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 Issues | Church History | Lord Shaftesbury

 

Great Churchman (No. 18)

Lord Shaftesbury (1801-1885)

by Gordon Hewitt, M. A.

Published by Church Book Room Press

 

III. Guardian of the Public Conscience (1833-1851)

“Let he that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall."

During the autumn and winter of 1832 he had been reading up the “Factory Question”, particularly the evidence of a Select Committee appointed that spring to examine conditions of labour in the factories. He was “astonished and disgusted” by what he read, and he wrote to Sadler(1) its chairman offering to help in Parliament, but he received no reply. Soon after the Houses met in February 1833, he was approached by the Rev. G. S. Bull and Sir Andrew Agnew who asked him to take up the cause. He was pressed to decide at once; but having obtained a respite till next morning, he consulted three friends, who strongly urged him to adopt the question, and then he went home armed with their opinions “to decide for myself after meditation and prayer and by ‘divination’ (as it were) by the word of God”. He did not only pray about it with his Bible open. As was proper he consulted his wife. They had their child to think of and another on the way. He knew that to become involved in such a cause would offend his father and hinder his standing with the Tory party. He was doubtful about his capacity. “I have only zeal and good intentions to bring to this work,” he had told Bull. But his wife was quite clear. “It is your way and the consequences we must leave. Go forward and to victory.” Next morning he gave Bull his consent and so committed himself to a course which was to bring him much trouble, misunderstanding, satisfaction and honour.

The story of the “Ten Hours Bill” is a long and complicated one. It has been told in detail and with admirable skill by J. L. and Barbara Hammond in their biography of Lord Shaftesbury and need not be repeated. Here, at the risk of over-simplification, we must be content to underline some features of the struggle which are apt to be overlooked. The story can be told in such a way that Shaftesbury is made to appear a traitor, throwing in his hand at the crucial moment, and accepting a compromise which the workers themselves would not accept at any price. But that is to assume that Shaftesbury and the workers were agreed in their understanding of the issues at stake, and the assumption is not justified. From first to last, in this and in nearly every other cause he championed, Shaftesbury was concerned to limit the working hours of children, young persons, and women, and to ensure that they had proper opportunities for recreation and education. The conditions in which they worked must be as good as a well-planned Act of Parliament, reinforced by regular inspection and prosecution of offending employers, could make them. He was not concerned about the male adult workers except in so far as their longer hours of work made it easy for employers to evade the laws restricting the working hours of women and children. He believed the men could look after themselves. On the other hand, “the Short-Time Committees” organized in many centres in Lancashire and Yorkshire were very much concerned with the working hours of the men. The “Ten Hours Bill” for them meant, and was intended to mean, closed factories for fourteen hours each full working day. Child labour was so essential to factory economy that an act which efficiently limited children’s working hours to ten achieved the secondary objective as well. The Short Time Committees were prepared for a frontal attack on laissez-faire. Shaftesbury was not.

This difference of emphasis and objectives was not obvious at first; it did not emerge with any clarity even in the later stages because the workers were too quick with their accusations of “Judas”, and Shaftesbury was too ready to bemoan their ingratitude. But it seems to be fair comment on a struggle which occupied most of his energies for seventeen years. It was, however, not mere tiredness or pre-occupation with philanthropy which made Shaftesbury accept a compromise of ten-and-a-half hours in 1850; it was an appraisement, mistaken perhaps, of political possibilities at the time. He assumed that he had a free hand and was not a mere delegate in Parliament of the factory-workers. Later, when passions had cooled somewhat, he received the warmest welcome on occasional visits to the Industrial North. He had in truth obtained “almost everything” and the little he did not do was ultimately forgiven.

The Ten Hours Bill was only one of many causes which he championed in the House of Commons in the period of his greatest activity there, and in other cases the fruits of victory left no bitter taste. There was a moment after his great speech introducing the Coal Mines Bill on June 7, 1842, when Cobden, his doughty antagonist in the Ten Hours cause, crossed the floor to shake him by the hand. This bill, which forbade the employment of women and girls in mines and of all males under thirteen, met with some opposition from coal-owners in the Lords, but it achieved at one stroke most of what he set out to do. A select committee on child labour, set up at his request, presented a series of reports in the forties, each of which produced protective legislation. In 1845 he won further protection for the insane in two Acts which extended the control of the Lunacy Commissioners to all asylums except Bedlam, and making the provision of well-run asylums obligatory on all county authorities. Case-books and regular medical attendance, better food, visiting hours and holidays, brought to the insane some measure of comfort and security. In the same year he was busy about the conditions of children’s work in the Calico Printing Works, which fell outside the scope of the Factory Acts. He did not get all he asked for, but an Act was passed forbidding night-work and excluding children under eight.

