Short Time Committees

In 1831 John Hobhouse, the Radical M.P. for Westminster, decided to introduce a bill restricting child labour. Hobhouse proposed that: (a) no child should work in a factory before the age of 9; (b) no one between the ages of 9 and 18 should work for more than twelve hours; (c) no one aged between the ages of 9 and 18 should work for more than 66 hours a week; (d) no one under 18 should be allowed to do night work.

After details of Hobhouse's Bill was published, workers spontaneously started forming what became known as Short Time Committees in an effort to help promote its passage through Parliament. The first Short Time Committees were formed by textile workers in Huddersfield and Leeds. Within a few months Short Time Committees were established in most of the major textile towns.

Spinners and weavers made up the bulk of the membership, but anyone who supported their campaign were welcome to join. For example, in Huddersfield several shopkeepers and the manager of the local co-operative store were members of the committee. The Short Time Committees held public meeting and attempted to persuade people to sign petitions in support of Hobhouse's Bill. Leeds Short Time Committee collected 10,000 signatures in a week and the Bradford branch sent a petition to Parliament bearing the names of 4,000 people.

Parliament was dissolved in April, 1831 and so Hobhouse's Bill had to be reintroduced after the General Election. Hobhouse's proposals for factory legislation were discussed in Parliament in September 1831. The Short Time Committees were furious when Hobhouse agreed to make changes to his proposals. Although Hobhouse's Bill was passed, it only applied to cotton factories and failed to provide any machinery for its enforcement.

Unhappy with what Hobhouse had achieved, the Short Time Committees continued to work for factory legislation. A magnificent orator, Richard Oastler soon became the main speaker at Short Time Committee public meetings. They also published pamphlets written by Oastler such as Humanity Against Tyranny and The Factory Question.

The Short Time Committees attempted to gain support for new factory legislation by sending information of their campaign to trade unions, sick-benefit clubs and friendly societies. Posters were displayed on the walls of reading rooms and taverns and placed in the windows of shopkeepers who supported the cause. This propaganda campaign was expensive.Richard Oastler gave all his savings and a percentage of his income to help fund the movement.John Wood, a factory owner from Bradford, was another large contributor. Some committees, such as the one in Leeds, employed full-time agents to tour the country to raise money for the campaign.

In the House of Commons, Michael Sadler, the M.P. for Newark, became the main spokesman for the policies of the Short Time Committees. On 16th March 1832 Sadler introduced a Bill in Parliament that proposed limiting hours in all mills to 10 hours for persons under the age of 18. In an attempt to demonstrate to Parliament the strength of public opinion in favour of factory legislation, Sadler and Oastler organised a mass meeting in Huddersfield. Over 16,000 people attended the meeting and another one in Manchesterattracted over 100,000 people.

After much debate it was clear that Parliament was unwilling to pass Sadler's bill. However, in April 1832 it was agreed that there should be another parliamentary enquiry into child labour. Sadler was made chairman and for the next three months the parliamentary committee interviewed 48 people who had worked in textile factories as children.

Michael Sadler lost his seat in the General Election that took place in December 1832. When Sadler's report was published in January 1833, the information in the report shocked the British public and Parliament came under increasing pressure to protect children working in factories. Richard Oastler and Rev. George Bull organised a general conference in Bradford of Short Time Committees. There were now twenty-six Short Time Committees, twelve in Yorkshire, eleven were in Lancashire, two in Scotland and one in Nottingham. At the meeting it was decided to ask Lord Ashley, the M.P. for Dorsetshire, to become their new leader in the House of Commons. Lord Ashley agreed but his initial attempts to persuade Parliament of the need for a ten hour day ended in failure. The Short Time Committees continued to campaign for legislation and remained in existence until the passing of the 1847 Factory Act.

Primary Sources

(1) The Huddersfield Short Time Committee sent out a circular to all trade unions, sick-benefit clubs and friendly societies in the district on 6th October, 1831.

Is it not a shame and disgrace that, in a land called "the land of the Bibles", children of a tender age should be torn from their beds by six in the morning, and confined, in pestiferous factories, till eight in the evening? Ten hours a day, with eight on Saturdays, is our motto - may it be yours. Gentlemen, let us rouse ourselves from lethargy and carelessness, and rally round the principles of humanity, with an irresistible voice, demand the immediate curtailment of the hours of factory labour.

(2) Resolution passed by the Leeds Short Time Committee on 29th October, 1831.

The ten hour day would equalise labour by calling into employment many male adults, who are a burden on the public, who, though willing and ready to work, are obliged to spend their time in idleness, whilst children are compelled to labour from twelve to sixteen hours per day.

(3) Statement made by the Pudsey Short Time Committee on 9th April, 1836.

Is not ten hours long enough for any man to work, to say nothing about children? And would not your work people be able to learn their duty to you, as well as to God, much better if they finished work at six every night, and worked only ten hours. What nonsense it is to cry out, "If you have only ten hours' work you must be content with ten hours' wages". The fact is they don't get their share of their own production, and they will never get it, till they shorten time.