Different kinds of productiveness required different hours and conditions of production. In some trades business came with an almost overwhelming rush at one period of the year, and was slack and short at another; how, it was asked, can you find any legislative rule which could apply with equal fairness to such labour and to the labour which went on steadily day after clay throughout the year? In some trades the assistance of the women and children might be restricted without any serious delay of the labour of the adult men; in others, if the women and children were made to stop off the easy work which gave assistance to the whole production, the grown men would be compelled to let their work too come to a stand-still. How is it possible, it was asked, to get any Act of Parliament which can deal fairly with such diversified conditions of labour ? and what can Parliament do if it tries its bungling hand at intervention, but make the condition of things infinitely worse than it was, until another Act of Parliament has to be passed to abolish by the common consent of everybody the misdirected and pernicious legislation which Lord Ashley and his philanthropic friends were striving to force upon the State ? Lord Ashley and his philanthropic friends won the day nevertheless, and an Act was passed in 1833 limiting the work of children to eight hours a day, and that of young persons under eighteen to sixty-nine hours a week.
Lord Ashley persevered in the policy which, under his guidance, had proved so successful. At a later period he succeeded in obtaining the appointment of a Commission to inquire into the conditions and the results of the employment of women and girls in mines. The evidence taken before the Commission disclosed a state of things which shocked and startled even the most languid minds, and proved capable of bearing down all opposition in the end. The evidence brought out before the Commission revealed the fact that in several of the coal-mines, for instance, women were employed literally as beasts of burden. The seams of coal were often too narrow to allow any grown person to stand upright, and the women had to creep on their hands and knees, crawling backwards and forwards for fourteen or even sixteen hours a day. But they had not merely to crawl backwards and forwards, they had also to drag after them the trucks laden with coal. The trucks and the women were harnessed together after the simplest and rudest fashion - the usual plan was to make fast each truck to a chain which passed between the legs of the woman engaged in drawing it, and the chain was then attached to a belt which was strapped round her naked waist. The women who worked in these mines usually wore no clothing but an old pair of trousers made of the roughest sackcloth; the)' wore, in fact, the same sort of costume as the men, and the chief difference in their condition was that they were put to a lower and more degrading kind of work than that which was allotted to their male companions. These women were, indeed, literally unsexed; and not by any means merely in that metaphorical sense in which the word is sometimes now employed by the opponents of an agitation for woman's suffrage. It would be needless to attempt to describe the physical and moral evils which were necessarily produced by such a system.
Lord Ashley pressed on his movement, and it required some courage on the part of any Anti-reformer to stand up against it. Finally he succeeded in obtaining an Act of Parliament which prohibited forever the employment of women or girls underground in the mines. The Act also declared that children under ten years of age were not to be employed in the mines at all; and the work of the children above ten years was limited and regulated. A number of Government officials were entrusted with the task of seeing that the provisions of the new Acts were properly carried into force. It may now be safely affirmed that the regulations for the employment of women and children in mines have worked with the most satisfactory results. Lord Ashley was not indeed the actual pioneer of the movement which he carried to such great success; many benevolent and enlightened men had worked before him for the same purpose and with the same high motives. But it is fairly to be said that Lord Ashley was the first man who forced the movement on the attention of Parliament, who directed the intelligence and the sympathies of the public in the right way, and who won the first lasting triumphs for the great cause of which he was so unselfish and persevering a champion. Since that time Parliament has been going farther and farther in the same direction. It has put forth its hand to regulate the hours and conditions of labour in workshops; it has interfered to secure for the workman some compensation for injuries caused by accidents amongst the machinery, where he was not himself by negligence or otherwise responsible for the harm he had suffered; it has asserted over and over again its right to interfere between employer and workman, where the workman is placed at an evident disadvantage by conditions over which he has personally no control; it will no doubt intervene, sooner or later, on behalf of the children who work in the fields, as it has interfered on behalf of the children who work in the factories; indeed, it may be taken for granted that Parliament will go on for a long time to come extending the application of the principle adopted in 1833 with regard to the hours and conditions of labour.
It has been well observed that the course of legislation with regard to the labour of working men and working women has already passed through three distinct stages. The first stage was that during which no person not directly concerned troubled himself about the conditions of labour at all. The employer, it was commonly assumed, knew better than anybody else how to deal with those who worked for him, and even his own selfish interests, it was complacently argued, would have prevented any employer from overtaxing his workers too much; the man who harassed his work-people beyond their strength would never, it was contended, be able to get work enough out of them, and so, for their own sakes at least, the masters would deal tenderly with the man or the woman or the child. No doubt all this was true of many intelligent employers; and no doubt it was true also that a large proportion of the employers were men too humane and too kindly to exact over-work from those whom they employed. But with the competition that exists in all manufacturing communities, it is tolerably certain that the work standard of the exacting employers will become something like the common standard of the whole body. A sort of class public opinion; a sort of false conscience, is apt to be generated even among the kindliest of men who are rivals in the same work, where no check is imposed by the world outside. No check of any kind was employed in England before the agitation began which Lord Ashley conducted to success. Then there came a second stage, during which many an enlightened man endeavoured to set it up as a sort of scientific principle, that freedom of contract, and the higher forces of political economy, would manage everything for the best; and that legislation would only make things infinitely worse by its unskilled efforts to interfere between capital and labour. Then there followed the third stage or period, during which it has come to be accepted that it is the right and the duty of every representative Parliament to intervene, wherever intervention is necessary, for the physical and moral protection of its citizens against evils which are not by any means a necessary part of the growth of civilisation.