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.

Victorian Factories and the Machines of Industry: Facts and Information

From the mid-18th century industrial machines were being developed, changing the way in which goods were manufactured. Factories, built to house the machinery, dominated Britain’s urban areas and were the workplace of many. Here are some facts about the factories of Victorian Britain.

  • Factory towns, such as Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Birmingham, Middlesbrough and Bradford (to name just a few), were dirty and overcrowded. Smoke from the chimneys of the factories used to coat the walls of the houses and make the streets grimy. The industrial areas around Wolverhampton became so covered in grime that it became known as the Black Country.
  • However, the industrial machinery and the development of the factory did bring wealth to the country. During the the reign of Queen Victoria, Britain’s exports went up dramatically and many businessmen made a lot of money.
  • One of the most valuable exports was cotton cloth. This was mainly manufactured in Lancashire and in parts of Scotland. It is estimated that the cotton industry alone provided jobs for more than 1 million people in the 1850s.
  • Some of the Victorian factories were incredibly large and employed more than 500 people.
Cotton Mill
A cotton mill.

Conditions in Victorian Factories

  • Life was very hard for workers in most Victorian factories. The working day lasted for twelve hours or more and Sunday was the only full day off. Some factories did allow the workers to go home early on Saturdays.
  • The machines were very loud and they thundered relentlessly all day long.
  • The workers had to move quickly to keep up with the machinery. Workers could be fined or sacked for falling behind.
  • In cotton mills, dust from the yarn covered the workers and got in their throats. In order to make sure that the cotton was kept strong, factory owners kept their mills warm and damp. This meant that the workers often suffered with lung and chest infections.
  • In 1851, more than 500,000 of Britain’s children were working – and many of these were working in factories. Factory owners often paid children a small fraction of the wages they paid to grown men and women.
  • Children, sometimes as young as six, carried out dangerous tasks, such as clearing blockages on spinning frames in mills.
  • Children in factories were often beaten when they made mistakes or worked too slowly.
  • Many workers were killed or injured by the machines they worked with. The didn’t have any safety features and they were slow to stop if a worker got caught up in them.
  • Many factory workers lived in overcrowded, poor quality housing. Built near to the factories themselves, these houses were dirty and they often didn’t have proper drains or separate areas in which to prepare food.
  • Diseases spread quickly through the populations of Britain’s factory towns. Many children died from measles and typhoid.

Conditions in factories did improve during the Victorian period. Click here to learn more about the factory reforms (coming soon!).

Discover more Victorian facts by taking a look at the Primary Facts Victorian resources page.