Child Employment in the Silk Industry 1815-1871 – Part 3

This is the third part of my look at child workers in the silk industry between 1815-1871. Earlier posts (Part 1) and (Part 2) looked at the background of the industry, numbers involved, type of work undertaken, children’s ages, their working conditions and health. In this post I will focus on the Factory Acts affecting child employment in the silk industry in this period.

How far did the Factory Acts effect the silk industry?
Although they included the silk industry, the most striking thing when examining the 1833, 1844 and 1847 Factory Acts is some of the most important clauses, dealing with hours and education, did not apply to the industry.

The first Act which included provisions concerning the silk industry was that of 1833, which resulted from the recommendations of the Parliamentary Select Committee and Royal Commission of 1833.

This Act forbade the night employment of under 18’s in a number of textile factories, including silk. Neither was the 13-18 age group to work for more than 12 hours a day or 69 a week. No child was to be employed in mills regulated by the Act until they reached the age of nine….except silk mills which could engage children regardless of age. It regulated the employment of children under 13 to nine hours a day, or 48 in a week. But in silk mills children under 13 could work 10 hours and the 48 hour rule did not apply either. The Act included overtime provisions and the circumstances in which it could be used. It also provided for one and a half hours for meals and it required children under 13 who came within the 48 hour rule to receive elementary schooling for two hours each day. It also established a minimal factory inspectorate to ensure compliance with these laws.

Children employed in silk mills were therefore only afforded limited protection by the 1833 Act, for not only was it legal to work them for 10 hours a day, but they were outside the scope of the education clauses, which were limited to those whose labour was restricted to 48 hours a week.

This Act, though firmly establishing the right for government to intervene where child employment was concerned, had a number of defects because of its novel and experimental nature. Thus Leonard Horner, one of the Inspectors of Factories established under this Act, wrote that it “has not done nearly all the good that was intended. The failures have mainly arisen from the defects in the law itself; not in the principles it lays down, but in the machinery which was constructed for the purpose of carrying the principle into operation….and after it was set into work, much of it was found to have been ill contrived, and some positively so bad that it obstructed, and to a great degree prevented, the attainment of this object.

To begin with the Act was not enforced effectively because the inspectors lacked experience in factory employment and tended to work with the employers. Other obstacles included the difficulties detecting overworking of protected persons with the 15 hour limit of the working day. Children under 13 were not specifically included in the mealtime provisions, so it was legal to employ them without a break. Above 13 they were put to work cleaning machinery during their meal breaks. Superintendents only had restricted entry to the mills, while factory owners knew when the Inspector was due so had time to put their factories in order.

The effective prosecution of the Factory Acts was not without controversy. The generally accepted view is magistrates, due to their manufacturing interests, were unwilling to convict and this encouraged factory owners to flout the law. However, an interesting theory to the contrary is put forward by A.E. Peacock in which he uses prosecution reports in Lancashire and the West Riding between 1834-55 to argue the contrary. He said: “The rates of conviction achieved would have been noteworthy in any field of legislation, but in one as new and contentious as factory working, and involving measures directed against the owners of property, they were quite remarkable.”

What effect did the 1833 Factory Act have on child employment in the silk industry?
Table 10 shows although a decline of children employed in silk factories took place between 1835-1838, it was only 4.9% and this could easily be attributed to the depression in the silk industry at the time.Furthermore, while children in other factories were being dismissed as age and hours provisions came into effect, these did not apply to such an extent to the silk industry, so children remained in employment. I have used a piece of later research, Table 11, to illustrate this.The problems of enforcing the 1833 Factory Act led to the 1844 Act. This included the silk industry to a slightly greater extent than the previous Act. For, besides stricter regulations governing the recovery of lost time, and tighter provision on the subject of meals, the Act stated that silk mills were to come under the same regulations as other textile factories.

However there was a crucial step back modification. Whereas the Act limited the hours worked by children to six and a half per day, with three hours’ schooling, and set a maximum 12-hour day for young people between 13 and 18, children over the age of 11 engaged in winding and throwing raw silk were allowed to work ten hours a day. And these children were exempt from the schooling clauses which instigated the half time system. Because winding and throwing raw silk occupied the greatest number of children involved in the industry, this Act can once again be said to have had no great effect on child employment in this industry. The drop which did occur, 7.1% between 1838-1847, would potentially be accounted for the drop generally in the spun and waste silk branch.

These provisions were retained in the 1847 Factory Act, commonly known as the Ten Hours Act, and amending Acts of 1850 and 1853. These essentially dealt with the working hours of women and young persons aged 13-18 in textiles mills. The 1847 Act reduced the hours of 13-18 year olds and women to ten per day. The 1850 Act raised the hours for women and these young people to 10.5. However, nothing was done with reference to those children over the age of 11 in the silk industry as illustrated in Section 7 of the 1850 amending Act. This repeated the provision that 11 year old children engaged solely in winding and throwing raw silk could be employed in all respects as young persons, that is 10.5 hours a day, providing they had a surgical certificate to say they had completed their eleventh year. Under 11’s had to attend school under the half time system for three hours a day.

But the loopholes did cause consternation to teachers and silk spinning mill owners, as shown in the 1866. John Chadwick said those who wind hard silk “may employ children over 11 for 10.5 hours, but if we use power here for winding soft silk we could not employ them so, unless they were 13 years old.” Inspector H.W. Lord, in his report for the Royal Commission into Child Employment, agreed that this law was unfair, particularly since he believed that soft silk winding was less likely to be harmful. Whilst the Rev H.R. Sandford, Inspector of Schools for the silk dominated town of Leek remarked the children in the girls school were all infants because “there are no half timers of children attending school from any of the factories which are under the silkworks act.

So the Factory Acts only had a limited application for children in the silk industry. And their provisions did not apply at all to those employed in a domestic situation or in unregulated factories and sheds. Therefore the Factory Acts had only a limited effect on child employment and its decline in this industry. Other factors played a part, and some of these are directly linked to the rationale behind this limited legislation.

Why was legislation over child employment in the silk industry so light touch?
Because these Acts were innovative and experimental, there was a gradual evolution and extension. Not everything could be done immediately. The lace industry was another branch of the textile industry which was not included. It would have been too great a step to legislate against all child employment in one go, especially when considering the significant opposition to the limited legislation. It was not feasible, practical or prudent policy. If the Acts proved workable they could gradually be extended to cover more industries/branches.

The silk industry employed a large number of children as compared with other branches of the textile industry, as shown in Table 12 below.If this labour was removed it could have a disasterous effect on the silk industry. At the period of the first Factory Act, the silk industry was already declining and the previous year, 1832, a Select Committee had investigated the issues affecting the trade. Throughout the various investigations into child employment a constant theme was the peculiar circumstances pertaining to silk. In Lord Ashley’s Royal Commission of Inquiry into child employment, established in 1840, agreed that “these children both need and are entitled to legislative protection.” However, because of the unusual conditions in mills were silk was wound and thrown, conditions which made it imperative to employ a considerable number of young hands, they felt unable to make any recommendations other than separate treatment should be considered. Hence the fact that this industry was subject to less stringent measures than other textile industries in the subsequent Factory Acts.

So what were these peculiar circumstances? I will look at these in my final post. These peculiarities which ultimately played the more significant influence behind the decline of child employment here.


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