On this day … 14 February 1877

The Preston Guardian reported the death of John Owen Parr, the vicar of Preston. It was a death that presented his obituarists and the town’s historians with a problem: how to handle his scandalous third marriage to a servant in his household, who he continued to pass off as a servant in the vicarage, while calling himself a widower.

The answer for Preston’s historians was to pretend the marriage never existed, and to portray Parr as twice-married, even though the third wife, to whom he was married for nineteen years, was still alive while they were penning their histories.

There was much else that was unattractive about the life and career of John Owen Parr, but one aspect that can be singled out for praise is his fierce opposition to the cripplingly long hours that workers were forced to endure in the town’s cotton mills and the devastating impact that had on family life for the working class.

Two Preston mill images dated 1834 and a Vanity Fair caricature of the Earl of Shaftesbury

One of the great Radical causes at this period was the ‘Ten Hours’ campaign, which sought to cut the time worked by women and children in the mills by two hours. One of the principal proponents of the reform was the social reformer Lord Ashley, shortly to become the earl of Shaftesbury, who was invited to Preston to address a packed public meeting in the town’s theatre at the beginning of 1846. The meeting was chaired by Parr and the audience was composed mainly of factory hands, but ‘with a fair sprinkling of master manufacturers and gentlemen’.

Parr himself addressed the meeting, speaking eloquently and at length in support of the measure, arguing that it ‘is the last two hours of the day which kills’. In fact, he went further, extending his arguments to include a robust condemnation of the evils of mill work, not only for women and children but for all factory hands. He said he recognised that the measure would result in some reduction in wages and profits, but that he was not basing his support on economic grounds, rather he argued that:

… the present long hours of labour injure health, indispose the mind for devotion, and debar the operatives from all instruction. I repeat that the long hours of factory labour injure health, destroy domestic relations, and I say it is visible it is so. It is impossible to see the hands turn out of the mill and watch them as they pass along the street, and not perceive that languor, that pallor and debilitation which mark an occupation unhealthily pursued.

I was particularly struck, on coming into this county, five years ago, with the marked contrast presented by the people of this district with those of the agricultural counties in the south of England. I was, and still am distressed to see the great apparent difference between the agricultural labourers and the factory operatives. No one could reside long in Preston and fail to see that the factory operatives are subject to a variety of diseases to which persons not employed as they are, are not so liable.

In the first place it is notorious that the eye sight fails at an early period of life; that their teeth decay; and their lungs are soon affected; and that they fall easily under the power of fever, and a variety of other disorders … You cannot take a human being at a very early period of life, and consign it, when growing to maturity, – and confine such a being, I say, within the walls of a factory, for twelve hours a day – however clean, however well ventilated and well regulated such a place may be at the best … and expect that an infant, so confined for years, will not dwindle and fade, and lose part of its natural health and vigour … When you tax the frame as you do for ten hours a day, you exhaust the energies of the operative; but when you insist that the same labour shalt be continued for two hours longer, you depress it to the dust.

… The factory operative rises early to his work; he has half an hour to his breakfast, an hour to his dinner, and he is not dismissed again to his home till night. In many cases it takes a long time to reach that home; in all it occupies some time. … But, on reaching home, if the man be married, his wife, like her husband, has been all day at the factory, In order to increase the earnings of the family, and the children who were In bed when their parents went out in the morning are, or ought to be, in bed when they return home.

Parr’s speech received loud applause and cheers from the audience.

Image sources:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s