Richard Oastler


Richard Oastler was born in St Peter’s Square, Leeds, on 20 December 1789. He was the son of Robert Oastler and one of the daughters of Joseph Scurr of Leeds. Oastler was the youngest of eight children born to the couple. Robert Oastler became steward of the Fixby estates in Huddersfield. These were the property of the Thornhills of Riddlesworth in Norfolk.

Richard Oastler was educated at Fulneck School. He became a commission agent, and by sheer hard work, accumulated considerable wealth. On 16 October 1816, Oastler married Mary Tatham. She died at Headingley (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’s father died in July 1820 and Thomas Thornhill –  the absentee landowner – appointed him to the stewardship at a salary of £300 a year. The estate contained at that time nearly one thousand tenants, many of  them occupying very small tenures. Oastler was an Anglican, Tory, and a protectionist,  who by the 1820s was well known in the West Riding. Since 1807 he had been an advocate of the abolition of slavery in the West Indies.

On 29 September 1830 John Wood of Horton Hall, a Bradford manufacturer who had introduced many reforms into his factory, told Oastler of the evils of children’s employment in the Bradford district, and made Oastler promise to work towards removing them. Oastler said that he ‘had been on terms of intimacy and of friendship with many factory masters, and… all the while fancied that  factories were blessings to the poor’. On the same day as Wood spoke to him about factory conditions, Oastler wrote a letter to the Leeds Mercury called ‘Yorkshire Slavery’ in which he described what he had been told. Oastler’s statements were met with denial and criticism from the factory owners.

In a letter called ‘Slavery in Yorkshire’ in the Leeds Intelligencer on 20 October 1831, addressed ‘to the working classes of the West Riding’, Oastler urged voters to use their influence ‘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.”’ The introduction of Sadler’s Factory Bill 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 was responsible for organising a meeting on 24  April 1832 when thousands of working people from the clothing districts joined in a ‘pilgrimage of mercy’ to York in favour of the bill. His opponents nicknamed him ‘the factory king,’ a title by which he soon became known throughout Lancashire and Yorkshire.

On 23 February 1833 Oastler addressed a 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, and was the first under the parliamentary leadership of Lord Ashley. After the defeat of Ashley’s bill and the passing of the mild government measure known as Lord Althorp’s Act, Oastler continued to write and speak in favour of a ten-hours day.

Thomson’s bill to allow twelve year olds to be employed for eight hours a day caused a fresh outburst of activity, during which Oastler went from town to town addressing meetings. On 15 September 1836 at the Blackburn meeting organised by the short time committee, he accused the magistrates of refusing to enforce the Factory Acts and threatened to teach the children to ‘apply their grandmothers’ old knitting-needles to the spindles’ if the magistrates refused to listen to their  complaints.

Meanwhile Oastler’s views on the new Poor Law 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 a fall in wages and a deterioration in conditions for the working classes. Another of his objections to the new poor law was that it would prove fatal to the interests of the Church and the landed proprietors, and that the repeal of the corn laws would inevitably follow its enactment. Thornhill had regarded  Oastler’s public work with approval and had introduced Oastler to several statesmen including the Duke of Wellington, with whom Oastler carried on a long correspondence. However, Thornhill would not support Oastler’s opposition to the poor-law commissioners and discharged him on 28 May 1838.

Oastler moved to Brompton and was supported by the gifts of anonymous friends in Lancashire and Yorkshire; however, Oastler owed Thornhill £2,000 and Thornhill sued him to recover it. The case was tried on 10 July 1840, judgment was given against Oastler who was unable to pay the debt. On 9 December 1840 Oastler was sent to the Fleet (debtors’)  Prison where he remained for more than three years.

Although he was in prison, it did not mean that Oastler was not active. On 2 January 1841 he published the first of The Fleet Papers: Letters to Thomas Thornhill Esquire of Riddlesworth from Richard Oastler his prisoner in the Fleet. With occasional Communications from Friends. The letters appeared weekly: in them, Oastler pleaded the cause of the factory workers, denounced the new poor law and defended the corn laws. The publications were very important in influencing public opinion. ‘Oastler Committees’ were formed in Manchester and other places to help him and ‘Oastler Festivals’ were arranged by working men – the proceeds of which were forwarded to him.

In 1842 an ‘Oastler Liberation Fund’ was started and at the end of 1843 it amounted to £2,500. Some of Oastler’s friends guaranteed the remaining sum necessary for his release and in February 1844 he was freed. He made a public entry into Huddersfield on 20  February. From then until 1847 he continued to agitate for a ten-hours day but with the passing of Lord Ashley’s Ten Hour Act his public career practically ended. He died at Harrogate on 22 August 1861 and was buried in Kirkstall churchyard. A stained-glass window was erected to his memory in 1864 in St. Stephen’s Church, Kirkstall.

This information is from the website  of Dr Marjory Bloy and is used with permission

From the Fulneck School Archives:

‘Richard Oastler had been a frequent visitor here (to Fulneck) during the last fifty years: and having accidentally arrived on this day we were glad to have him in our midst. It was a most affecting sight  to behold him now, grey haired and stooping with age bear witness with deep emotion to the reality of those truths which he had imbibed whilst a pupil here. The religious training then enjoyed had, he said, often supplied him with means of support amid the conflicts of life.’

Extract  from ‘Celebration of the Centenary Jubilee of the Congregation of the United  Brethren’, JP Libby, p89 (this would probably be 1848)