Anthony Ashley Cooper (Earl of Shaftesbury)
1801 - 1885
"There are not two hours in
the day but I think of the second advent of our Lord. That is the hope of the church, for
Israel, and the world. Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly".
Like most who eagerly anticipate the day of our Lord's appearing
Shaftesbury was riveted to this world and its relentless suffering. Haunted by the
barbarous exploitation of children, the formally attired, 42-year old politician was seen
stepping into the unprotected bucket at the end of a single cable which lowered him 450
feet to the mine floor. Only weeks earlier a child assigned to apply the brake had left
his post to chase a mouse; the bucket had plummeted and crashed, killing the miners
descending in it. Once in the mine Shaftesbury found children hunched over on all fours,
struggling to push loaded coal-carts. Some coal-seams were so narrow that only a small
boy, lying on his back and wielding an undersized pick, could extract coal from the face.
Most of these boys grew up deformed.
Shaftesbury was born to the aristocracy and was never without the
privileges belonging to it. Nonetheless one incident in particular impelled him to spend
himself on behalf of those who would never appear in his social class. Walking through a
shabby area of London he came upon several intoxicated men who were carrying the crude
sort of coffin used by the poorest. As they lurched toward the cemetery one fellow
stumbled; the rest fumbled the casket, swearing uproariously. Shaftesbury was appalled
that the remains of anyone could be subject to such indignity. On the spot he vowed to
give himself to living wretches whose indignity was worse.
Following an Oxford University degree in classics he was elected
to the House of Commons. Soon the young Member of Parliament was assigned to a
sub-committee charged with investigating "Pauper Lunatics" and "Lunatic
Asylums" generally. He found deranged people, incontinent, confined to "crib-
rooms" consisting of large wooden boxes stuffed with straw. (It was easier to replace
straw than to change adults' diapers.) Winter and summer the ill were taken outside and
swabbed by an attendant wielding a long-handled mop.
For Shaftesbury the only consideration was what was right.
If upholding the right resulted in social disruption, then disruption there had to be.
When British officials excused their silence (lest riots ensue) about the Indian custom of
a widow throwing herself on the fire consuming her dead husband's body he denounced the
custom as "a most outrageous cruelty and wrong". (When the British abolished the
practice in 1829 there were no riots!) He alienated his father by supporting Catholic
Emancipation in England, convinced that Roman Catholics should not remain politically
Horrified at the 15-hour days children spent in factories
Shaftesbury laboured to implement the ten-hour day. (He knew that six-hour shift would
find employers bringing back children for a second shift, as well as lengthening the
work-day for the adults whom they assisted.) Industrialists who opposed the ten-hour day
complained that British industry would not be able to compete with the continent. He was
accused of undercutting industry in north England in order to favour agriculture in the
south. Whereupon he organized a huge demonstration of filthily-clad children from
While his newly-implemented laws protected children in factories,
no law protected the "climbing-boys" who were the virtual slaves of
chimney-sweeps. Each sweep retained several boys to climb up and down flues to dislodge
soot. Knees and elbows chronically raw and infected, a climbing-boy not infrequently
became stuck in a chimney. Some suffocated; many died miserably of cancers spawned through
the workday environment. The Climbing-Boy bill became law in 1840, but the fury of
fastidious housewives kept it unenforced until the Shaftesbury Act of 8175.
The Factory Acts had not protected children in the mines. The
government had attempted -- unsuccessfully -- to keep the report of its investigation from
the public. Those who had dismissed Shaftesbury as a cranky do-gooder could not bear to
read of the young girls, nearly naked in hot mines, working alongside naked men who
tormented them sexually; five-year olds who worked trap doors in total darkness fourteen
hours per day, six days per week. When Shaftesbury brought forward the Colliery Bill the
government opposed it. (It became law in 1842.)
Nonetheless Shaftesbury always knew that freeing children from
servitude was incomplete without education. Soon his dearest project was the Ragged School
Union where children, barred through social class from the nation's schools, were taught
Thursday and Sunday evenings.
For years he campaigned for better public health. Underground
sewers should replace street-level gutters. Flushing these gutters into the Thames -- from
which Londoners drew their drinking water -- would only perpetuate the cholera which
claimed 14,000 Londoners in 1849 alone. Cities should have piped water. Overcrowded
cemeteries with fetid graves dug much too shallow should be closed. Yet it was years
before Shaftesbury was heard.
Still, Shaftesbury never became a social reformer devoid of the
gospel. In the face of the "wine-into-water" drift of the Church of England he
strenuously contended for the faith. Justification by faith he pronounced "the great
saving truth without which no other truth in scripture would be worth knowing..."
Having wrestled with social wretchedness all his life he never thought its origin to be
merely social, insisting rather on every individual's innermost depravity: "We have
to struggle...for the very atonement itself, for the sole hope of fallen men..."
On his death-bed he likened himself to the menhorraegic woman in
the gospels: now at the feet of Jesus, soon to look up into the master's face and know
Victor A. Shepherd
(Illustration by Marta Lynne Scythes)