Since well before the first Factory Act of 1802 the conditions and working hours in cotton factories had been abominable. Subsequent acts were inadequately enforced and easily evaded by employers in factories often met in isolated rural areas. The 1819 Cotton Mills Act forbade the employment of children under nine and those under sixteen were not to work more than twelve hours a day. This law was almost always ignored.
In 1823 a Justice of the Peace, Charles Whittaker and the Rev. James Quartley were appointed by Lancashire Quarter Sessions J.P.s to inspect factories in the Blackburn area. The inspectors did not meet with a 'single instance' in which the 1819 act was complied with. Many factories were dirty and ill ventilated and many children under nine were employed.
At Bannister Eccles' Jubilee Street Factory in Blackburn at least two seven-year-old girls were spoken to. A boy aged seven was seen at Messrs. Joseph Walmsleys at Grimshaw near Darwen, a girl aged six at Messrs. James Livesey’s at Hoghton Bottoms. These are but examples. At most factories the inspectors saw many young people, many evidently not nine years old. When questioned, however, most said they did not know their age. However, children were often told by their parents and the foreman not to tell the inspectors their true age.
The Factory Act of 1833 continued to prohibit the employment of children under nine and the working week of children from nine to thirteen was limited to forty-eight hours. For the age group thirteen to eighteen the limit was sixty-nine hours. Longer hours, however, were not uncommon. Many more acts of Parliament and much more effort by reformers were to come before hours were reduced from sixty in 1875. The half-time system was introduced in 1844 for some children to attend school as well as work lasted until 1921 when twelve year olds were no longer allowed to work in factories for half a day every day.
Children in East Lancashire always had to work. Any child no matter how young he or she was, of a handloom weaver had to help to prepare the yarn for the loom. All had to contribute in some way. Their job would be to card and spin, or even to care for babies to enable older children to work. When the boys were big enough and strong enough they had to weave. The compensation, such as it was, was to work amongst one’s own family in one’s own home. However hard that work was it was infinitely better than the abject slavery of being confined in a factory. Whichever course it was sure that in those days no child enjoyed a childhood as such.
William (Bill) Turner