Richard Oastler was born in St. Peter's Square, Leeds, on
20 December 1789. He was the son of Robert Oastler and one
of the daughters of Joseph Scurr of Leeds: Oastler was the
youngest of eight children born to the couple. Robert Oastler
originally was a linen merchant in Thirsk; he then moved to
Leeds and became steward of the Fixby estates in Huddersfield.
These were the property of the Thornhills of Riddlesworth
in Norfolk. Robert Oastler was disinherited by his father
for becoming a Methodist - Oastler was one of the earliest
followers of John Wesley, who frequently stayed at his house
when he visited Yorkshire.
Richard Oastler was educated at the Moravian school at Fulnek;
he wanted to become a barrister; but instead, he was articled
to the architect Charles Watson in Wakefield. Oastler was
a powerfully built man, over six feet tall, and had a commanding
presence. His voice was - according to Trollope - ‘stentorian
in its power and yet flexible, with a flow of language rapid
and abundant’. He suffered from a vision problem and was forced
to give up his career as an architect; instead, he became
a commission agent, and by sheer hard work, accumulated considerable
wealth. On 16 October 1816, Oastler married Mary Tatham of
Nottingham. She died at Headingley (Leeds) on 12 June 1845,
and was buried at Kirkstall. Oastler's two children by her,
Sarah and Robert, both died in infancy. After his wife's death
Oastler lived at South Hill Cottage, Guildford, Surrey.
Oastler's father died in July 1820 and Thomas Thornhill -
the absentee landowner - appointed him to the stewardship
at a salary of £300 a year. Oastler moved from Leeds to Fixby
Hall on 5 January 1821 and devoted himself to his new duties.
The estate contained at that time nearly one thousand tenants,
many of them occupying very small tenures.
Oastler was an Anglican, Tory,
and a protectionist,
who by the 1820s was well known in the West
Riding. Since 1807 he had been an advocate of the abolition
of slavery in the West Indies. He also supported Queen
Caroline and opposed Roman
Catholic emancipation. On 29 September 1830 John Wood
of Horton Hall, a Bradford manufacturer who had introduced
many reforms into his factory,
told Oastler of the evils of children's
employment in the Bradford district, and made Oastler
promise to work towards removing them. Oastler said that he
'had been on terms of intimacy and of friendship with many
factory masters, and ... all the while fancied that factories
were blessings to the poor’. On the same day as Wood spoke
to him about factory conditions, Oastler wrote a letter to
the Leeds Mercury called ‘Yorkshire
Slavery’ in which he described what he had been told.
Oastler's statements were met with denial and criticism from
the factory owners.
In a letter called ‘Slavery in Yorkshire’in the Leeds
Intelligencer on 20 October 1831, addressed ‘to the working
classes of the West Riding’, Oastler urged voters to use their
influence 'to prevent any man being returned who will not
distinctly and unequivocally pledge himself to support a “Ten-Hours-a-day
and a Time-book Bill."’ He also formed the ‘Fixby Hall Compact’
with the working men of Huddersfield, by which they agreed
to work together for the reduction of working hours. Oastler
was also in constant correspondence with Michael
Sadler, the parliamentary leader of the movement. The
introduction of Sadler's Factory Bill was followed by numerous
meetings at which Oastler advocated the claims of the children.
He was examined at length by the Select Committee on Sadler's
Bill. He was responsible for organising a meeting on 24 April
1832 when thousands of working people from the clothing districts
joined in a ‘pilgrimage of mercy' to York in favour of the
bill. His opponents nicknamed him ‘the factory king,’ a title
by which he soon became known throughout Lancashire and Yorkshire.
On 23 February 1833 Oastler addressed a meeting at the City
of London Tavern, convened by the London society for the improvement
of the factory children. This was the first meeting held in
London, and was the first under the parliamentary leadership
Ashley. After the defeat of Ashley's bill and the passing
of the mild government measure known as Lord
Oastler continued to write and speak in favour of a ten-hours
Thomson's bill to allow twelve year olds to be employed for
eight hours a day caused a fresh outburst of activity, during
which Oastler went from town to town addressing meetings.
On 15 September 1836 at the Blackburn meeting organised by
the short time committee, he accused the magistrates of refusing
to enforce the Factory Acts and threatened to teach the children
to ‘apply their grandmothers' old knitting-needles to the
spindles’ if the magistrates refused to listen to their complaints.
This provoked criticism so Oastler published a pamphlet, ‘The
Law and the Needle,’ in which he justified himself on the
grounds that if the magistrates refused to put the law into
execution for the protection of children, there was no remedy
but an appeal to force.
Meanwhile Oastler's views on the new Poor Law
were involving him in serious difficulties. He believed that
the powers with which parliament had invested the Poor Law
Commissioners for the
supply of the factory districts with labourers from the
agricultural counties would lead to a fall in wages and a
deterioration in conditions for the working classes. He objected
to the new
poor law on the grounds that it severed the connection
between ratepayers and their dependents, and undermined the
parochial system. Another of his objections to the new poor
law was that it would prove fatal to the interests of the
Church and the landed proprietors, and that the repeal
of the corn laws would inevitably follow its enactment.
He defined his Toryism to the Duke of
Wellington as ‘a place for everything, and everything
in its place.’ He hated ‘Liberal philosophy,’ and was bitterly
opposed to the Whig
manufacturers. When he resisted
the commissioners in Fixby, Frankland Lewis, on their
behalf, asked Thornhill to assist them in enforcing the law.
Until this time, Thornhill had regarded Oastler's public work
with approval and had introduced Oastler to several statesmen
including the Duke of Wellington, with whom Oastler carried
on a long correspondence. However, Thornhill would not support
Oastler's opposition to the poor-law commissioners and discharged
him on 28 May 1838.
Oastler moved to Brompton and was supported by the gifts
of anonymous friends in Lancashire and Yorkshire; however,
Oastler owed Thornhill £2,000 and Thornhill sued him to recover
it. The case was tried on 10 July 1840 in the Court of Common
Pleas before Lord Chief Justice Tindal. Judgment was given
against Oastler who was nable to pay the debt. On 9 December
1840 Oastler was sent to the Fleet (debtors') Prison where
he remained for more than three years.
Although he was in prison, it did not mean that Oastler was
not active. On 2 January 1841 he published the first of The
Fleet Papers: Letters to Thomas Thornhill Esquire of Riddlesworth
from Richard Oastler his prisoner in the Fleet. With occasional
Communications from Friends. The letters appeared weekly:
in them, Oastler pleaded the cause of the factory workers,
denounced the new poor law and defended the corn laws. The
publications were very important in influencing public opinion.
‘Oastler Committees’ were formed in Manchester and other places
to help him and ‘Oastler Festivals' were arranged by working
men - the proceeds of which were forwarded to him. In 1842
an ‘Oastler Liberation Fund’ was started and at the end of
1843 it amounted to £2,500. Some of Oastler's friends guaranteed
the remaining sum necessary for his release and in February
1844 he was freed. He made a public entry into Huddersfield
on 20 February. From then until 1847 he continued to agitate
for a ten-hours day but with the passing of Lord Ashley's
Hour Act his public career practically ended. He died
at Harrogate on 22 August 1861 and was buried in Kirkstall
churchyard. A stained-glass window was erected to his memory
in 1864 in St. Stephen's Church, Kirkstall.