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The State of British Manufactures

Karl Marx

London, Feb. 25, 1859

The factory inspectors of England, Scotland and Ireland, having issued their regular half-yearly reports, ending October 31, 1858, on their different districts, I send you my usual abstract of those most important industrial bulletins[a]. The joint report is this time condensed into a few lines, and states only that, with the single exception of Scotland, the encroachments of the manufacturers upon the legal time for the employment of young persons and women[168], and especially upon the time reserved for their meals, are rapidly increasing. They consequently feel it incumbent upon themselves to urge that these evasions of the law should be prevented by an amending act.

"The imperfections," they say, "in the Factory acts, which make it extremely difficult for the inspectors and sub-inspectors to detect and convict the offenders, and to fulfill the evident intentions of the Legislature in regard to the all-important subjects of limitation to the hours of work, and the securing of sufficient opportunities of rest and refreshment to the workers in the course of the day, render some alterations in the law necessary. If Parliament had imagined that such evasions could be resorted to, they would doubtless have been guarded against by adequate provisions."

Now, since I have conscientiously studied the stormy parliamentary debates from which the present factory laws emerged, the factory inspectors must allow me to dissent from their concluding passage, and to stick to the opinion that the factory laws were formed with the express purpose of allowing every possible facility for evasion and circumvention. The bitter antagonism between landlords and mill lords which gave birth to them, was still mitigated by the common spite the two ruling classes entertain for what they call "vulgar interests." At the same time, I willingly embrace the opportunity of paying my respects to those British factory inspectors, who, in the teeth of all-powerful class-interests, have taken up the protection of the down-trodden multitude with a moral courage, a steadfast energy, and an intellectual superiority of which there are not to be found many parallels in these times of mammon-worship.[b]

The first report proceeds from Mr. Leonard Horner[c], whose district comprises the industrial center of England, the whole of Lancashire, parts of Cheshire, Derbyshire, the West Riding of Yorkshire, the North Riding and the four northern counties of England. The factory laws being still the object of unmitigated opposition on the part of the manufacturers, and almost every year witnessing a parliamentary campaign in favor of their repeal, Mr. Horner starts with an apology for the legislation which exempted children and women from the absolute sway of the inexorable laws of Free Trade. The official economists pronounced the factory legislation to be contrary to all sound "principles," and certain to prove most injurious in its consequences to trade. In reply to the first objection, Mr. Horner states.

"As in all factories, there is a very large amount of fixed capital in buildings and machinery, the greater number of hours that machinery can be kept at work the greater will be the return; and, most assuredly, if that working could have been carried on without injury to human beings, there would have been no legislation to interfere with it. But when it was shown that, in order to derive a greater return upon the capital, children, young persons of both sexes, and women, were employed daily, and often in the night, for a length of time wholly inconsistent with their health, morals, education of the young, domestic comfort, and with any reasonable enjoyment of life, the clearest dictates of moral principles called upon the Legislature to put an end to so enormous an evil."

In other words, Mr. Horner propounds that, in the present state of society, a principle may appear "sound" on the part of the economist and the classes of which he is the theoretical mouth-piece, and may, nevertheless, not only prove contrary to all the laws of human conscience, but, like a cancer, eat into the very vitals of a whole generation. As to the alleged interference of the factory laws with the progress of industry, Mr. Horner opposes facts to declamation. In the return ordered by the House of Commons on the 19th of March, 1835, the numbers of mills, and the numbers of persons employed therein, were, in his present district, as follows:

 Factories.Persons emp'd.
Woolen and Worsted2208,738

In the return made to the House of Commons in February, 1857, the account stands thus:

 Factories.Persons emp'd.
Woolen and Worsted18118,909

From this tabular statement it appears, that in twenty-two years the number of cotton mills has nearly doubled, while the number of persons employed therein has more than doubled. In the woolen and worsted manufactories the considerable decrease of the number of mills simultaneous with an increase of more than two-fold in the persons employed therein, shows the concentration of capital and the extinction, to a great degree, of the smaller mills by the larger ones. The same process, although on a smaller scale, may be observed with regard to the flax mills. As to the silk mills, their number has been doubled, and the number of persons employed in them nearly so.

