Slavery in Yorkshire

This week on the blog we hear from Library Officer Ruairí Lewis about a heated debate between two leading local men in the early 19th-century…

In 1830, the ‘Tory Radical’ Richard Oastler sent an open letter to the Leeds Mercury, owned and edited by prominent Leeds liberal Edward Baines (1774-1848), entitled ‘Slavery in Yorkshire’. Oastler decried the horrific conditions and ill-treatment of child labourers in the West Riding textile industry, comparing them to plantation slaves. The Baines’ were anti-slavery campaigners with their own textile interests, and frequently used the Mercury to criticise the Factory Acts. This series of reforms aimed to regulate working conditions in specific industries, particularly cotton manufacturing. Oastler’s provocation began a bitter rivalry with the Mercury editors. On 5th May 1832, the Mercury called Oastler an “unprincipled incendiary” and had previously given him the epithet ‘King Richard’ for his lack of respect for Parliament.  

Leeds Central Library holds many resources that provide a local perspective on the conflicts that shaped the 19th Century. Free research guides on Leeds in the 19th Century are available to access in our Local & Family History Department so you too can trace histories like that of Oastler and the Baines family. 

Edward Baines  

In 1801 Edward Baines (senior) bought the Leeds Mercury newspaper, turning it into a leading provincial newspaper and an outspoken platform for liberal ideals. Along with microfilm editions of the Mercury, Leeds Central Library holds numerous items relating to the lives and work of the Baines family. Amongst these is the younger Baines’ (also Edward, 1800-1890) History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain (available from Information and Research, 338.4767 BAI). It is a compelling history of Britain’s cotton industry and a demonstration of the globe spanning network that historian Sven Beckert calls the “Empire of Cotton” (Beckert’s award-winning Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism is available to reserve on our public catalogue).  

Baines tells the history of British innovations in manufacturing techniques, the origin of the raw material and histories of cotton manufacturing in India and Europe. Baines’ work also serves as a defence of liberal ideas of free trade and industrial development. Baines strongly defends the cotton industry against the attacks of critics such as Oastler. Baines’ worldview is captured in his description of British society in History of the Cotton Manufacture: 

Under the reign of just laws, personal liberty and property have been secure; mercantile enterprise has been allowed to reap its reward; capital has accumulated in safety; the workman has “gone forth to his work and to his labour until the evening;” and, thus protected and favoured, the manufacturing prosperity of the country has struck its roots deep, and spread forth its branches to the ends of the Earth 

This bucolic vision of harmony between classes and expanding wealth for the benefit of all was what Oastler attacked so fiercely. To workers and their allies in the press and Parliament, the source of the wealth produced by the ‘Factory System’ was the labour of immiserated workers, including children. It is with this context we can see how Oastler’s accusation would have commanded the attention of workers, and the ire of industrialists. 

Baines also recognises an equally important factor in the success of Britain’s industrial revolution; that the British Navy,  

held the sovereignty of the ocean, and under its protection the commerce of this country extended beyond all former bounds, and established a firm connexion between the manufacturers of Lancashire and their customers in the most distant lands 

Britian’s empire and the armed force required to maintain its privileged access to foreign markets holds a lower key, but equally important place in Baines’ work.  

Richard Oastler  

Richard Oastler was born on St Peter’s Square in the centre of Leeds, where his blue plaque now resides. At the Central Library we hold several biographies of Oastler, including an original manuscript of Arthur Booth’s King of the factory slaves: a biography of Richard Oastler (SR Q B OAS) presented to us as part of an exhibition for the centenary of Oastler’s death.  

Oastler was in some ways an unlikely hero of the working classes. Born to a linen merchant in 1789, he became the steward of a large estate in Halifax for an absentee landlord. Oastler was deeply conservative, and typical of the Anglican ‘Church-and-King’ Tories of the period. He was opposed to Catholic emancipation and Parliamentary Reform to extend the franchise. However, this conservatism led Oastler to ally with working class reformers on crucial issues.  

