Coming Full Circle

by Agatha Lee 9 months ago
Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInEmail to someone

“These children should be freed from exploitation” Richard Oastler

Not many people know this but I was actually born in England. In fact, it does come as a surprise when I debunk the assumption that I was born in London. Instead, I was born and had my childhood in Bradford, West Yorkshire. I remember lots of fields, making daisy chains and rubbing buttercups under the chin to see if we liked butter. There was a fondness to rolling about in the leaves and having all this space to run about, not forgetting the lovely sweet shops. So, you can imagine how my heart fell when we shifted to Hong Kong, but that’s another story.

Embarrassingly, I don’t really know a lot about Bradford except for the riots and the Bradford City football fire. It was only recently that I discovered that Bradford was, in fact, an international centre of textile manufacture during the Industrial Revolution, and only declined in the mid 20th Century. It was particularly renowned for its wool and textile weaving, and its rapid growth was helped by the fact that the city was close to coal mines and soft water. Unfortunately, child labour was rampant in the industry with children as young as 7 working for more than 10 hours a day in poor conditions. While there was a campaign to abolish slavery in the British colonies in the 1830s, it was not until a Mr. Richard Oastler had a chance meeting with a Mr. John Wood (who was agonizing over the employment of children in his factory in Bradford) that the cause for labour rights was championed for.

From a letter to The Leeds Mercury by Richard Oastler, published on October 16, 1830:

‘Let truth speak out, appalling as the statement may appear. 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 a stage of slavery more horrid than are victims of that hellish system ‘Colonial Slavery’. These innocent creatures drawl out unpitied their short but miserable existence in a place famed for its profession of religious zeal, whose inhabitants are ever foremost in professing Temperance and Reformation, and are striving to outrun their neighbours in Missionary exertions and would fain send the Bible to the farthest corner of the globe… The very streets which receive the droppings of an Anti-Slavery Society are every morning wet by the tears of innocent victims at the accursed shrine of avarice, who are compelled not by the cart whip or the negro slave-driver but by the dread of the equally appalling thong or the strap of the overlooker, to hasten, half-dressed, not half-fed, to those magazines of British infantile slavery – the worsted mills in the town and neighbourhood of Bradford. Thousands of little children, both male and female, but principally female, from SEVEN to fourteen years of age, are daily compelled to labour from six o’clock in the morning to seven in the evening…Poor infants! Ye are indeed sacrificed at the shrine of avarice, without even the solace of the negro slave; …ye are compelled to work as long as the necessity of your needy parents may require, or the cold-blooded avarice of your worse than barbarian masters may demand!’

[Credit:  Yorkshire Post]

While the right for acceptable working conditions was fought for (especially for children), reform for the textile industry was also demanded.

According to this website, two other important local figures were involved in the reformation of the industry as well. Conditions in the mills and working hours were improved, while proof of age (birth certificate) was made a requirement for employment.  Here’s a summary from MyLearning:

  1. “Richard Oastler helped bring about the 1847 Factory Act which made the working day a maximum of ten hours.
  2. Margaret McMillan’s campaigns resulted in the 1906 Provision of School Meals Act. She also carried out the first medical inspections of primary school children.
  3. William Edward Forster, MP for Bradford between 1861 and 1886, helped to develop the 1870 Education Act, which established a national education system. “

Concerns of Working Conditions in Literature

The labour conditions in the textile industry did not go unnoticed to the public. In fact, writers from the Victorian era used the industry as a backdrop to their novels. My favourite is Elizabeth Gaskell, who highlighted the plight of the workers in her writing, such as North and South, and Mary Barton.

Throughout North and South, Gaskell illustrates the huge social divide between the working and middle-class, and how the masters’ desire to make more money means lowering wages (a very familiar scenario that we see today!) as one of the characters, labourer Higgins, laments to protagonist, Margaret Hale:

“Why, yo’ see, there is five or six masters who have set themselves again’ paying the wages they’ve been paying these two years past, and flourishing upon, and getting richer upon. And now they come to us, and say we are to take less. And we won’t. We’ll just clem them to death first; and see who will work for ‘em then. They’ll have killed the goose that laid ‘em the golden eggs, I reckon”.

However, Gaskell also gives both sides of the coin and makes effort to cover the perspective of the master, especially when the workers had formed unions and gone on strike.

He was trying to understand where he stood; what damage the strike had done him. A good deal of his capital was locked up in new and expensive machinery; and he had also bought cotton largely, with a view to some great orders which he had in hand. The strike had thrown him terribly behindhand, as to the completion of these orders. Even with his own accustomed and skilled workpeople, he would have had some difficulty in fullfilling his engagements; as it was, the incompetence of the Irish hands, who had to be trained to their work,at a time requiring unusual activity,was a daily annoyance.”

She also mentions the conflicts between mill owners in terms of worker treatment. Higgins’ daughter, who also works in the mills is ill from inhaling cotton dust and says:

’…..Some folk have a great wheel at one end o’ their carding-rooms to make a draught, and carry off th’ dust; but that wheel costs a deal o’ money–five or six hundred pound, maybe, and brings in no profit; so it’s but a few of th’ masters as will put ’em up; and I’ve heard tell o’ men who didn’t like working places where there was a wheel, because they said as how it mad ’em hungry, at after they’d been long used to swallowing fluff, tone go without it, and that their wage ought to be raised if they were to work in such places. So between masters and men th’ wheels fall through. I know I wish there’d been a wheel in our place, though.’

Why are we back to square one?

We learn a lot from our mistakes and from our history, but it seems like we are a very forgetful bunch of people. By the time the last British mill closed down in the 1960s, most of the manufacturing had gone overseas, where capitalists were seeking higher profit margins. Today, we are witnessing communities being exploited again under extremely poor working conditions. I wonder what it would take to change this thinking. Back in the 1800s, people’s attitudes changed when Oastler compared the conditions of the factory labourers to those suffered by the colonial slaves. We are so far removed from the horrors that for some, it is easier to close one eye and let it be.

What can we do?

  1. Vote with your wallet – shop consciously. Check out my post on PROJECTJust for responsible shopping. Always remember to do your research before you buy.
  2. Work together with the big names – some people may say that this goes against building a sustainable fashion industry, but these retailers have a wider reach. If you can change the way they think, just imagine the impact that it could bring. Don’t forget that they are employers too!
  3. Take part in Fashion Revolution – there’s a brilliant line up of activities from 22 – 29th April. Check out the Singapore activities here where I’ll be holding my signature Restyle Your Wardrobe upcycling workshop on 22nd and 29th April.

This post first appeared on Green Issues by Agy.


About the Author: Agatha “Agy” Lee is a textile artist who is passionate about building environmentally aware communities. Her goal is to get people to reconnect with their clothes through techniques such as repair and transforming them into creative wearables (aka upcycling). She holds regular talks and Restyle Your Wardrobe is one of her signature workshops where she shares her knowledge of rethinking the way we view our garments. Agatha’s work can be found at Green Issues by Agy.


Comments are closed here.