Birmingham Women and the Factory Acts

Published: Posted on

By Tawnni Castano de la Cuesta

Introduction: Factory Acts & Women in Birmingham

Birmingham, ‘The City of a Thousand Trades’, was one of the world’s first and largest industrial cities in the 19th century. Birmingham was a leading metal manufacturer, but it also manufactured jewellery, buttons, pens, guns, and toys. Despite being a large industrial city, most manufacturing took place in workshops rather than factories. At the time, Birmingham also had the fastest population growth rate – the population grew from 74,000 in 1800 to 1,063,000 in 1948. Despite being a thriving industrial city, Birmingham, like most other cities during the industrial revolution, experienced widespread poverty. Children, women, and men worked long hours in dangerous conditions to provide for their family.

This is what led to the creation of the Factory Acts. The Acts aimed to reduce and regulate working hours as well as to improve working conditions. The Factory Act 1844 was the first Act to reduce women’s working hours. This Act targeted mills and textile factories only, most likely because these were the factories that mainly employed women and children. In the Birmingham context, however, this Act and all subsequent Acts up to 1867 were not applicable to the majority of Birmingham women as Birmingham mainly operated through workshops, to which these Acts did not apply. Moreover, textile factories were not common in Birmingham. It was only in the Factory Act Extension Act 1867 that the restrictions on working hours were extended to workshops. It was from this year onwards that the majority of women in Birmingham were affected by these regulations. Women were now only allowed to work between the hours of 6 AM and 6 PM, or 7 AM and 7 PM for 10 ½ hours maximum per day.

Factory Acts: Rationale

Evidently, the reduction in working hours posed issues for many working women, who relied on the long hours to make ends meet. The Parliamentary debates of the Factory Bill 1844, which form the basis for all other Acts, thus gives a useful perspective.

Lord Ashley, in favour of reducing the working hours of women and young children to 10, was at the forefront of the 1844 Factory Act. As a well-known social and industrial reformer, he was worried about the “influence on the delicate constitutions and tender forms of the female sex.” He reiterated that harsh labour endangered motherhood. Lord Ashley was also concerned with the domestic duties of women: “the woman as wife or mother, how can she accomplish any portion of her calling? And if she cannot do that which Providence has assigned her, what must be the effect on the whole surface of society?” He claimed that many of these working women had indecent behaviour and did not know how to perform domestic duties. He therefore believed that the law had to protect women by reducing their working hours for the sake of “the health of the females; the care of their families; their conjugal and parental duties; the comfort of their homes; the decency of their lives; the rights of their husbands; the peace of society; and the laws of God.”

Lord Ashley’s perspective of women as fragile and as caretakers of the family coincides with the national discourse of the ideal Victorian woman. During the Victorian era, women were expected to conform to the cult of domesticity by being delicate, pious, domestic, submissive, docile, dependent, and self-sacrificing. They were associated with the private life and had no place in the public life as workers. Indeed, this was often the case for middle- and upper-class women, but the working-class women faced a different reality. For these women, their socio-economic situation made it impossible to conform to the Victorian ideals, which is an aspect Lord Ashley missed.

Lord Ashley received much criticism, as he did not acknowledge the socio-economic consequences of his proposal. MPs such as John Bright stated that his proposal was oppressive and denied the working class the opportunity to work themselves up. Others believed the reduction of hours to be ruinous to the working class’ interests and to do more harm than good. Other MPs were more worried about the international consequences of the bill. Restricting labour meant less produce, hence endangering England’s economic position internationally as it competed with the European continent.

This Parliamentary debate did not offer, much less consider, the perspectives and situations of the very women to which this bill applied. Instead, it seemed that Parliament was more concerned about morality and economic interests. It should be noted that capitalism was booming during the 19th century, and many MPs at the time owned factories. Therefore, the MPs’ competing interests – of the Victorian ideals on the one hand, and liberalism, capitalism and England’s international trade position on the other – significantly affected the development of the Factory Acts.

Factory Acts: Development

Despite Lord Ashley’s adamant position to significantly reduce women’s working hours, Parliament decided in the Factory Act 1844 that a reduction to 12 hours per day was sufficient. Where Lord Ashley succeeded was in the health and safety regulations – this Act made several safety regulations mandatory, such as guarding the machinery with fences, factories needing to be cleaned with lime, and mill-gears not to be cleaned whilst in motion. The Factory Act 1844 was therefore one of the first health and safety laws created.

