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Oastler, Richardfree

(1789–1861)
  • Stewart A. Weaver

Richard Oastler (1789–1861)

by James Posselwhite (after B. Garside)

Oastler, Richard (1789–1861), factory reformer, was born on 20 December 1789 in St Peter's Square, Leeds, the eighth and last child of Robert Oastler (1748–1820), a local linen merchant, and his wife, Sarah Scurr (d. 1828). Of his mother's family little is known save that they were devout and respected middle-class folk who had been established in Leeds for many years. The Oastlers were yeoman farmers and freeholders of the parish of Kirby Wiske in the North Riding of Yorkshire. Robert Oastler had lived in Kirby Wiske until the age of sixteen, when his youthful embrace of Methodism led to an estrangement from his father. Disinherited, Robert went to the nearby market town of Thirsk, where he was raised by an uncle who shared his evangelical fervour. A chance acquaintance with John Wesley in 1766 'ripened into a more than common friendship' (Driver, 5), and by the time Richard was born in 1789, his father was a well-known leader of the local Methodist community. On the occasion of his last visit to Yorkshire in 1790, Wesley is said to have blessed young Richard Oastler in his arms. True or not, Oastler's entire upbringing reflected the spirit of that blessing, 'for from the moment of his birth he was breathing the air of deepest piety' (ibid., 13).

From the age of nine Oastler attended the Moravian boarding-school at Fulneck, near Leeds, where his tutor, Henry Steinhauer, left a deep impression on him as a man of real religious feeling. On quitting Fulneck aged seventeen, Oastler meant to become a barrister, but his father had prohibitive scruples about the law, and after a failed effort as an architect's apprentice in Wakefield, Oastler settled down as a commission agent, a sort of middleman, that is, between the wholesale houses of Leeds and the small retailers in the towns and villages of the West Riding. Before long he ranked among the principal merchants in Leeds, 'respected for his sterling integrity and honour and considered as one whose superior talents for business would shortly raise him to affluence and distinction' (Bull). In 1816 Oastler married Mary Tatham (1793–1845), the daughter of a wealthy Wesleyan lace manufacturer in Nottingham. They had two children, Sarah and Robert, both of whom died in infancy in 1819.

The circumstances of Oastler's life changed abruptly in 1820. His business failed and in February that year he was declared bankrupt. After his father's death in July 1820 he was appointed to succeed him as steward to Thomas Thornhill, the absentee squire of Fixby, near Huddersfield. Up to now, everything about Oastler's life—his Methodism, his commercial acumen, his political progressivism—had reflected his urban and middle-class upbringing. The assured social order of the landed estate was completely new to him, but he took to it at once, abjuring his radical Wesleyanism in favour of tory Anglicanism. Indeed, in Thornhill's absence Oastler became quite the squire manqué. He revived old manorial customs such as rent day and harvest fair. He rode the fields, got to know the tenants, and carefully disbursed alms among the cottagers. Community, family, and custom became his social ideals, as his awareness of the continuities of history deepened and his prejudices against trade and industry hardened. Of his essential nostalgia there can be no doubt. But nostalgia can generate social protest as much as social complacency, as Oastler's contemporaries were shortly to discover.

As it happened, Oastler had for some time been a prominent abolitionist, a well-known supporter of William Wilberforce's crusade against slavery in the colonies. Yet he was wholly ignorant, he later claimed, of the cruelties routinely practised in English textile mills when he rode over to Bradford in September 1830 to visit his friend John Wood. As the celebrated legend of ‘Oastler's awakening’ would have it, Wood told Oastler about the appalling conditions in the Bradford mills, and Oastler, aghast and unbelieving, at once (29 September 1830) dashed off the letter to the Leeds Mercury on 'Yorkshire slavery' that started the factory movement. The facts were probably less dramatic. Oastler's father had long been acquainted with the conditions of labour in the mills. Oastler himself had already joined with Michael Sadler in various sorts of philanthropic work among unemployed operatives in Leeds. And across the Pennines, in Lancashire, the factory movement was already well under way. Still, there is no discounting the dramatic effect of Oastler's intervention. For the first time a prominent local citizen of impeccably abolitionist credentials had asserted that:

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 state of slavery more horrid than are the victims of that hellish system—‘colonial slavery’.

