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Factory act legislation. Its industrial and commerical effects, actual and prospective, being the Cobden prize essay for 1891 online

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i860, 2,000

1870, 3,000

1872, 3,500 .

(quoted in debate of

Or to take a rather different point of view :
From 1839-50, the number of mills in Lan-
cashire increased 4 per cent.; from 1850-56,
19 per cent. ; and from 1856 to 1862, 33 per
cent. (Marx).


There is not the slightest necessity to
waste words on proving what is so self-
evident that English industry flourished and
spread amazingly during the twenty years
immediately succeeding the introduction of
the factory Acts. But the point is, would
this prosperity have been more or less, had
there been no legislation ? Can we establish
any connection between this rapid growth,
and the simultaneous interference of the
law ? It has been said that the " State is the
least of the Powers which govern us " ; and it
is well to remember, as Herr Plener admits,
that, after all, the subject of factory legis-
lation is not one of the first importance. If
there was one cause which far more than all
others contributed to this great development
of English industry, it was not State inter-
ference but the abolition of it. Free Trade it
was that opened up the markets of the world
to England's wares.

The Duke of Argyll writes, however, in his
" Reign of Law " that " During the present
century two great discoveries have been made


in the science of government ; the one is the
immense advantage of abolishing restrictions
on Trade, the other is the absolute necessity
of imposing restrictions on Labour." This
seems paradoxical.

At first sight the principle of Free Trade
and the principle of Factory Legislation
appear to be entirely at variance ; and the
results of these two principles in action must
be, it would seem, quite opposite. Free Trade
vastly increased the demand for English
goods ; and then came legislation which to
all appearance would of necessity curtail the

But did the Factory Acts really tend to
decrease the amount of annual produce ?
That is the all-important point.

On the whole, all experience seems to
warrant an answer in the negative.

The assumption that production must
necessarily be diminished, rests on a fallacy
the fallacy that quantity of work done is
always in proportion to the time spent.

There are two other factors which have to


be taken into account in any question of
work. Besides the time a man spends, there
is, first the nature of Jus tools, and secondly
his own capacity for work ; the objective and
the subjective efficiency of labour.

Other things remaining the same, amount
of work done varies as the time spent. But
other things did not remain the same in this
present case. Moreover, all evidence goes
to prove that legislation had much to do
with altering these " other conditions," the
efficiency of the labourer, and the efficiency
of his tools.

Given an increased demand, due to Free
Trade, the other element necessary to the
growth of industry an increased supply, was
rendered possible only by the marvellous
extension at this time of the factory system.
The whole natural tendency of modern
industry has been towards the factory system
and production on a large scale ; nevertheless,
the Factory Acts may be said to have given
just the needful stimulus to the adoption of
the new great machinery, and so to have


played a very material part in building up
the factory system on what Karl Marx deems
its only firm and adequate basis.

Dr. Taylor, in his " History of the Factory
System," writes that : " The popular saying
that ' Necessity is the mother of Invention ' is
a concise summary of the philosophy of the
whole subject."

And what necessity could be more pressing
than a well administered Act of Parliament
reducing the hours of labour by, at the very
least, one and a half a day ?

Mr. Redgrave wrote in 1852 : " More econo-
mical application of labour has been rendered
necessary by the diminished length of the
working day, and in most well-regulated mills
an intelligent mind is always considering in
what manner production can be increased
with decreased expenditure."

Marx points out that at the time he wrote
(1873), a weaver could make in a week of
sixty hours with his new power loom no less
than twenty-six "pieces" of cloth, whereas
the old loom had made only four.


And soon after 1850 the cost of weaving
such a piece had fallen from 2s. pd. to 5^d !