In 1847, Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, a Tory who had opposed the 10-hour restriction, fell from power. John Russell, a Whig, succeeded him as Prime Minister and gave Lord Ashley the support he needed in Parliament. Hence, unsurprisingly, the subsequent Factory Act 1847 was enacted to amend the working hours of women from 12 to 10 hours. A tug-of-war scenario ensued – as the ruling power changed in Parliament, so did the working hours of women. For instance, the following Factory Act 1850 increased women’s working hours to 10 ½ hours. Additionally, it stated that women and young persons could only work between the hours of 6 AM and 6 PM or 7 AM and 7 PM, thus ensuring that they would not work at night. The Factory Act 1853 did not change the working hours for women, but further restricted the working hours of children, thus limiting them to the same hours as women.

Another development, albeit a slower one, was the inclusion of more health and safety regulations. The Factory Acts Extension Act 1864 expanded the previous regulations to six new industries. This Act also included extra health and safety provisions, specifically regarding the cleaning and ventilation of factories. Three years later, the Factory Acts Extension Act 1867 and the Workshops Regulation Acts 1867 extended previous regulations to all other factories and workshops. Lastly, the Factory Act 1878 brought all previous Acts together and restricted women to 56 hours maximum per week.

Present Day Regulations

Repealed by the Employment Act 1989, restrictions on women’s working hours are no longer possible today. In fact, this is now perceived as discriminatory, and violates article 14 of the Human Rights Act 1998. This is not to say that there are no longer restrictions on working hours – the European Union’s Working Time Directive (2003/88/EC) restricts working hours to 48 hours on average per week – but rather that restrictions are not targeted solely on women. The EU directive applies to every EU national, regardless of sex. Moreover, there are now ‘safety nets’ provided by the government and civil society, which means that people are not in as dire a situation as they were in the 19th century to make ends meet. Additionally, there are significantly more and stricter regulations today regarding working conditions to protect labourers. The Factory Act 1961 established extensive health and safety regulations for Factory workers, a significant improvement from the previous Acts.

Lessons Learned

This essay exemplifies how the law often operates under the pretence of protecting its citizens, hence taking a paternalistic approach. It also demonstrates that the law can be used by the ruling class to enforce certain gender roles in accordance with its ideals and interests. In the case of the Factory Acts and women in Birmingham, the law was meant to protect women from long and harsh labour. In reality, however, the law was created without consulting the very people it was being applied to, which resulted in a mismatch – what the law provided was not necessarily what the women needed at the time. Instead, the law entrenched paternalistic views and expectations of women, backed by the rulers’ own interests.

The working hours’ restriction during this time was not only intensifying the women’s struggle to financially support their families, but increased their hardship in other ways. By reducing women’s hours, employers were less likely to hire women. It was also argued that opportunities for better wages would be jeopardised, further harming women’s socio-economic position. Lord Ashley also overlooked the situation of non-stereotypical families, such as widows with young children. Restricting the hours of women in these positions surely had disastrous consequences.

Moreover, the tug-of-war scenario regarding women’s working hours confirms that the dominant ruling class significantly affect the law, tailoring it to their interests. This means that elite men, who were often behind law creation, were the ones organising and shaping society. The topic of the Birmingham women and the Factory Acts therefore supports the idea of hegemonic masculinity – values of ruling elite men include and exclude people, which organises society in gender unequal ways. When these values find their way into law, they may be used to enforce certain gender roles. In the case of Birmingham women in the 19th century, this meant they had to conform to the cult of domesticity as they were pushed more into the private life and were increasingly excluded from the public life.

Despite all the negative consequences discussed above, the Factory Acts signified a change in times, that is, that society was moving in the direction of a welfare state. It was argued that the restrictions of women’s working hours and the significant increase in health and safety regulations improved women’s bargaining power and provided more personal freedom under the capitalist system. Indeed, women’s position in society continues to improve to this day – much progress has been made in terms of labour regulations, but also in the way women are valued.

Further Reading:

  • Alexander S, “Women, Class and Sexual Differences in the 1830s and 1840s: Some Reflections on the Writing of a Feminist History” (1984) History Workshop  17
  • Burnette J, “Barriers to women’s employment” in Gender, Work and Wages in Industrial Revolution Britain (Cambridge UP 2008)
  • Cott N, The Bonds of Womanhood New Haven (Yale UP 1977)
  • Dick M, “The First Manufacturing Town: Industry in Birmingham in the mid-19th Century, The New Illustrated Directory, 1858” (West Midlands History, 2017) <> accessed 23 October 2017
  • O’Higgins P, “Factory Legislation” (1968) 11 New Society
  • Taylor D, “To the Bull Ring! Politics, Protest and Policing in Birmingham during the Early Chartist Period” (unpublished dissertation 2014)
  • Webb B, “The History of Trade Unionism” in Women and the Factory Acts (The Fabian Society 1896
  • Wise M, “Some Factors Influencing the Growth in Birmingham” (1948) 33 Journal of the Geographical Association 4
  • World Heritage Encyclopedia “Factory Act 1847” 2017 <> accessed 25 October 2017