ichard Oastler,‘the factory king,’ the youngest of the eight children of Robert Oastler of Leeds, was born in St. Peter's Square in that town on 20 December 1789. His mother, a daughter of Joseph Scurr of Leeds, died in 1828. His father, originally a linen merchant at Thirsk, settled at Leeds, and became steward of the Fixby estates, Huddersfield, the property of the Thornhills of Riddlesworth, Norfolk. Disinherited by his father for his Methodism, the elder Oastler was one of the earliest adherents of John Wesley, who frequently stayed at his house on his visits to Yorkshire. On Wesley's last visit he is said to have taken Richard Oastler, then a child, in his arms and blessed him.

Educated at the Moravian school at Fulnek, where Henry Steinhauer was his tutor, Richard Oastler wished to become a barrister; but his father articled him to Charles Watson, architect, at Wakefield. Compelled by weakness of sight to abandon this profession after four years, he became a commission agent, and by his industry accumulated considerable wealth. But he lost everything in 1820. His father dying in July of that year, Thomas Thornhill, the absentee owner of Fixby, appointed him to the stewardship, at a salary of £300 a year. Oastler removed from Leeds to Fixby Hall on 5 January 1821, and devoted himself to his new duties. The estate contained at that time nearly one thousand tenants, many of them occupying very small tenures; but the annual legal expenses of Oastler's management were not more than £5.

Oastler was at this time well known in the West Riding. He had been since 1807 an advocate of the abolition of slavery in the West Indies. He also supported Queen Caroline and opposed Roman Catholic Emancipation. While he was on a visit in 1830 to John Wood of Horton Hall, afterwards of Thedden Grange, Hampshire, an extensive manufacturer of Bradford, who had introduced many reforms into his own factory, his host told him (29 Sept.) of the evils of children's employment in the Bradford district, and exacted from him a promise to devote himself to their removal. ‘I had lived for many years,’ wrote Oastler, ‘in the very heart of the factory districts; I had been on terms of intimacy and of friendship with many factory masters, and I had all the while fancied that factories were blessings to the poor’. After Wood's disclosure he on the same day (29 September) wrote a letter to the Leeds Mercury entitled ‘Yorkshire Slavery,’ in which he described what he had heard. Oastler's statements were met with denial and criticism; but he established their truth, and won the gratitude of working men. He indicated the policy by which parliament might be induced to protect the factory hands in a letter in the Leeds Intelligencer (20 October 1831) entitled ‘Slavery in Yorkshire,’ and addressed ‘to the working classes of the West Riding.’ ‘Use your influence,’ he wrote, ‘to prevent any man being returned who will not distinctly and unequivocally pledge himself to support a “Ten-Hours-a-day and a Time-book Bill.”’ About the same time he formed the ‘Fixby Hall Compact’ with the working men of Huddersfield, by which they agreed to work together, without regard to parties in politics or sects in religion, for the reduction of the hours of labour. Oastler was also in constant correspondence with Michael Thomas Sadler, the parliamentary leader of the movement. The introduction of Sadler's bill for regulating the labour of children and young persons in mills and factories was followed by numerous meetings, at which Oastler advocated the claims of the children. He was examined at length by the select committee on Sadler's bill. He took the chief part in organising a great meeting on 24 April 1832, when thousands of working people from all parts of the clothing districts joined in a ‘pilgrimage of mercy’ to York in favour of the bill. At Bradford, at Manchester, and other places, Oastler, sometimes in company with Sadler, was received with enthusiasm. His opponents nicknamed him ‘king,’ a title which he took to himself, and by which he soon became known throughout Lancashire and Yorkshire.

On 23 February 1833 Oastler addressed an important meeting at the City of London Tavern, convened by the London society for the improvement of the factory children. This was the first meeting held in London in connection with the movement, and the first under the parliamentary leadership of Lord Ashley. After the defeat of Lord Ashley's bill and the passing of the mild government measure generally known as Lord Althorp's Act, Oastler continued to write and speak in favour of a ten-hours day. In the summer of 1835 he published a series of letters on that and similar subjects in some of the most popular unstamped periodicals of the day, in order that he might impress his views on a class otherwise beyond his reach. Poulett Thomson's bill to repeal ‘the thirteen-year-old clause,’ thus making twelve years the age-limit for those employed eight hours a day, caused a fresh outburst of excitement, during which Oastler went from one town to another addressing meetings. At a meeting on 15 September 1836, organised by the Blackburn short time committee, he taxed the magistrates who were there, with their refusal to enforce the Factory Acts, threatening to teach the children to ‘apply their grandmothers' old knitting-needles to the spindles’ if they again refused to listen to their complaints. This threat naturally provoked severe criticism; and Oastler, in order to make his position clear, published a pamphlet, The Law and the Needle, in which he justified himself, on the ground that, if the magistrates refused to put the law into execution for the protection of children, there was no remedy but an appeal to force.

