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Slavery in Yorkshire

'Richard Oastler and the campaign against child labour in the Industrial Revolution'

University of Huddersfield


IMAGE: This shows the editors of the book entitled "Slavery in Yorkshire; Richard Oastler and the campaign against child labour in the Industrial Revolution. " ISBN 978-1-86218-107-76 view more

Credit: University of Huddersfield

THE campaign to abolish the transatlantic slave trade, spearheaded by the MP William Wilberforce, was one of the most remarkable protest movements in British history. But it was followed by and inspired a campaign that sought the abolition of what it claimed was slavery on UK soil - the widespread use of child labour in the mills and factories spawned by Britain's Industrial Revolution.

According to a famous letter, published in a Yorkshire newspaper in 1830, the streets of industrial towns "are every morning wet by the tears of innocent victims of the accursed shrine of avarice, who are compelled not by the cart-whip of the negro slave driver but by the dread of the equally appalling thong or strap of the overlooker".

The letter, which was the catalyst for a long-running campaign, was written by Wilberforce's fellow Yorkshireman, Richard Oastler (1789 -1861), whose fight to limit the hours worked by adults and hence their children would cause him to be dubbed the 'Factory King'.

Now his legacy is examined in a new book published by the University of Huddersfield entitled Slavery in Yorkshire that contains contributions from six historians. One of the chapters deals with Wilberforce and the transatlantic slave trade, drawing parallels between this issue and that of child labour on British soil.

Entitled Slavery in Yorkshire; Richard Oastler and the campaign against child labour in the Industrial Revolution, the book is edited by Dr John A. Hargreaves and E.A. Hilary Haigh of the University of Huddersfield. The book is the outcome of a Heritage Lottery-funded Your Heritage project.

Oastler was a land agent at Fixby Hall, near Huddersfield, and it was there, in 1830 that he penned his famous Slavery in Yorkshire letter. It was published by the Leeds Mercury on 16 October. In it, Oastler hailed the campaign to abolished slavery, but then directed attention to what he called "scenes of misery, acts of oppression and victims of slavery, even on the threshold of our homes".

The letter launched what would be one of the most celebrated but often controversial campaigns of the nineteenth century, propelling Oastler to national fame and notoriety.

The new Slavery in Yorkshire book, which contains large numbers of illustrations, has seven chapters by six historians - Dr Hargreaves provides the scene-setting introduction and concludes with a major new assessment of Oastler and his impact.

The other historians who contribute are:

  • Professor James Walvin (University of York), on William Wilberforce, Yorkshire and the campaign to end transatlantic slavery
  • D. Colin Dews (Secretary of the Wesley Historical Society, Yorkshire) on Richard Oastler's Methodist background
  • Dr John Halstead (University of Sheffield) on the Huddersfield Short Time Committee and its radical associations between 1820 and 1876
  • Professor Edward Royle (University of York) on Oastler's Yorkshire slavery campaign in the early 1830s
  • Dr Janette Martin (University of Huddersfield), on Richard Oastler's triumphant return to Huddersfield in 1844, after he had served more than three years in jail for debt

The book is introduced by University of Huddersfield historian and Pro-Vice Chancellor Professor Tim Thornton and the foreword is from the Methodist minister Revd Dr Inderjit Bhogal OBE, who chaired the initiative Set All Free, which marked the bi-centenary of the act to abolish the transatlantic slave trade.


  • Slavery in Yorkshire: Richard Oastler and the campaign against child labour in the Industrial Revolution (rrp £24) is published by the University of Huddersfield Press - Queensgate, Huddersfield HD1 3DH ( ISBN 978-1-86218-107-76. The book is available at £20 from

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