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Robert Owen and New Lanark
Robert Owen and New Lanark

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9 The factory reform movement

Owen's participation in the movement for factory reform was clearly much influenced by views expressed in the essays. This showed his continuing concern, first evidenced in Manchester, about the impact of industrialisation on society, a theme to which he consistently returned. His personal record on the employment of children at New Lanark was certainly an example of good practice in the cotton industry, which in Owen's words was invariably ‘destructive of health, morals, and social comforts of the mass of the people engaged in it’. His campaign for improved conditions began in 1815 with a speech to fellow cotton barons in Glasgow, and the substance was subsequently elaborated into a pamphlet, Observations on the Effects of the Manufacturing System, which he distributed to MPs. This contained the draft of a bill calling for a limit on working hours to 12 a day, including one and a half hours for meals; preventing the employment of children under the age of ten; limiting the hours of those aged under 12 to six hours per day; and providing basic education for children employed (Donnachie, 2000, pp. 122–6).

After lobbying senior members of the government, Owen succeeded in persuading some MPs that a bill on the lines he proposed should be introduced. Sir Robert Peel, father of the future prime minister and a wealthy calico printer, would act as sponsor. Peel was an appropriate choice since he had been partly responsible for the first piece of factory legislation, to which reference has already been made, the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act, passed in 1802. The new bill was introduced in June 1815, but with the intervention of Waterloo made no progress till 1816, when a select committee was appointed to take evidence. While this could be seen as a delaying tactic, Owen could speak optimistically about the intentions of the country's rulers in an address delivered at the opening of the Institute at New Lanark in January that year. Before the committee met, Owen and his son Robert Dale, then just 14 years old, set off on a tour of inspection to gather evidence. Later the younger Owen was to describe the conditions they found in many mills as ‘utterly disgraceful to a civilised nation’ (R.D. Owen, 1874, p. 101).

Appearing before the committee, Owen was closely questioned on what he had seen and what had been enacted at New Lanark. He explained that his reduction of factory hours and other reforms were partly humanitarian and partly made on the grounds of improved efficiency; he thought that they had not increased costs or reduced family income. He was able to produce school registers showing increased attendance as a result of shorter working hours. The arguments of the other mill masters, supported in some cases by medical evidence, sought to prove that the measures were unnecessary because they were already being implemented, that cotton mills were perfectly healthy places, and that children would be better put to work than becoming a burden on the parish or taking to a life of crime. Owen issued two further statements on the employment of children (one addressed directly to the prime minister), but the bill was shelved until 1818 and after much modification became law in 1819. Although Owen regarded it as partial it owed much to his drive, brought improvements for factory children, and was the basis of more comprehensive legislation on working conditions in 1825 and 1833 (Donnachie, 2000, pp. 129–31).