Yesterday I visited Brighouse to spend some time with family. We had a drink and a meal in the Wetherspoons pub there which was called “the Richard Oastler”. I’m always intrigued by names from the past which I’ve not heard of and particularly their link with that particular area.
Richard Oastler was born in Leeds in 1789, the son of a wealthy linen merchant. He was the youngest of 10 children. He attended a boarding school and went on to become a commission agent. He married in 1816 to Mary Tatham and they had 2 children – unfortunately both had died by 1819. In 1820 he went bankrupt, but later that year, on the death of his father, he took over the stewardship of Fixby, a large estate near Huddersfield for the absentee landlord Thomas Thornhill.
Oastler was a Tory but not the archetypal Tory of the time. Whilst he opposed universal suffrage, trade unions and was a big supporter of the class structure of the time, he was fervently of the view that it was the ruling classes responsibility to protect the weak and vulnerable and thought that the amendment to the poor law being debated in parliament was far too harsh.
In 1830 he met a worsted manufacturer from Bradford, John Wood. Wood was finding the fact he had to employ young children in his factory to keep up with similar factory owners very problematical. Wood and Oastler decided that factory reform was necessary. In 1830 Oastler wrote a letter to the Leeds Mercury denouncing a form of “Yorkshire Slavery” taking place in factories across the county – where young children are carried, fast asleep, on the backs of older siblings, to the mill to work. His letter was seen by the radical Whig MP John Hobhouse who decided to introduce a bill in to the Commons to restrict the employment of young children in factories. His bill proposed that no child under the age of 9 should be employed in a factory, anyone between 9 and 18 should work no more than 12 hours a day and 66 hours per week and anyone under the age of 18 should not be allowed to do night work.
Because of the dissolution of parliament in 1831, his bill had to be re-introduced after the election. To Oastler’s fury, when the bill was debated in parliament, Hobhouse agreed to changes to his bill which meant in only applied to cotton factories and gave no teeth to its enforcement. Oastler continued to work and speak for factory reform and even began advocating for workers to strike and to sabotage in a trying to bring about reform to factory legislation and the poor laws. When Thomas Thornhill heard about this, he sacked Oastler as steward of Fixby and began proceedings against Oastler for unpaid debts.
He was unable to pay back the money he owned so was imprisoned for debt at Fleet Prison in 1840. His friends began raising money to repay Oastler’s debts but it wasn’t until 1844 that enough money had been raised and Oastler was released from prison. He began working again for reform for a “ten hour day”.
In 1847 parliament passed a bill decreeing that children between 13 and 18 were not to work more than a 10 hour day and 58 hours a week but it only applied to certain parts of the textile industry. It wasn’t until 1867, 6 years after Richard Oastler’s death, that this law was made to apply to all factories. He is buried in the family crypt at Kirkstall, Leeds. As well as the pub in Brighouse, there is a statue to Richard Oaster in Bradford and a school named in his honour in Armley, Leeds.
Born 20th December 1789 in Leeds
Died 22nd August 1861 in Harrogate