From 1840 onwards he worked with Southwood Smith on matters of public health, and in 1848 a Board of Health was set up with these two and Edwin Chadwick as its members and Lord Morpeth as chairman. The Board only survived for five years, and in that time there were two serious outbreaks of cholera. In June 1849, Shaftesbury’s eldest son, Francis, died at Harrow and the late summer found him in London, working in the midst of his grief to control one of these outbreaks of cholera. It brought an immense burden of work and anxiety to himself and his colleagues of the Health Board, but the plague was stayed, and the loss of life in this and in the subsequent outbreak of 1853 was far lower in Britain than on the Continent, owing largely to these exertions. But Shaftesbury was near breaking point. Little as he welcomed it at the time, his removal to the House of Lords, following his father’s death in 1851, brought much needed relief from some of his labours.

He did not cease to work through Parliament for the ends that seemed to him most urgent. In 1851, owing to the time of his father’s death, he carried two Lodging House bills through both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.(2) They provided for inspection and registration, and the levying of rates for the building of new lodging-houses. He knew that better drainage was little use without better housing, and that the state must “interfere” with both if outbreaks of cholera were not to recur at regular intervals.

In the same year he carried through the House of Lords a bill prohibiting the employment of children under sixteen in the sweeping of chimneys, but the Commons buried it, and it was not until 1875 that he secured an Act which dealt with this abuse effectively by enforcing an annual revocable license for all master-sweeps. In 1873 he was teaching Plimsoll how to get a bill protecting merchant seamen through the Commons, and was busy himself in the Lords protecting
children from the abuses of the agricultural labour-gangs. This was all of a piece with his work for the Ten Hours Bill in the thirties and forties; less intense perhaps—for his work outside Parliament had grown enormously—but conforming to the same pattern. The law must protect the weak—the children, the growing boys and girls, the women.

In 1879, at the age of seventy-eight, he pleaded in the Lords for a Factory Act for India. He exposed the commission set up four years previously to examine factory conditions there, asserting that all its members were more or less financially interested in the Indian mines, and every witness brought before them was more or less intimidated. Then he went on to say in characteristic fashion, “Creed and colour, latitude and longitude, make no difference to the essential nature of man. No climate can enable infants to do the work of adults, or turn suffering women into mere steam-engines.”

It has been suggested, with some truth, that Shaftesbury never worked out a Christian philosophy of society.(3) It was in action that he excelled, not in thought. But all his activity was undergirded by the doctrine of man as he discovered it in the Bible. At the age of twenty-five he wrote in his diary: “I have a great mind to found a policy on the Bible: in public life observing the strictest justice, and not only cold justice, but active benevolence”; and he added, with rare insight, “justice—raw justice—is the Shekinah of governments.” In his presidential address to the Social Science Congress in 1858 he expanded this theme:

“There is nothing so economical as justice and mercy towards all interests—temporary and spiritual—of all the human race. . . .When people say we should think more of the soul and less of the body, my answer is, that the same God Who made the soul made the body also. . . If St. Paul, calling our bodies the temples of the Holy Ghost, said they ought not to be contaminated by sin, we also say that our bodies, the temples of the Holy Ghost, ought not to be corrupted by preventible disease, degraded by avoidable filth, and disabled for His service by unnecessary suffering.”(4)

In labouring to prevent these things, he did what he conceived to be his Christian duty. “He also did more than any single man or single government in English history to check the raw power of the industrial revolution.”(5)

>>Chapter 4 - Watching for Christ

 

Endnotes:

(1) Mr. Michael Sadler, Tory member for Newark, who had introduced a comprehensive Factory Bill in December 1831, and was chairman of the Select Committee appointed on its second reading. Sadler was now out of Parliament, having been defeated by Macaulay at Leeds in the General Election of 1832.

(2) Noble Lord, p. 169.

(3) Maurice to Temple, p. 109

(4) Noble Lord, pp. 170-1.

(5) Lord Shaftesbury, J. L. and Barbara Hammond, Constable, 3rd Ed., 1925, p. 153.

 

 

 

 

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