Meanwhile Oastler's views on the new poor law, a subject inseparably connected in his mind with the ten-hours agitation, were involving him in serious difficulties. He believed that the powers with which parliament had invested the poor-law commissioners for the supply of the factory districts with labourers from the agricultural counties would lead to the diminution of wages and the deterioration of the working classes. He also objected to the new poor law on the ground that it severed the connection between the ratepayers and their dependents, and sapped the parochial system. When, in accordance with his views, he resisted the commissioners in the township of Fixby, Frankland Lewis, on their behalf, asked Thornhill to assist them in enforcing the law. Thornhill had hitherto regarded Oastler's public work with approval. He had introduced Oastler to several statesmen, among them the Duke of Wellington, with whom Oastler carried on a long correspondence. But Thornhill would not countenance Oastler's opposition to the poor-law commissioners, and ultimately discharged him (28 May 1838).

Oastler removed to Brompton, and was supported by the gifts of anonymous friends in Lancashire and Yorkshire. But when he left Thornhill's service he owed him £2,000, and Thornhill took proceedings at law to recover it. The case was tried in the court of common pleas before Lord-chief-justice Tindal and a special jury on 10 July 1840, when judgment was given against Oastler; but there was no imputation on his character. Unable to pay the debt, Oastler was on 9 December 1840 sent to the Fleet Prison, and there he remained for more than three years.

During his imprisonment Oastler was not inactive. He published on 2 January 1841 the first number of The Fleet Papers; being Letters to Thomas Thornhill Esquire of Riddlesworth from Richard Oastler his prisoner in the Fleet With occasional Communications from Friends. By means of these papers, which appeared weekly, and in which Oastler pleaded the cause of the factory workers, denounced the new poor law and defended the corn laws, he exercised great influence on public opinion. ‘Oastler Committees’ were formed at Manchester and other places in order to assist him, and ‘Oastler Festivals,’ the proceeds of which were forwarded to him, were arranged by working men. In 1842 an ‘Oastler Liberation Fund’ was started. At the end of 1843 the fund amounted to £2,500. Some of Oastler's friends guaranteed the remaining sum necessary to effect his release, and in February 1844 he was set at liberty. He made a public entry into Huddersfield on 20 February. From that time until 1847 he continued to agitate for a ten-hours day; but with the passing of Lord Ashley's Act his public career practically terminated. He edited a weekly newspaper called The Home, which he commenced on 3 May 1851, and discontinued in June 1855. He died at Harrogate on 22 August 1861 and was buried in Kirkstall churchyard.

Oastler was a churchman, a Tory, and a protectionist. One of his objections to the new poor law was that it would prove fatal to the interests of the Anglican Church and the landed proprietors, and that the repeal of the corn laws would inevitably follow its enactment. He defined his toryism to the Duke of Wellington as ‘a place for everything, and everything in its place.’ He hated ‘Liberal philosophy,’ and was bitterly opposed to the whig manufacturers. Violent in his denunciations, and unfair to his opponents, he has been called the Danton of the factory movement. He was a powerfully built man, over six feet in height, and had a commanding presence. His voice was ‘stentorian in its power and yet flexible, with a flow of language rapid and abundant’ (Trollope).

Oastler married Mary, daughter of Thomas and Mary Tatham of Nottingham, on 16 October 1816. Born on 24 May 1793, she was a woman of great natural ability and religious feeling. She died at Headingley, near Leeds, on 12 June 1845, and was buried at Kirkstall. Oastler's two children by her, Sarah and Robert, both died in infancy. After his wife's death Oastler lived at South Hill Cottage, Guildford, Surrey.

Oastler was a constant contributor to newspapers and other periodicals, and he published many pamphlets concerning the factory agitation. A volume of his Speeches was published in 1850. He also, in conjunction with the Rev. J. R. Stephens, edited the Ashton Chronicle, a weekly journal. His last tract, on Convocation, appeared shortly before his death.

Source

Stephen, Sir Lesley, and Sir Sidney Lee (eds.), Dictionary of National Biography: from the earliest times to 1900. London, Oxford University Press, 1949.


Victorian History Poor Law

Last modified 1 November 2002