Cole, 85

The effect of these words, coming as they did at a time when, as Samuel Kydd remembered, 'England was moved from centre to circumference with appeals on behalf of the liberation of West Indian slaves' (Kydd, 1.108–9), was to turn factory reform into a compelling national issue.

In February 1831, largely in response to the factory furore that Oastler had provoked, John Cam Hobhouse, the radical MP for Westminster, announced a bill providing for an eleven-and-a-half-hour day for all textile workers under the age of eighteen. In Glasgow and Halifax woollen masters at once organized a campaign of resistance, and Hobhouse, fearful of losing his bill altogether, agreed to confine its provisions to cotton mills. Oastler was outraged, and in a manifesto significantly addressed 'to the Working Classes of the West Riding', he urged workers to take the issue of factory reform into their own hands. Within weeks scores of short time committees had sprung up across Yorkshire, closely patterned on the Wesleyan ‘class meetings’ and ambitiously pledged to a universal ten-hour day. June 1831 saw the sealing of the famous Fixby Hall compact, whereby Oastler and the workers of Huddersfield agreed to work together, without regard to party or sect, toward the ten-hour day. More than the effective beginning of the factory movement, the Fixby compact marked the birth of the idea of tory democracy. Still an unrepentant tory whose motto was 'The Altar, the Throne, and the Cottage', Oastler nevertheless now came forward as insurgent and rebel, the quintessential tory radical.

With the defection of Hobhouse, parliamentary leadership of the factory movement fell to Michael Sadler, an old friend of Oastler's and one who shared his radically paternalist disposition. Sadler at once introduced a Ten Hours Bill into the still unreformed parliament, only to see it shunted into a select committee of inquiry. Oastler testified at length before Sadler's committee, and in April 1832 he took the chief part in organizing the ‘pilgrimage to York’, the first of many outdoor marches and meetings that he was to dominate by force of his imposing stature—he was over 6 feet tall—and a voice 'stentorian in its power and yet flexible, with a flow of language rapid and abundant' (T. A. Trollope, What I Remember, 1887, 2.13). In outdoor demagoguery, in fact, Oastler now discovered his true calling. An essentially unsophisticated man, broad-shouldered, fresh-complexioned, abounding in joviality and health, and animated by an unequivocal moral code, he had, his biographer says, an oratorical power amounting 'almost to genius' (Driver, 127). It was this, more than anything, that earned him the sobriquet of the Factory King.

The factory movement suffered a serious set-back in December 1832, when, despite Oastler's best efforts on his behalf, Michael Sadler lost his seat at the general election following the passage of the Reform Bill. Sponsorship of Sadler's bill fell to Lord Ashley, later the seventh earl of Shaftesbury. The new whig government, meanwhile, anxious to appease the factory reformers without alienating manufacturers, appointed a royal commission of inquiry into the factory question. Oastler, furious at what he regarded as needless temporizing, at once organized a boycott of the commission's proceedings. Undaunted, the commissioners compiled a report that essentially confirmed Sadler's and Ashley's assertions, and in July 1833 the government carried a bill that, while it left the question of adult labour untouched, provided a twelve-hour day for workers between thirteen and eighteen years of age, and an eight-hour day for those under thirteen.

The period following the passage of Althorp's Act (as it came to be known) was one of confusion and disarray for the factory movement, as textile workers throughout the north were drawn into Robert Owen's elaborate schemes for the establishment of a 'new moral world'. In late 1833 John Fielden, the radical MP for Oldham, joined with Owen in organizing a general strike for eight hours, but Oastler stood aside from this effort. Paternalist that he was, he abhorred strikes and trade unions as much as he did the chimera of universal suffrage, and thus it was with grimly mixed satisfaction that he watched the collapse, in 1834, of Owen's grandiosely conceived Grand National Consolidated Trades Union. His own attention, meanwhile, had been distracted by the (to his mind) awful spectre of the new poor law. In his view, outdoor relief to the needy was a solemn obligation enjoined by God and tradition on the local community. To see that obligation abdicated in favour of 'the workhouse test' was more than he could bear, and when the time came, when the poor law commissioners in London attempted to impose their deterrent logic on the north, he would show to what lengths of turbulent defiance tory radicalism could extend.