Oastler’s Toryism was highly paternalistic. While he opposed the constitutional aspirations of workers, he thought that harmony between classes was key to a well-ordered society, believing that those in higher stations were obliged to ensure the welfare of their subordinates. He was also hostile to the liberal free traders and their newly developing science of government, political economy, exemplified by the likes of Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus. Oastler’s position was that unfettered free trade immiserated workers for the enrichment of industrialists and merchants, dissolving the natural bonds and mutual interests existing between the common people and their betters. This picture of class harmony in a rural idyll is likely as fantastical as Baines’ view of the rising tide of free-trade lifting all boats, but Oastler’s convictions were sincere and he became a committed agitator. 

In 1830, Oastler was given his first insight into the Factory System. An industrialist friend, John Wood, brought the conditions of women and children in Yorkshire worsted spinning mills to Oastler’s attention. In response, Oastler sent the first of many open letters to Edward Baines at the Mercury. Our special collections contain an 1835 pamphlet comprised of four of these letters (SR 331.3 OAS). Oastler took aim at the hypocrisy of mill owners from the dissenting tradition, who opposed state interference in religion and education as well as in industry, and did not pull his punches, writing: 

did I not tell you Baines… that any man who in the defiance of the Law of God, and of the Law of the Land would dare to work a little female factory girl ‘thirteen hours, without allowing her one moment’s interval for rest or meals’ was in reality – altho’ a pretended Saint, or a real Whig, or a most pious Deacon amongst you genuine Dissenters – that such a monster was, in reality… neither more nor less, than ‘A Cardinal Legate from the Court of Hell?’ 

Oastler’s prose was highly inflammatory, but it was likely calculated. Abolitionist sentiment had gained momentum in Britain ironically due (at least in part) to the efforts of anti-slavery campaigners such as WIlliam Wilberforce and Baines himself. Baines is depicted amongst attendees of the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in a painting that now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, and the Mercury promoted anti-slavery societies in Leeds and across West Yorkshire. As historian James Walvin tells us, “merely to describe an institution as slavery was to condemn it utterly” (Slavery in Yorkshire: Richard Oastler and the campaign against child labour in the industrial revolution, Y 331.31 SLA).  

(c) Public Domain

In addition, notions of fair practices in work and the marketplace, dictated and regulated by custom, still had a hold on the popular classes. These practices were powerfully demonstrated in 17th Century food riots against rising bread prices, forming what the historian EP Thompson called the “moral economy of the poor”. In this moral economy, providers of subsistence such as millers and bakers “were servants of the community, working not for profit but for a fair allowance.” While customary prices were destroyed by the encroachment of the market, this popular consensus still held weight. 

Oastler’s comparison between working conditions and colonial slavery was therefore a highly moral critique that drew on a popular imagined past, and one that catapulted him to celebrity status in radical circles. In 1840, the Northern Star issued a portrait of Oastler, putting him in the same company as Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor, and radical journalist William Cobbett. The Northern Star and other 19th Century papers like the Leeds Patriot are available to view without appointment on microfilm in the Local and Family History Library. 

As historian John Hargreaves argues in Slavery in Yorkshire : Richard Oastler and the campaign against child labour in the industrial revolution (Y 331.31 SLA), Oastler’s continuing agitation was an important factor in reviving the faltering factory reform movement. Short-time Committees were established in woollen districts of Yorkshire and Lancashire to advocate for reform, gathering petitions in support of MP John Hobhouse’s bill to regulate labour conditions for children. In 1832 the bill was passed, but watered down, only applying to cotton factories and without state support for its enforcement. Hobhouse then broke from the radicals, taking a position in the Whig government. This left the Short-time Committees with one less parliamentary advocate and a loss of momentum after the 1832 Bill. It is in this context that Oastler reenergised the reform movement. 