Marx quotes an interesting passage from
the "Journal of Arts " for 1872, by Inspector
Horner. There, the inspector looks back to
his own views on factory legislation in 1844.
He himself had quite believed then that the
perfection of economy of time and labour had
already been reached, and that the manu-
facturers were right in thinking that any
further quickening of the speed of prime
movers was impossible, consistent with " the
preservation of the quality of the article
manufactured ; the preservation of the ma-
chinery from too rapid deterioration ; and the
capability of the workman to follow the
motion without a greater exertion than he
could sustain for a constancy."

Mr. Horner then proceeded to point out
how erroneous his former opinion had been ;
how much he had " underestimated the
elasticity of machinery, and of man's labour-
power, both of which," says Marx, "are
stretched to an extreme by the compulsory
shortening of the working day."


Various quotations might be made from
the inspectors' reports of this time to the
same effect. " The great improvements/'
wrote one of them in 1858, " made in
machines of every kind have raised their
productive power very much. Without a
doubt the shortening of the hours of labour
. . . gave the impulse to these improvements.
The latter, combined with the more intense
strain on the workman, have had the result
that at least as much is produced in the
shortened (by two hours, or one-sixth)
working-day as was previously during the
longer one." (See also Reports 1854, 1856,
1860, 1865, &c..)

We may fairly conclude, then, that the first
result of the factory Act was this it fostered
the growth of the factory system.

With regard to the second great result, the
increase in the vigour and intelligence of the
labourer, and, therefore, to some extent at
least, in his capacity for work with regard
to this result, it will be easier to speak


definitely when we come to consider the
effects of the Act on industries other than
textile, where the individuality of the work-
man is better preserved, and any improvement
in his efficiency is more clearly traceable. For
where the factory system attains its highest
form, there the personality of the labourer is
to a great extent lost, and he becomes part
and parcel of the whole complex mass of
mechanism which constitutes the "factory."
Nevertheless, though it may not be so easy
to trace the exact amount of the economic
advantage here, as in the case, say, of such an
industry as the potteries, yet it is perfectly
certain that a fair portion of the increased
production may quite justly be put down to
the improved physical and mental energy of
the mill-hands themselves. That was Lord
Shaftesbury's great argument. In May, 1847,
for example, when he went down to the
House purposely armed for once to defend
his Bill against economic attacks, he brought
forward a great many cases of equal or
increased production arising simply from


improved vigour on the part of the workmen
in mills where the owners had voluntarily
reduced their hours by way of experiment.
" I could not understand," one master wrote,
" how it was that our men could turn off as
much work (and some a little more) in eleven
hours as ever they did in twelve. I said to
one of them, ' John, will you tell me how it is
that you can do more work in eleven hours
than you did in twelve ? ' ' Why/ said he,
' we can lay to in eleven hours a day better
than we could in twelve, because we get more
rest at night and we are in better spirits all
the day through, and besides, the afternoons
were not so long/ He could spin, he said,

ten years longer if Mr. G would keep on

eleven hours."

The truth is, there is a law of " Diminishing
Returns " from labour as from land. The
difficulty is to determine when that law
begins to come into operation. The critical
point varies in different countries, among
different races, in different industries ; and it


varies, too, between individual workmen.
There can be no doubt that before the
passing of the factory Acts little children, and
adults as well, were worked beyond this
limit ; a false economy was practised. Dr.
Cunningham's verdict is concise and to the
point. " There is an amount of tension," he
writes, " which the human frame can bear,
and to prevent men from going beyond it
was really to establish the textile industries
of Great Britain on a far firmer economic
basis " (" Politics and Economics "). Factory
legislation thus helped forward produc-
tion in the textile industries in two ways :
by hastening the development of production
on a large scale or the factory system, and,
secondly, by heightening the efficiency of
each individual worker. But just one warn-
ing thought occurs here, and it is this : the
first result has always a certain tendency to
weaken the force of the latter. Indeed, the
great increase in the speed of the machinery
which followed on the introduction of the
Act of 1833, and the consequently greater


strain on the labourer, was made one of the
grounds of attack on further legislation by
Sir James Graham in the debate of 1844.
And again it was one of Mr. Fawcett's points
in 1874. He referred, for instance, to the
advice given by a doctor at Dukinfield, who
warned the mill-hands not to exchange less
speed and longer hours for greater speed
though coupled with a shorter day.