"But," as Mr. Horner remarks, "the increase in the actual number of mills is not the only measure of progression; for the great improvements that have been made in machinery of all kinds, have vastly increased their productive powers."

The important point is, that a stimulus to these improvements, especially as regards the greater speed of machines in a given time, was evidently given by the legal restrictions of the hours of work.

"These improvements," says Mr. Horner, "and the closer application which the operatives are enabled to give, have had the effect, as I have been again and again assured, of as much work being turned off in the shortened time as used to be in the longer hours."

It is principally in Mr. Horner's district that willful and deliberate violations of the enactments that restrict the hours of work, as well as those respecting the age of the workers and the attendance to school of children from eight to thirteen years, who by law are to work half-time only, have been on the increase since the recent improved state of trade. I quote from the report:

"The temptation of increased profits is yielded to by those mill-owners in whose code of morality disobedience to an act of Parliament is no crime, and who calculate that the amount of any fine they will have to pay, if found out, will form a very small proportion of the profit they make by disregarding the restrictions of the law."

To understand this trite complaint which we meet in all the successive reports, it must be first considered that, for the greater part, the magistrates consist of' manufacturers or their relations, that secondly the fines imposed by law are very small, and lastly, that young persons and women are only held to be employed "unless the contrary shall be proved". Now, as Mr. Horner states:

"Nothing is more easy for a fraudulent mill-owner than to preserve the contrary. He has only to stop his steam engine so soon as the Inspector appears, and then all work ceases, and in every information the Inspector must prove that the individual named in the complaint was found actually at work. So soon as the illegal working begins, and it takes place at six different periods of the day, the gross daily amount being made up of small installments, a watch is set to give notice of the approach of an Inspector, and immediately on his being seen, a signal is given to stop the engine and to turn the people out of the mill."

Convictions can, in fact, be obtained only by the Sub-Inspectors overcoming the repugnance natural to gentlemen to resort to measures akin to those of a detective police officer. The persons of the Inspector and his Sub-Inspectors becoming soon well known in their respective districts, they thereby cease to be able to detect those most skillful in breaking the law, and the only resource left to them is to call in their colleagues from neighboring districts who, being mistaken for foreign merchants coming to buy, may escape the notice of the scouts posted by the mill-owners on the different railway stations.

The following bulletin of the wounded and dead of the half-yearly industrial campaign in Mr. Horner's district, is sure to afford a curious theme to the students of military science who will see that the regular tributes of human limbs, hands, arms, bones, feet, heads and faces offered to modern industry exceed in dimension many battles thought most murderous.

Nature of Injury.Adults.Young Persons.Children.Total.
Causing death4-312-91
Amputation of right hand or arm2-1---3-
Amputation of left hand or arm2-111-41
Amputation of part of right hand8191414642837
Amputation of part of left hand1414812532729
Fracture of limbs and bones of trunk184104333111
Fracture of hand or foot26272319895755
Injuries to head and face11161213713030
Lacerations, contusions and other injuries not enumerated above146971221383335301270
Nature of Injury.Adults.Young Persons.Children.Total.
Causing death31----31
Injuries to head and face2-1---3-
Lacerations, contusions and other injuries not enumerated above3242-175

The second report, drawn up by Sir John Kincaid[d], extends over the whole of Scotland where, as he states, the laws which regulate the employment of women, young persons, and children, in factories, continue to be strictly observed. The same is not true in respect of the educational enactments, since it seems with Scotch manufacturers a pet device to obtain for their juvenile workers school certificates from shops put up for that purpose, but where the children do not attend at all, or if they attend, are unfit to gather any instruction. It may suffice to quote two cases. In 1858, Sir John Kincaid, accompanied by Mr. Campbell, the Sub-Inspector, attended two schools, from which children employed in some of the Glasgow Print Works are used to receive their certificates. I quote from the report:

