clock again on Tuesday afternoon for half an hour for drinking; then we went on till past eleven, and then we gave over till five o'clock on Wednesday morning.

Question: Did you go home then?

Answer: No, we slept in the mill.