Richard Oastler (20 December 1789 - 22 August 1861) was an English labour reformer, "Tory radical", and abolitionist. He fought for the rights of working children in the Factory Act of 1847, and was also a prominent leader of the Factory reform and anti-Poor Law movement.
Born in Leeds, West Yorkshire, Oastler was the youngest of ten children born to a linen merchant Robert Oastler and his mother was a daughter of Joseph Scurr. Richard later became steward for Thomas Thornhill, the absentee landlord of Fixby, a large estate near Huddersfield. Richard Oastler attended a Moravian boarding school from 1798 to 1810, and then started training to become a barrister before his failing sight compelled a change of career, becoming a commission agent. In 1820, upon his father's death, he succeeded him as steward of the Thornhill estates, moving to Fixby Hall in 1821.
In 1830 Oastler met John Wood, a worsted manufacturer from Bradford who agonised over the need to employ children in his factory. Already an abolitionist, Oastler, after a lengthy meeting with Wood, decided to join the struggle for factory legislation, and wrote a letter on the subject of "Yorkshire Slavery" to the Leeds Mercury newspaper.
- "It is the pride of Britain that a slave cannot exist on her soil. ... Let truth speak out, appalling as the statement may appear. The fact is true. Thousands of our fellow-creatures and fellow-subjects, both male and female, the miserable inhabitants of a Yorkshire town, (Yorkshire now represented in Parliament by the giant of anti-slavery principles) are this very moment existing in a state of slavery, more horrid than are the victims of that hellish system 'colonial' slavery." "
From this time forward, Oastler dedicated himself to the battle of what was now known as the 10-Hour Movement, and to campaigning for Poor Law reform.
By 1836 Oastler was urging workers to use strikes and sabotage. This proved his downfall. Thornhill, hearing of his speeches, sacked him as his steward in May 1838 and called in unpaid debts. Oastler was unable to pay up and was jailed for debt on 9 December 1840.
It took his friends and supporters more than three years to raise the money necessary to pay the so-called Factory King's debt. 'Oastler Committees' were formed in Manchester and other places to assist him, and 'Oastler Festivals' - the proceeds of which were forwarded to him - were arranged by working men. In 1842 an 'Oastler Liberation Fund' was started, and by the end of 1843 the fund amounted to £2,500. Some of Oastler's friends guaranteed the remaining sum needed to gain his release, and in February 1844 he emerged from the Fleet Prison.
Having maintained his campaigning activity while in prison by publishing weekly Fleet Papers devoted to the discussion of factory and poor-law questions, Oastler continued his work and achieved some sort of success when the 1847 Factory Act restricted children to a 10-hour day in cotton mills. But it was not until six years after his death in 1861 that the act was widened to encompass children working in all factories.
His later years involved editing a weekly newspaper called The Home, which he commenced on 3 May 1851, and discontinued in June 1855. He died in Harrogate in 1861 and was buried in the churchyard of Kirsktall St. Stephens Parish Church in Leeds.
A statue currently situated in Northgate, Bradford stands as a memorial to Richard Oastler. Showing Oastler with two small children, it was the result of a national subscription; with most of the donations coming from Bradford, and given Oastler's close association with Yorkshire, Bradford was considered the most suitable site. The figures, sculpted by John Birnie Philip, were cast from three tons of bronze and cost £1,500. Significantly, the Earl of Shaftesbury, one of the great reformers for better conditions for children unveiled the statue, in 1869.
- Driver, pp. 25-35
- September 29: Richard Oastler; Christian History Institute
- Bradford Sculpture Trail - Art - Richard Oastler
- Driver, Cecil (1946), Tory Radical: The Life of Richard Oastler Oxford University Press