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Oastler’s battle to end mill slavery

Richard Oastlers poster advertising the pilgrimage to York in 1832 in support of the campaign to reduce the hours worked by children in the mills.

Richard Oastlers poster advertising the pilgrimage to York in 1832 in support of the campaign to reduce the hours worked by children in the mills.

ONE of the most revered of all Yorkshiremen, William Wilberforce, is fam-ous for his key role in Britain’s abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.

Another Yorkshireman, Richard Oastler (pictured, below), also became a renowned campaigner – after turning his attention to what he controversially dubbed slavery within the county itself.

Oastler, who was born in Leeds and lived from 1789 to 1861, was outraged by child labour in Yorkshire’s mills and factories and he used the county’s newspapers to launch a campaign that eventually resulted in legislation which restricted the number of hours that adults – and therefore their children – were allowed to work.

It resulted in Oastler, a powerful orator, being hailed by his legions of supporters as the “Factory King”.

Now a new book by some of Yorkshire’s leading historians has re-examined Oastler’s impact and drawn parallels between the campaign to abolish transatlantic slavery and the fight to curtail child labour within Britain.

Entitled Slavery in Yorkshire; Richard Oastler and the campaign against child labour in the Industrial Revolution, it is edited by Halifax historian Dr John Hargreaves and Hilary Haigh, of the University of Huddersfield.

The book is the final chapter in the University’s National Lottery-funded Your Heritage project, designed to commemorate the victims of what Oastler termed ‘Yorkshire Slavery’ and to celebrate our local heritage and the leadership of Oastler and others in the national campaign to reduce the hours worked by children in the mills to 10 per day.

Project activities included a conference on Yorkshire Slavery, attended by over 100 people, the talks at which form the basis of this new book.

Oastler was the steward of Fixby Hall, Huddersfield, just over the hill from Elland, and it was there, in 1830 that he penned his famous Slavery in Yorkshire letter, which was published by the Leeds Mercury.

In it Oastler hailed the campaign to abolished slavery but then directed attention to what he called “scenes of misery, acts of oppression and victims of slavery, even on the threshold of our homes”.

He went on: “Thousands of our fellow creatures and fellow subjects, both male and female, the miserable inhabitants of a Yorkshire town... are this very moment existing in state of slavery more horrid than are victims of that hellish system – colonial slavery.

“These innocent creatures draw out unpitied their short but miserable existence in a place famed for its profession of religious zeal.

“The very streets which receive the droppings of an ‘Anti-Slavery Society’ are every morning wet by the tears of innocent victims of the accursed shrine of avarice, who are compelled, not by the cart-whip of the negro slave driver but by the dread of the equally appalling thong or strap of the overlooker, to hasten, half-dressed but not-half fed, to this magazine of British infantile slavery – the worsted mills in the town and neighbourhood of Bradford!”

Oastler’s letter alleged that “thousands of little children, both male and female, but principally female, from seven to 14 years of age, are daily compelled to labour from six o’clock in the morning to seven in the evening with... only thirty minutes allowed for eating and recreation.”

The letter launched what would be one of the most celebrated but often controversial campaigns of the 19th century, propelling Oastler to national fame and notoriety.

The Slavery in Yorkshire book has seven chapters by six historians. Dr Hargreaves provides the scene-setting introduction and concludes with a major new assessment of Oastler and his impact.

The other contributers look at William Wilberforce and the campaign to end transatlantic slavery; Richard Oastler’s Methodist background; the Huddersfield Short Time Committee between 1820 and 1876; Oastler’s Yorkshire slavery campaign in the early 1830s and Richard Oastler’s triumphant return to Huddersfield in 1844, after he had served more than three years in jail for debt .

The foreword is by the Rev Dr Inderjit Bhogal, who chaired the initiative Set All Free, which marked the bicentenary of the act to abolish the transatlantic slave trade.

nSlavery in Yorkshire: Richard Oastler and the campaign against child labour in the Industrial Revolution is published by the University of Huddersfield Press. It is available from.store.hud.ac.uk and in Halifax at Fred Wade’s bookshop in Rawson Street.

 

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