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From the Fall 2015 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

Shaftesbury: The Great Reformer

by Rev. Dr. Richard Turnbull
Member of the Theology Faculty, University of Oxford


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  The master sweeps were prevented now by the legislation from taking apprentices under the age of sixteen years. In 1853 Shaftesbury explained to the House of Lords that the provisions were circumvented by sweeps employing children to carry the bag of tools and brushes. Once inside, the doors would be locked and the child forced up the chimney. By this time more mechanisation was occurring in London, but not in the provincial cities. The government prevaricated. In 1863 a further report noted that the use of climbing boys was again on the rise and the illicit trade was returning to London. There were still several thousand boys employed, as young as six, with the regulations continuing to be violated. The report noted the deaths of twenty three boys since 1840. Shaftesbury introduced further legislation laying the blame at the door of the householders who resisted mechanisation. The rich, he added, prefer not to ask how their chimneys are cleaned.
  Effective regulation continued to prove elusive. The fifth report of the Children’s Employment Commission in 1866 provided evidence of the continued evasion of the Acts introduced by Shaftesbury. The Earl was stirred into action again in 1872 after eight year-old Christopher Drummond died in a flue. He tried to rouse public opinion with a letter to The Times, describing the practice as a disgrace to England. