"A Question of Principle or Degree"

British Parliamentary approaches to factory legislation in the 1830s and 1840s


  • Alexander Throndson Mount Royal University




The debate over a ten-hour work day was the key issue of British labour legislation in the 1830s and 1840s, culminating in the so-called “Ten Hours’ Bill” of 1847, which was later amended by a stricter act in 1850. Proposals emerged as early as 1831, but disagreement proceeded over the issues of how many hours to permit and whether regulation was needed at all. Furthermore, the factory acts of this period were plagued by loopholes, and enforcement struggled due to a lack of resources. Legislation for a ten-hour work day was beset by compromise, and although it was popular among Parliamentary paternalists, even they would compromise when faced with the intense pressure of opposing MPs, many of whom had direct connections to manufacturing industries. Despite frequent petitions and the agitation of political societies outside of Parliament, a true ten hours’ bill was never fully implemented. Parliament successfully passed multiple factory regulations in this period, but the questions surrounding reform remained unresolved.