Saving of labour was effected by two
means : the speed of the machinery was
increased, and the labourer was given more
machinery to watch. In 1841 one spinner
with three piecers attended to one pair of
mules with from 300 to 400 spindles. Thirty
years later one spinner and five piecers
watched 2,200 spindles producing seven times
as much yarn! As early as 1863 evidence
was given by Mr. Ferrand before the House
of Commons on this question of the wear and
tear of the physical powers of the operatives,
caused by the constantly increasing rate of
the machinery. " I have been informed," he
said, " by delegates from sixteen districts of


Lancashire and Cheshire, on whose behalf I
speak, that work in factories is, in consequence
of the improvements in machinery, constantly
on the increase. Instead of, as formerly, one
person with two helps tenting two looms, one
person now tents three looms without helps,
and it is no uncommon thing for one person
to tent four. Twelve hours work, as is evident
from the facts adduced, is now compressed
into less than ten hours. It is therefore self-
evident to what an enormous extent the toil
of the factory operative has increased during
the last ten years." This was one of the most
prominent arguments brought forward by the
champions of a Nine Hours Bill in 1873.
The manufacturers retorted that the new
machinery had brought about a diminution
of actual labour, and that the workmen were,
on the whole, the gainers. Of course it is
very difficult indeed to strike the balance
between these conflicting assertions (see Red-
grave Reports, April, 1872). All one can
safely say is this, that the general tendency
of legislation has always been to improve tha


health of the workpeople ; but there seems
fair ground for believing that, to some extent
at least, this tendency is thwarted in the case
of the great textile industries by the continual
improvements in large machinery, specially
in prime movers. The growth of the factory
system made labour laws a necessity ; and if
it is one of the inevitable results of legislation
that that system shall become more and more
universal, may we not venture to suggest that
there is an element of soundness in the
seemingly paradoxical argument, that in
every successive Factory Act we have in
some degree the justification for another?

So far the question has been purely one of
Production ; it now remains to be seen how
legislation affected Distribution. To begin
with the effect on Wages. The opponents
of the Factory Acts have often charged its
supporters with deluding the labouring classes
by leading them to believe that State agency
could enable them to earn as much or more
pay for less work ; such a result was incredible,


said they; wages must fall. The precise
amount of the predicted fall varied. An
example of an extreme estimate is to be
found in Sir James Graham's speech in 1844.
Masters would have to deduct at least one-
seventh from their workmen's wages, he said,
in consequence of the decrease of quite that
amount in their labour, and another twelfth
to recoup themselves for the depreciation in
value of their fixed machinery. The total
fall, therefore, would be about 23 per cent.
Lord Shaftesbury, on the contrary, was con-
fident that the fall would not be more than
one-tenth or one-twelfth, though he pointed
out the small economies by which the working
classes were prepared to meet a loss of even
one-sixth in consideration of the many sani-
tary and other benefits they would derive
from the operation of the Act. Naturally it
is difficult to say what exactly was the view
of the majority of the working population ;
but the probability is that they held a very
different opinion from that set forth by the
manufacturers. Herr Plener shows that in the


early days of factory legislation the operatives
argued somewhat as follows :

They thought the factory Acts would
bring about

1. Decreased Production ; hence

2. Rise in the price of goods and wages
alike, so that in the end the workmen would
receive twelve hours pay for ten hours work.

