Radical activist and campaigner - ‘The Factory King’

RICHARD OASTLER (1789-1861)In 1830, as campaigners fought for the abolition of slavery in Britain’s colonies overseas, a letter appeared in the Leeds press pointing the finger closer to home. Headed ‘Yorkshire Slavery’, it described in blistering detail the wretched lives of children working from age seven in the worsted mills of Yorkshire, enslaved from 6 in the morning to 7 at night, exhausted, beaten, crippled – ‘sacrificed to avarice’. It was a shocking and passionate call for action, and it triggered a movement across the country which led to improvements in people’s working lives and transformed the life of the writer himself – Richard Oastler.

Oastler was 41 when he wrote the letter. Originally from Leeds, born in a fine house in St Peter’s Square, he was the eighth child of Robert Oastler, a cloth merchant who was later appointed steward of a large country estate at Fixby near Huddersfield. Richard was educated at Fulneck school, then, after a period in an architect’s office, at 21 set up his own business dealing in oils, dyes and wools. From his Methodist father and his schooling at Fulneck he had absorbed strong religious and philanthropic ideals: he worked for the anti-slavery movement and joined his friend Michael Sadler tending the poor and sick in the slums of Leeds – a revealing insight into their desperate living conditions. In 1816 he married Mary Tatham from Nottingham. It was a happy and supportive marriage; but life was not easy for them: their two babies died in infancy and then his business failed. He was saved by the offer of the steward’s post at Fixby following his father’s death in 1820.

He moved to live in the rather grand Fixby Hall. A firm Tory, he opposed parliamentary reform and believed in traditional values, but he retained his instinctive sympathy with working people. It was his realisation of the appalling conditions in the expanding factories and mills around Bradford and Leeds that fired him to write his famous, life-changing letter. It caused a sensation and stirred up violent controversy. The mill-owners were of course opposed to any government intervention, though the truth of Oastler’s allegations could not be denied. He thrived on conflict, publishing yet more letters and pamphlets and addressing meetings around the county, a rousing and fiery orator.

While some small concessions for children were squeezed from the government, his campaign led inevitably to pressure for a limit on the hours of all factory workers: a ten-hour day. ‘Short-time’ committees of workpeople were formed in every town and Oastler, with Michael Sadler as MP, led the campaign for a ‘Ten-Hours’ Act. A tall, warm, charismatic figure, he won people’s hearts and minds, and as ‘the Factory King’ was adored and feted wherever he went.

This was not his only campaign. He took on the role of spokesman for the poor and oppressed in opposing the introduction of the new Poor Law of 1834, with its grim emphasis on the workhouse system. Meanwhile at Fixby his loyal, courageous wife helped to keep his estate work going. Finally his violent oratory and inflammatory political activities brought him into conflict with his employer, the owner of the estate: he was dismissed from his post, lost his home, was accused and convicted of debt, and imprisoned until money could be found to settle the claims against him. He was almost four years in prison, mainly in the Fleet, but used his time to publish a regular and widely-read political journal: the Fleet Papers. Meanwhile his loyal supporters collected and borrowed money to buy his freedom, and he was finally released in early 1844.

He had to find work to support himself and his wife and adopted daughter. In July 1844 he came back to Leeds to live in Headingley, at Westfield Grove off North Lane, ‘this lovely spot’ as he called it.. He set up as a sharebroker, a partner in the firm Wellbeloved and Oastler. Sadly his beloved wife Mary died just a year later in June 1845, aged only 52. She was buried at St Stephen’s Church, Kirkstall, the church they had attended, and their two babies who had died long before were re-interred with her.

Perhaps her death prompted his move back to London in 1846, where he had been offered other work. The Ten Hour Act was finally passed in 1847, hailed as his crowning achievement. He died in 1861 on a return visit to Yorkshire, and was buried in a vault at St Stephen’s, next to his wife and children (hidden in brambles now). Thousands of work-people turned out for his funeral, and it was reported that ‘even stern manhood’ was moved to tears at the loss of their spokesman and hero.

Eveleigh Bradford