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Richard Oastler (1789-1861; factory reformer)

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Born in Leeds, Oastler worked as a merchants' agent until 1820, when he was appointed as a land steward for Thomas Thornhill's estate at Fixby. Politically, he was a Tory, opposed to parliamentary reform and trades union.

His paternalism led him to oppose the foreign slave trade and exploitation of children and workers. In September 1830 he wrote a letter to the Leeds Mercury, claiming to have just become aware of the appalling conditions suffered by workers in the textile mills.

The letter provoked a heated debate and helped to encourage the M.P. John Cam Hobhouse to introduce a bill limiting working hours for under-18s in the textile mills to 11 and a half hours per day. The bill was then watered down, and Oastler took the lead in forming local committees of workers agitating for a 10-hour day. A bill limiting working hours in some factories (Althorp's Act) was passed in 1833 but did not go far enough for Oastler, who continued to write and speak on the issue, becoming known as the 'Factory King'.

In 1836 Oastler advocated sabotage of machinery by factory children. He also turned his attention to campaigning against the New Poor Law from 1834 onwards, and spoke at various public meetings.

In 1838, as a result of his Poor Law agitation, Oastler was dismissed by Thornhill and pursued for debts. He was unable to pay and spent three and a half years in the Fleet Prison, from where he published various newspapers and pamphlets, the Fleet Papers. He was finally released, after his debts were paid by a public subscription, in February 1844. Oastler continued to campaign for factory reform until the Ten-Hour Act was passed in 1847. He edited a newspaper called The Home from 1851 to 1855, but passed the rest of his life in some obscurity.

 

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