Anthony Ashley Cooper, 'the poor man's earl', was a dedicated social and industrial reformer, known for his commitment to changing the lunacy laws and lifelong advocacy for the better treatment of working people.
A Tory whose evangelicalism informed his outlook, Ashley devoted his parliamentary career to issues of injustice in relation to education, public health and working conditions.
Born on 18 April 1801 in London, the eldest son of Cropley Ashley Cooper and Lady Anne Spencer Churchill, daughter of the 4th duke of Marlborough, Ashley was schooled at Harrow and went on to gain a first in classics at Christ Church, Oxford. His political ambitions began in 1826, when he became a member of parliament for the pocket borough of Woodstock (Gazette issue 18263) aged just 25. He married Lady Emily Cowper in 1830, and they went on to have 10 children together.
In the general election of 1830, Ashley was returned for Dorchester, but in 1832, declared to the House of Commons in writing ‘that it is not his intention to defend his said election or return’ (Gazette issue 18895) when offered a the role of under-secretary in the Foreign Office by Lord Palmerston, preferring to focus on philanthropic reform. He had a deep evangelical commitment to his cause that grew as the years passed.
The County Lunatic Asylums (England) Act and Madhouses Act, 1828
The first social abuse that roused the interest of Ashley was the inhumane treatment of people with mental health problems, at the time labelled as ‘lunatics’. He became a member of a select committee that recommended changes to the inhumane conditions in asylums, based on evidence gathered from a madhouse in Bethnal Green.
His work was integral to the passing of the County Lunatic Asylums (England) Act 1828 and Madhouses Act 1828, ‘An Act to regulate the care and treatment of insane persons in England’ and ‘An Act to amend the laws for the erection and regulation of county lunatic asylums, and more effectually to provide for the care and maintenance of pauper and criminal lunatics in England’ (Gazette issue 18488).
Continuing his work in the field, Ashley sponsored two further lunacy acts in 1845. The Lunacy Act and the County Asylums Act were passed ‘to amend the laws for the erection and regulation of county lunatic asylums, and more effectually to provide for the care and maintenance of pauper and criminal lunatics in England’ (Gazette issue 20421). This heralded the move to treat the insane as ‘persons of unsound mind’, rather than social outcasts, with better conditions and stricter certification regulations.
The Ten Hours Act, 1847
Ashley is associated with the factory reform movement during his time in parliament. Factory Acts he supported ensured improved conditions for children and women, including:
- the maximum working day to be 12 hours
- children under the age of 9 to be banned from work
- children age 9 to 13 to be restricted to a 48-hour working week, with attendance at school part-time
A proponent of the ‘ten-hour movement’ and part of the growing humanitarian campaign for better conditions in textile factories, Ashley helped push through the Ten Hours Act in 1847. This ensured that working days in textile mills were not to exceed 10 hours. The act ‘to limit the hours of labour of young persons and females in factories’ gained Royal Assent in June (Gazette issue 20743).
The Mines and Collieries Act, 1842
Ashley helped push through legislation that regulated the working conditions of women and children who worked in the mines. All children under 10 were to be excluded from coal mine employment, and no woman or child under 15 would be able to work underground. ‘An Act to prohibit the employment of women and girls in mines and collieries, to regulate the employment of boys, and to make other provisions relating to persons working therein’ (Gazette issue 20128).
Though enforcement was patchy, this act was seen as a watershed in coal mining legislation, as it was the first time that laws had been passed to improve conditions in mines.
The Chimney Sweepers Regulation Act, 1863
Ashley (who became the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury from 1851 after his father’s death, inheriting the family estates in Dorset) strongly opposed the use of children to clean chimneys, known as 'climbing boys'. In 1840, a revised Chimney Sweeps Act (Gazette issue 19883) raised the minimum age of apprenticeship to 16, but it had been largely ignored due to lack of enforcement. A new Chimney Sweepers Regulation Act, ‘An Act to amend and extend the Act for the regulation of Chimney Sweepers’ (Gazette issue 22869) was passed in 1863 to address this, a year after the publication of the classic book The Water Babies, which had raised public awareness of the plight of child sweeps.
The Ragged Schools Union
Ashley founded the Ragged Schools Union in 1844, and remained president for 39 years. Ragged schools were charitable organisations that gave free education and care to children of impoverished parents. Venues for the schools ranged from stables and lofts to railway arches. It’s thought that about 300,000 children were educated free at schools between 1844 and 1881.
Ragged schools were considered a great movement borne of Victorian philanthropy, but they were patchy in their provision. When the introduction of universal, compulsory schooling in London under the 1870 Education Act ensured that every child had a right to a secular school place (Gazette issue 23643), Ashley felt that this was a ‘national calamity’ that undermined the religious and moral guidance provided by ragged schools.
Ashley died in October 1885, labouring for the causes he believed in well into old age. He is commemorated by a statue in Westminster Abbey and a memorial monument in Piccadilly Circus, London.