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Picture of William Blake, poet, artist, and publisher; nineteenth century British Literature / English Literature and poetry

August 29, 1833
Charles Dickens, William Blake, Frances Trollope
Blake, Dickens, Trollope & The Factory Act
by Steve King

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On this day in 1833, the Mills and Factory Act was passed in England. This was one of a series of Acts passed in the 19th century to improve the "Health and Morals" of child laborers, but it was the first effective legislation in that it empowered national inspectors with unlimited, unannounced entry to the factories. The improved regulations -- no one under 9 employed, a 48-hour week for children aged 9-12, a 68-hour week for teenagers, some minimum provisions for education and health, etc. -- were largely the result of testimony given by young workers to a Parliamentary committee investigating violations of earlier Acts.

By this time, the literary testimony to such abuse had been going on for some time, as in William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper," published in 1789:
    When my mother died I was very young,
    And my father sold me while yet my tongue,
    Could scarcely cry weep weep weep weep.
    So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep....
Blake would spend his last years living in two rooms off the Strand, from which he had a glimpse of the Thames ("like a bar of gold") through alleyways which a young Charles Dickens then walked, on the way to his hated job as a label-paster at Warren's Blacking Factory nearby. In David Copperfield (1849), Warren's became Murdstone and Grinby, a place of grey rats, black windows, long hours and starving children too fearful and poor to speak up.

The first industrial novel was Michael Armstrong: Factory Boy by Frances Trollope, mother of Anthony (and several other children who became writers). The competition for the reform theme was vigorous, and when Mrs. Trollope's publisher tried to attach her book to Dickens's reputation through some creative advertising, Dickens the rival author won out over Dickens the fellow crusader: "I will express no further opinion of Mrs Trollope, than that I think Mr Trollope must have been an old dog and chosen his wife from the same species." Reviewers were more annoyed by her polemics, putting the novel in the Luddite-Chartist basket and, as it was first published serially in magazines available to the working class, regarding it as the reckless equivalent to "scattering firebrands among the people." Some thought Trollope should be given a prison term; others voiced the more traditional censure, one reviewer telling her that she'd be better occupied "at home in the flower garden and by the domestic hearth" than at politics and novel-writing.

Her book is based on various contemporary documents, primarily the memoirs of Robert Blincoe. He was a workhouse orphan from the age of four, and for a brief while one of Blake's chimney boys. At age seven, he and eighty other boys and girls were taken from the workhouse to work in a Nottingham mill, a fourteen-year "apprenticeship" in the trade of making stockings and lace. Blincoe was one of those who testified before the Parliamentary commissions which were behind the Factory Acts:
    I have seen the time when two weights have each been screwed to my ears. Then three or four of us have been hung on a beam over the machinery, hanging by our hands. Mind, we were apprentices without a mother or father to take care of us. Then we used to stand up, in a skip, without our shirts, and be beat with straps. Then they used to tie up a 28-pound weight to hang down our backs.

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Related authors:  E. M. Forster, Edmund Burke, Honore de Balzac, Jeremy Bentham, Wilkie Collins, William Blake, Charles Dickens, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Anthony Trollope
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