"The first school was that of Mrs. Ann Killin, in Smith's Court, Bridgeton; there were no children in the school room when we called, and on asking Mrs. Killin to spell her name, she blundered by commencing with the letter C, but presently corrected herself and said it began with K. However, on looking at her signature in the children's school certificate books, I noticed that she did not always spell her name the same, while the character of the writing showed that she was quite incapable of teaching, and she admitted that she was incapable of keeping the register. The second school visited was that of William Logue, of Londressey street, Calton, whose certificates I also felt it my duty to annul. The school apartment was about fifteen feet long and ten feet wide, and within that space we counted seventy-five children, screaming something unintelligible at the top of their voices. I requested the schoolmaster to point some of the children out to me, and from the manner in which he surveyed the crowd, I saw that he had no knowledge whether or not any of them were present."

In fact, the educational clauses of the Factory acts, while they require children to have certificates of school attendance, do not require that they shall have learned anything.

In Scotland the accidents arising from machinery were 237, of which 58 happened to men, and 179 to females; while there were only 10 accidents not arising from machinery. There is an increase in the numbers who have suffered amputations, as well as those who have met with minor accidents; but the difference is accounted for by the greater number of hands employed during the last half year of 1858. There is only one fatal accident. According to the reports of the Sub-Inspectors of the Western Districts of Scotland, some cotton mills which stopped in 1857 have not yet resumed work, while the fancy printing trade has been dull throughout the year. The latest reports received by Sir John Kincaid of the Eastern Division state that at Dundee and Arbroath several mills are standing, owing to recent bankruptcies and other causes; and that in some others, which are professedly working full time, a good deal of the machinery is unemployed; that this state of matters is very much to be attributed to over-production, to the deficiency in the usual supplies of flax from the Baltic, and to the consequent high prices of the raw material. The number of persons usually employed in the mills was on the decrease, and, in fact, there was a movement among the flax spinners to reduce the working to forty-two hours per week while the depression continues. In the woolen districts, on the other hand, particularly in the manufacture of tweeds, a branch of trade which is every day increasing, there had been great activity at Hawick, Galashiels, Selkirk, &c.—every department being in full operation, except that of hand-loom weaving, which, from the increase in the number of power-looms, is gradually on the decline, and will soon altogether cease.

Sir John Kincaid gives the following tabular statement respecting the changes which have taken place in the chief branches of Scotch manufactures in the course of 20 years, between 1835 and 1857:

Cotton in all
its branches.

A notice of the two other reports I delay for another letter especially as the report of Mr. Robert Baker contains matters of interest to industrialists everywhere.

Written on February 25, 1859
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5584, March 15, 1859;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1441, March 18, 1859
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] Reports of the Inspectors of Factories to Her Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for the Home Department for the Half Year ending 31st October 1858.—Ed.

[b] Th. Carlyle, Past and Present, Book III, Chapter 2.—Ed.

[c] "Report of Leonard Horner, Inspector of Factories, for the Half Year ended the 31st October 1858."—Ed.

[d] "Report of Sir John Kincaid, Inspector of Factories, for the Half Year ending the 31st October 1858."—Ed.

[168] The reference is to the Act to Regulate the Labour of Children and Young Persons in the Mills and Factories of the United Kingdom (1833) and the Act to Amend the Laws Relating to Labour in Factories (1844) on the employment of children, juveniles and women in the English textile industry.

Under the 1833 law the working day for children from nine to thirteen years of age was nine hours (48-hour week). Juveniles from fourteen to eighteen worked twelve hours a day (69-hour week). Children from nine to thirteen years of age had to attend school (two hours a day).

The 1844 law forbade the employment of children under eight years of age and introduced for children from eight to thirteen years a half-shift work (six and a half hours a day). It restricted for the first time the working day for women: it was the same as for juveniles under the 1833 law.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.190-196), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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