(c) Public Domain

Freedom and Slavery 

While not addressing Oastler by name, History of the Cotton Manufacture includes a defence of the system of child labour against the reformers. Baines wrote: 

it is alleged that the children who labour in mills are the victims of frightful oppression and killing toil, that they are often cruelly beaten by the spinners or overlookers, that their feeble limbs become distorted by continual standing and stooping and they grow up cripples, if indeed they are not hurried into premature graves. 

Baines admitted that abuses took place in the factories, but that these were exceptions to the rule. However, whether abuses took place or not, Baines’ perspective on child labour would remain the same: 

I am yet convinced that very many of the poor have not the means either of educating their children or of supporting them in idleness; and that, therefore, to forbid the admission of such children into mills is, in fact, to consign them to the streets, and to deprive them of that food which their work might procure 

For liberals, regulation of working conditions was an unjust imposition not only on owners, but on workers’ ability to freely labour where they chose. But as this passage demonstrates, with nothing to sell but their labour and no means to subsist except through the market, workers were by the 19th Century blessed with what Baines and other liberals viewed as the highest freedom: to work for a wage or starve.  

Here we can see why Oastler wrote in with such consternation against Baines, as well as how Baines and other liberals could, in apparent contradiction, maintain a defence of the factory system while agitating for the abolition of slavery. Baines lauded industrial development as gifting freedom to all, liberating peasants from feudal and customary ties and powering economic growth uninhibited by political interference. For Oastler, while the children of the textile mills may not have been in literal chains, the freedom to work or die was no freedom at all. And so he wrote to Baines: 

Poor infants! Ye are indeed sacrificed at the shrine of avarice, without even the solace of the negro slave: ye are no more than he is, free agents – ye are compelled to work as long as the necessity of your needy parents may require, or the cold blooded avarice of your worse than barbarian masters may demand! 

Oastler was not deterred by the compromises in Hobhouse’s 1831 Bill. When warned that a commitment to the demands of the Short-time Committees would be defeated in Parliament, Oastler responded that this would “not dishearten its friends. It will only spur them on to greater exertions, and would undoubtedly lead to certain success.”  

Oastler spent the next 15 years addressing mass meetings, agitating for factory reform and against the new Poor Laws. These efforts culminated in the 1844 Factory Act, limiting working time for women and children. Oastler may have won the battle, but Baines won the war. The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 cemented free trade as state policy, and the wealth of manufacturers rose to unprecedented levels, leading the British Empire and its liberal industrialists to the commanding heights of the world economy. 

Selected Resources 

*Note that SR and SRF items require an appointment to view. Please contact to make an appointment. 

Edward Baines 

Addresses to Edward Baines (SRF B BAI)  

Baines, Edwad, History of the Cotton Manufacture (338.4767 BAI) 

Baines, Edward, The Life of Edward Baines (L 920.5 BAI) 

Baines, Edward, Baines’s account of the woollen manufacture of England (Y 338.4767 BAI) 

Golden Wedding 1879. Mr. & Mrs. Edward Baines (SRF B BAI) 

Richard Oastler 

Booth, Arthur, King of the factory slaves : a biography of Richard Oastler (SR Q B OAS)  

Driver, Cecil Herbert, Tory radical : the life of Richard Oastler (L B OAS)  

Four open letters to Edward Baines [sr], Esq., M.P. on “Slavery in Yorkshire” i.e. the horrors of child labour in the factory of one William Moore : a Huddersfield dissenter (SR 331.3 OAS) 

“The factory king”: the life and labours of Richard Oastler (LP B OAS) 

Leeds Industry 

Honeyman, Katrina, Well suited : a history of the Leeds clothing industry, 1850-1990 (L 338.4768 HON)  

Report of a Select Committee of the Society upon some observations on the late act respecting cotton mills, and on the account of Mr. Hey’s visit to a cotton mill at Burley (YP Q BUR 677)  

Slavery in Yorkshire : Richard Oastler and the campaign against child labour in the industrial revolution (Y 331.31 SLA) 

Thomas, Joan, History of the Leeds Clothing Industry (L 338.4768 THO) 

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