The Reform of Victorian Factories

Industry in Britain boomed during the Victorian period. By 1851 there were more than 85,000 factories in Britain and many of the factory owners were becoming very wealthy indeed. In order to maximise their profits, some factory owners pushed their workforce to the limits, enforcing long working hours and employing children to carry out dangerous tasks for very low wages.

Click here to find out more about the conditions in Victorian factories.

Not all factory owners were like this, however. Some realised that workers carried out tasks better if they were happy and well looked after.

  • Robert Owen paid his mill workers fair wages and provided houses for them in New Lanark.
  • Sir Titus Salt founded Saltaire – a purpose built factory site with a modern mill and ample housing for his workers.
  • William Lever, an important businessman in the soap industry, set up Port Sunlight, another purpose built factory site, in Merseyside, and George Cadbury (the chocolate manufacturer), and son of John Cadbury, founded Bournville in Birmingham.

Unfortunately, not all factory bosses were so forward-thinking.

Parliament was forced to introduce numerous laws to change working conditions in the factories of Victorian Britain. These were known as the Factory Acts.

The Factory Acts

The numerous Factory Acts passed throughout the Victorian period gradually improved conditions for factory workers. They particularly focused on limiting the number of hours children were legally allowed to work.

  • Factory Acts of 1833, 1844 and 1847 made it illegal to employ children under the age of nine. They also stated that children under the age of 18 and women could not work more than 10 hours a day.
  • Many factory owners disagreed with the new laws and the laws were really hard to enforce. The limits only applied to women and child workers in mines and mills – men were still allowed to work for as many hours as their bosses demanded.
  • Reformers such as John Fielden and the Earl of Shaftesbury pushed to have the laws extended to all workers. In 1874 (when Benjamin Disraeli was Prime Minister) the 10-Hour Rule was applied to male workers and in 1878 the laws on working conditions were extended to all types of factories (and were no longer just applied to mills and mines).
  • In 1897 laws were put into place to allow workers to claim compensation for an injury they received at work.

What next? Visit our Victorians resources page.