3. Notwithstanding the higher prices,
general consumption would not decrease,
and therefore

4. The unemployed would find work.
Here again it is noteworthy that the

primary assumption was a decrease in the
amount of produce. That assumption was
not borne out by the event. Therefore there
is no a priori probability that any of the
arguments based on it should prove sound.
Granted an increase instead of a decrease in
production, and the possibility and indeed
probability is at once admitted of a rise
rather than a fall in wages. The amount of
produce is the fund from which wages are
drawn ; it constitutes the maximum limit of


wages. "I hold," writes Professor Walker,
u that the moment the aggregate product of
labour and capital is increased by inventions,
which are a clear gain of power for the benefit
of all, that moment a sufficient economic
reason exists for an advance in wages in
some degree corresponding."

But to look a little more carefully into the
matter. The rate of wages prevalent at any
time is determined by the ratio of the number
of labourers desiring places to the number of
places open for them ; in other words, by the
Supply of labourers as compared with the
Demand for them. How did factory legis-
lation affect the Demand for labour? The
Factory Acts reduced the hours of labour for
children from twelve or more to six, and of
young persons and women to ten and a half.
The practical result was the fixing of the
normal working day at ten and a half hours
for all hands employed except children, and
at something less than an average of six for
all children. Roughly speaking, the hours ot
child labour were reduced by at least one-


half, and of all other labour by at least
one-sixth. Hence, if the old amount of pro-
duction was to be kept up, it would seem
that six men, women, and young persons
must be needed under the new regime instead
of every five employed in previous years, and
two children where before only one had been

But the question of the results of factory
legislation is too complex to be settled at
once by simple rules of arithmetic. We have
seen that as soon as legislation was brought
to bear on the textile industries, every effort
was made to economise time and labour by
the introduction of better machines. What,
then, is the general effect of the adoption of
new machinery in any given industry on the
demand for labour in that industry ?

Perhaps it may be briefly stated as follows :
The immediate result is a lessened demand
for labour. But this effect is rarely permanent.
New and better machinery means diminished
cost of production, and diminished cost of
production leads to a fall in price. With the


fall in price comes an increased consumption,
and the final result is an extension of the
industry and a greater demand for labour.
Something of this kind happened in the case
in point. Manufacturers, under pressure of
the Factory Act, resorted to better methods
of work to keep up production. These better
methods proved even more satisfactory than
had been expected. Cost of production fell
enormously, prices could be lowered without
loss of profit, consumption increased, more
capitalists were attracted into the business,
new mills were established to meet the grow-
ing market, and new mills meant more work-
people (see Reports 1854, 1855, &c., for great
increase in number of factories at this time).
Mr. Horner's report for the half-year ending
October 1859, is specially interesting from an
economic point of view. He writes: "The
experience of nearly twenty-six years, extend-
ing throughout the whole time the existing
law has been in operation, convinces me that
the legislative interference for the regulation
of the labour of children, young persons, and


women in factories is now viewed by many
of the occupiers of those works as having
done, and as continuing to do, a great amount
of good, without any injurious interference with
the prosperity of those trades." And he goes
on to note, as two of the chief effects of legis-
lation, its non-limitation of production, and an
increase in wages. " In no branch of textile
labour are wages reduced since 1833," wrote
Mr. Baker the same year ; " there is an average
increase of 12 per cent, and in one instance of
40 per cent." There is a fairly significant
table given fourteen years later by the same
inspector, comparing the rates of wages in
the cotton trade under the old system and
the new (Reports, 1873). A great rise in
the wages of factory operatives has been one
of the marked features of the industrial history
of the last forty years. There can be little
doubt that this rise was, ,to a great extent,
the result of legislation. The hours of labour
in textile factories have been successively
reduced from ninety to fifty-six and a half
a week, and the rate of wages has uniformly


risen (See Contemporary Review, December,
1889. Sidney Webb, " The Limitation of the
Hours of Labour "). " Political economists are
emphatic in their conclusion that the effect of
the Factory Acts has been undoubtedly to raise
the real wages of the working classes as a

