Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, was a politician, philanthropist and social and industrial reformer in 19th century England. He used his position as an MP and well-connected aristocrat to improve conditions for workers in factories, textile mills and mines. He also tackled child labour. He rejected the opportunity for high office which his connections created for him. Shaftesbury also championed education for poorer children, better conditions for people committed to lunatic asylums and better housing for the poor. He was a fiercely committed evangelical Christian on the conservative side of the Church of England. His devout faith in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ inspired his life of good works.
His devout faith in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ inspired his life of good works.
Early life – becoming Lord Ashley
Shaftesbury was born Anthony Ashley Cooper in London in April 1801. He was given the courtesy title of Lord Ashley at the age of 10 when his father became the 6th Earl of Shaftesbury. He succeeded him as 7th Earl when his father died in 1851. His mother, Anne, was also well-connected: she was the daughter of the Duke of Marlborough. The family estate was at Wimborne St Giles in Dorset. Shaftesbury’s childhood was unhappy. His parents were distant and harsh. His Christian faith was nurtured under the influence of the family’s housekeeper who read Bible verses to him and taught him prayers. Aged seven, he was sent to boarding school and from there to Harrow. He studied classics at Christ Church, Oxford.
In 1830 he married Lady Emily Cowper. They had six sons and four daughters. When his mother-in-law remarried it cemented his links to leading figures of the time: her new husband was the future Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston.
Early career in parliament – campaigning for mentally ill
As Lord Ashley, Shaftesbury became Conservative MP for Woodstock at 25. Later he represented Dorchester, Dorset and Bath. In his first significant speech, he called for changes to the care of mentally ill people. At the time, they were shut away in lunatic asylums in filthy, degrading conditions. Shaftesbury visited one in London to find the occupants all but naked, badly fed and spending long periods in chains. He became chairman of the Lunacy Commissioners and continued to press for reform. By 1845 he had pushed through legislation which treated the mentally ill as people needing care, rather than social outcasts.
Shaftesbury’s connections and rank in society gave him the opportunity to hold high political office. But although it was offered on several occasions Shaftesbury declined. His passion was to bring about social reform and he felt this was best done by holding a more independent political position. But his rank and influence meant he was consulted by Queen Victoria on occasions and asked by ministers to mediate when riots were brewing in 1848.
Championing reforms in factories and mines
In the early 1830s there was growing unrest about the treatment of workers, particularly children, in mills and factories. Shaftesbury’s interest in this began after reading a report about child labour which left him ‘astonished and disgusted’. He later said he took up the cause after meditation and prayer. By 1833 he was leading the factory reform movement in parliament, pushing to have the working day in textile mills cut to 10 hours for women and children. Restrictions were put in place on children’s hours but there was strong opposition to reform among MPs and further progress was slow. Critics also accused Shaftesbury of ignorance about the real state of factories.
The Ten Hours Act finally became law in 1847, restricting the working time of women and adolescents. But on the ground, change did not always come and Shaftesbury kept up the pressure. In 1863 he produced a report showing that children as young as four were still working in factories from 6am to 10pm
Shaftesbury had quicker success in bringing about reform in the mines. In 1840 he helped set up the Children’s Employment Commission. Its first report on mines and collieries shocked society – most people were unaware that women and children worked underground. Shaftesbury had discovered that boys as young as four and five were being used. Shaftesbury’s Mines Act of 1842 banned all women, girls and boys under 10 from working underground.
He also campaigned against the use of small boys as chimney sweeps, becoming chairman of the Climbing Boys Society. A complete ban took decades of pressure but by 1875 he had helped introduce laws to regulate the trade.
In 1851 his Lodging House Act ensured licensing and inspection of lodgings. The Victorian author, Charles Dickens, called it ‘the best piece of legislation that ever proceeded from the English parliament’.
Education, housing and other reforms
Shaftesbury was out of parliament for 18 months in 1846-47. During that time, he visited London’s slums and became more convinced that the working classes needed better homes and their children needed schooling. For nearly 40 years Shaftesbury chaired the Ragged Schools Union, which provided free education for working class and destitute children. Over his time in post, it is estimated that the Union helped about 300,000 children. Shaftesbury was also involved in legislation to rehabilitate young offenders.
As a member of the General Board of Health, Shaftesbury turned his attention to public health, pushing through a number of reforms. He set up a sanitary commission for the Crimean War in the 1850s which saved many soldiers’ lives. And he called for the government to support cheap housing for urban workers and also to carry out regular checks on existing housing. In 1851 his Lodging House Act ensured licensing and inspection of lodgings. The Victorian author, Charles Dickens, called it ‘the best piece of legislation that ever proceeded from the English parliament’. Shaftesbury was one of group of reformers which included George Peabody, who pioneered social housing in Victorian England.
Works inspired by faith
Shaftesbury was an evangelical member of the Church of England. His Christian faith and understanding of the teachings of Jesus Christ inspired him to press for numerous social changes. He said God had called him to labour among the poor and felt sustained and comforted by his faith. He was president of the Bible Society for more than 30 years. He supported the Young Men’s Christian Association and financially backed a number of Christian missionary organisations. Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ will return again to earth and Shaftesbury was among those who felt this would happen soon. This gave an extra urgency to his work. Shaftesbury was an early supporter of the movement to establish a homeland for Jewish people in Palestine.
Shaftesbury’s 80th birthday was marked by a public celebration at the Guildhall in London, led by the Lord Mayor. In 1884 he was granted the Freedom of the City of London. Lord Shaftesbury died in Folkestone in October 1885 aged 84. His death provoked national grief at the loss of ‘the People’s Earl’. Crowds of people from parts of society he had championed lined the route of his funeral cortège to pay respects as it passed through London to Westminster Abbey.