Meanwhile, the government's attempt, in 1835, to repeal one of the provisions of Althorp's Act had dramatically revived the factory movement and restored Oastler to the popular attention he craved. At a meeting organized by the Blackburn short time committee in September 1836, he taxed the magistrates with their refusal to enforce the Factory Acts and threatened to show the factory children how to apply their grandmothers' old knitting-needles to the spindles 'in a way which will teach these law-defying millowner magistrates to have respect even to “Oastler's law”' (Driver, 327). Not surprisingly, this incitement to sabotage raised a great outcry, and Oastler found himself under the constant surveillance of the Home Office. Up to now, he had generally had his employer's support in his public commitments, but after the publication of The Law or the Needle (1836), relations between the two men were increasingly strained. When Oastler's campaign against the new poor law proved equally incendiary, Thornhill dismissed him from his position as steward (28 May 1838) and initiated legal proceedings against him for recovery of debts accumulated during his stewardship at Fixby. Pretext though they were, the debts were real and, unable to pay them, Oastler was committed to the Fleet prison for three and a half years on 9 December 1840.

From his prison cell Oastler edited a weekly newspaper, the Fleet Papers, in which he mixed accounts of his personal troubles with attacks on the whigs and the new poor law. But 'the pen was not Oastler's natural weapon' (Cole, 102); for all its energy the Fleet Papers exerted little influence. In 1842 his friends and admirers started an ‘Oastler liberation fund’ that amounted to £2500 by the end of 1843. The balance of his debts secured by Fielden, Oastler was freed in February 1844. Though lately eclipsed by Chartism, the factory movement was then at its height, but Oastler, ill and depressed, had little more to do with it. After his wife died in 1845 he retired to Guildford, in Surrey, on a small income provided by his friends. From 1851 to 1855 he edited a magazine, The Home, 'addressed primarily to working-class families and consecrated to disseminating the message of Christian Tory Democracy' (Driver, 513). His last years passed quietly, and he died in obscurity, of a heart attack, at Harrogate, Yorkshire, on 22 August 1861. He was buried (probably on 24 August) at St Stephen's Church, Kirkstall, near Leeds, and is remembered not as a thinker, nor as a writer, but as 'the embodiment of a folk-dream which had an especial cogency in the days of transition to an industrial economy' (ibid., 128–9). Homestead and hall, church and cottage, craftsmanship and harmony of function: these were the things that possessed his imagination, and in their name, paradoxically enough, Richard Oastler for ten turbulent years trod the edges of revolution.

Sources

  • C. H. Driver, Tory radical: the life of Richard Oastler (1946)
  • G. D. H. Cole, ‘Richard Oastler’, Chartist portraits (1941), 80–105
  • G. S. Bull, ‘Lecture on the career and character of Richard Oastler’, Leeds Intelligencer (7 Feb 1863)
  • A. Kydd [S. H. G. Kydd], The history of the factory movement, from the year 1802 to the enactment of the Ten Hours' Bill in 1847, 2 vols. (1857)
  • S. A. Weaver, John Fielden and the politics of popular radicalism, 1832–1847 (1987)
  • d. cert.

Archives

  • BL, corresp. and papers, Add. MS 41748
  • Col. U., papers
  • LUL, Goldsmith's Library of Economic Literature
  • BLPES, letters to Thomas Allsop, etc., coll. misc. 525–6
  • JRL, letters to John Fielden

Likenesses

  • W. Barnard, mezzotint, 1832 (after T. H. Illidge), NPG
  • E. Morton, lithograph, 1838 (after portrait by W. P. Frith), NPG
  • G. E. Madeley, lithograph, 1840, repro. in Fleet Papers, 1 (1841), frontispiece
  • lithograph, 1840, NPG
  • photograph, 1860, repro. in Bradford Antiquary (Oct 1911)
  • J. B. Phillips, bronze statue, 1866, Rawson Square, Bradford
  • B. Garside, oils, Huddersfield Public Library
  • B. Garside, stipple and line engraving (after J. Posselwhite), NPG
  • J. Posselwhite, stipple and line engraving (after B. Garside), NPG [see illus.]
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)