But there are two parts to every wages
problem. First we must ask, What effect has
such and such a measure on the rate of wages ?
And secondly, What effect had it on the number
of those employed? Naturally there is a close
connection between these two questions ; but
they are not absolutely dependent the one on
the other. The answer to the one is not
determined entirely by the answer to the
other. It is quite possible for an increase to
be effected in the rate of wages, without a
corresponding increase taking place in the
number of workpeople. If it is an incon-
testible fact that during the last forty years a
great rise has taken place in the rate of 'wages ',
it is no less certain that the increase of pro-


duction has not been accompanied by a pro-
portionate increase in the numbers employed.
The report of the inspectors for the six months
ending October, 1862, shows that, while in
Lancashire the number of mills increased
enormously during the period 1839 to 1862,
the number of mill-hands diminished relatively.
There was a rather interesting description
the other day of a gathering of old hand
wool-combers at Keighley. 1 One of the
speakers, Mr. Holden, M.P., "referred to the
beginnings of his attempt to invent ma-
chinery for the combing of wool, and the
compunction he felt at doing anything that
might cause an old industry to go down.
He was convinced, however, by a pamphlet
on ' The Results of Machinery/ by Lord
Brougham, that all the successive improve-
ments in machinery tended to increase the
number of people employed, and to benefit
the whole community by cheapening the cost
of production. And he now felt quite sure

1 Manchester Guardian, March 3ist. " An Old Yorkshire


that, at a moderate estimate, ten times the
number of persons were now engaged in the
wool industry that there were when wool was
combed by hand." Marx, quoting from the
inspectors' reports, wrote : " It was only during
the decade preceding 1866 that isolated details
of the wool manufacture, such as wool combing,
were incorporated into the factory system."
In this particular instance, then, we may say
legislation tended to augment very consider-
ably the number of persons employed. But
one could hardly prove this to be an altogether
typical case, I think.

The wealth of Great Britain in 1881
amounted to treble what it was in 1851 ; yet
practically the same total number of wage
earners were employed at the two periods in
the five great staple industries of agriculture,
mining, textile manufactures, transport, and
machine making (Nineteenth Century, April,
1890; Macdonald, "The Case for an Eight
Hours' Day "). The throwing out of employ-
ment of great numbers of workpeople was one
of the generally anticipated results of factory


legislation. The prediction proved true up to
a certain point. But not for the reasons
alleged ; not because capital was withdrawn
from the protected industries, and mills were
shut up, but because machinery came into
competition with human labour. There can
be little doubt that the factory Acts had,
specially during the earlier years of their
operation, a tendency to throw certain classes
of workers out of employment. Every period
of transition brings pain to some section of
the community. But we may venture to
believe that those thrown out of work by the
factory Acts were precisely those who never
ought to have been employed the very young,
the old, the infirm and diseased. Prior to the
factory Acts persons were employed in fac-
tories who were physically unfit to do the
work. Legislation put a stop to this, and
what was the result? Simply that masters
found it was in the end better even for their
own interests that the health of their work-
people should be respected.

What they had done from compulsion they


soon did voluntarily ; they refused to employ
any but the strong and able-bodied.

" To judge from the evidence of the Factory
Employment Commission," writes an inspector
in 1868, " it was absolutely necessary to inter-
pose some machinery by which little children
should not be put to work when physically

" A generation has passed. The manufac-
turer calculates the worth of every hand he
employs ; the number of children rejected by
the certifying surgeons is so small as to be
inappreciable." Above, when we said that
the demand for labour increased, it would
have been more correct to say that a change
took place in that demand. It was not so
much that a larger total number of workpeople
were wanted, but rather that the employers
insisted on having only the vigorous and
intelligent. In other words, the standard of
labour in the protected industries was raised,
and the wages paid for that labour rose

If we ask, then, what became of the un-

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Online LibraryVictorine JeansFactory act legislation. Its industrial and commerical effects, actual and prospective, being the Cobden prize essay for 1891 → online text (page 2 of 5)