Book Review – Yorkshire Slavery

Slavery in Yorkshire  – Richard Oastler and the campaign against child labour in the Industrial Revolution’  Edited by John A Hargreaves and E A Hillary Haigh (University of Huddersfield Press  2012) PBk

Yorks Slav

This book grew out of a conference at the University of Huddersfield to mark the 2007 bicentenary commemoration of Britain’s abolition of the slave trade.  The promoters of the conference, Huddersfield University Archives Department, are to be congratulated on having both the pride in local heritage, and the historical and political awareness, to successfully win Heritage Lottery funding for a project highlighting ‘Yorkshire Slavery’ –  the plight of child workers in West Riding worsted and woollen mills and the efforts in the 1830s and 40s, to abolish this form of servitude.

The result has been this collection of papers by mainly local authors, all deeply committed to various aspects of the subjects they describe.  There is a pronounced Huddersfield bias, but since the origin of the Factory Movement and its main focus of activity was in and around the town, ( partly because of Richard Oastler’s residence in the area), this is entirely justified.  Fortunately this reviewer is one who reads the main contents of a book before turning to the foreword, otherwise the unabashed Creationism of the Rev Inderjit Bhogal may have led him to approach the work with some scepticism about its objectivity.  However, this fear is unfounded since the writers, while approaching the subject from different angles and ideological standpoints, all deal fairly with the material and a well rounded view of both Oastler and the movement emerges.

The link between the anti-slavery movement and Yorkshire politics is made by James Walvin in his chapter on William Wilberforce, outlining the abolition movement and its intervention in the 1807 Yorkshire County election.  Another link to Yorkshire Slavery could have been made here, since it was also in this election that the erosion of domestic manufacture and the opposition to the rise of the factory system first became an issue in the electoral arena – as Henry Lascelles, having antagonised the Leeds clothiers, found to his cost.

As the subtitle indicates there is an emphasis on the role of Richard Oastler.  John Hargreaves presents an overview of his life and work while Colin Dews focuses on the Methodist  influences on Oastler’s upbringing.  In the concluding chapter John Hargreaves returns to the contentious subject of where Oastler is to be located in the politics of his times.  He takes as his starting point the claim by biographer S A Weaver that Oastler was ‘Treading on the edge of revolution’ and proceeds to show that, while Oastler worked with ultra-Radicals, there was always clear Tory blue water between them.

However, Oastler’s Toryism has to be seen in its’ contemporary context, when ideologies and political alliances were often protean affairs. Oastler was clearly a traditionalist in his social and political views, believing in a place for everything and everything in its place, defined by the hierarchy of Altar, Throne and Cottage.  Despite this, his passion to preserve this idealised view of society led him to work with radicals who also wanted fundamental political reform, or even revolution, to achieve their own form of ideal society.  In some ways the social, if not the political, ideals of Oastler and the Radicals coincided, in that they both wanted an end to large scale capitalism and the preservation of domestic production, in which the economic rights of the labourer and small manufacturer would be secure.  Consequently Oastler was able to participate, and indeed take a lead, in the mass mobilisations and direct action which was part of the Radical tradition of struggle.  He was not adverse to joining a melee and wielding a shillelagh, as he did in the Wakefield election riots.  Nor was he, as John Hargreaves points out, intimidated by the authorities when he encountered a blatant injustice, leading him to challenge the magistrates and manufacturers of Blackburn by calling for sabotage of the machines of employers flouting the Factory Acts.

Richard Oastler statue, Bradford

Richard Oastler statue, Bradford (Photo credit: Neil T)

But without the radicals there would have been no factory movement and the chapter by John Halstead lifts the Huddersfield Short Time Committee from beneath Oastler’s shadow.  He traces the lives of the operatives and small tradesmen who comprised the committee and describes the ideological influences and political experiences in other working class and popular struggles which shaped their opposition to the factory system.  Edward Royle focuses on the battle of ideas surrounding the fight for the Ten Hour Act as reflected in the radical and bourgeois press.  Together these chapters go a long way towards showing that Oastler, and indeed the other paternalist advocates of the ten Hours Act, Sadler, Fielden, Wood et. al were  just as much products of the Factory Movement as leaders of it.

Such a leadership cult is examined by Jeanette Martin who describes Oastler’s ‘triumphant return’ to Huddersfield in 1844 after his release from debtor’s prison, an event which set the seal on his reputation as ‘The Factory King’.  However, this was in a very different context from the heady days of the Ten Hour agitation, the opposition to the New Poor Law and the election battles of the 1830’s.  Working class organisations and the resistance to the factory system were now in retreat.

There is perhaps one omission from the book – there is no account of the actual ‘Yorkshire Slaves’ themselves and of the conditions in the mills and factories.  However, the present reviewer is the least well placed to carp about this, since he was invited to contribute to the project , but, alas, oppressed by other commitments, failed to do so.

The book is beautifully produced, and though of a large format which makes it difficult to read in bed, ( another reflection of the reviewer’s indolence), well worth purchasing for the illustrations alone.  However, for anyone interested in local history, social movements or working class struggles, it is a book which, (despite the caveat about the foreword), demands to be read.

More on the book can be found at:

Richard Oastler and the
campaign against child labour
in the Industrial Revolution
Slavery in Yorkshire:
Edited by John A. Hargreaves
and E. A. Hilary Haigh
Foreword Inderjit Bhogal
Preface Timothy J. Thornton
Notes on Contributors
Chapter 1 John A. Hargreaves
Introduction: ‘Victims of slavery even on the threshold of our homes’
Richard Oastler and Yorkshire Slavery
Chapter 2 James Walvin
William Wilberforce, Yorkshire and the campaign to end transatlantic slavery
Chapter 4 John Halstead
The Huddersfield Short Time Committee and its radical associations
c. 1820-1876
Chapter 6 Janette L. Martin
‘Oastler is Welcome’: Richard Oastler’s triumphal return to Huddersfield, 1844
Chapter 7 John A. Hargreaves
‘Treading on the edge of revolution?’ Richard Oastler (1789-1861) a
Chapter 3 D. Colin Dews
Richard Oastler: the Methodist background, 1789-1820
Chapter 5 Edward Royle
Press and People: Oastler’s Yorkshire Slavery campaign in 1830-1832
Published by
University of Huddersfield Press
ISBN 978-1-86218-107-6
£20 (RRP £24)
If you would like to order
a copy please visit the
University of Huddersfield
Online Store at
Or complete the form below
CLS Admin Office, CS1/32 Queensgate, Huddersfield HD1 3DH
E-mail (optional): Number of copies: Tel: (01484) 473838

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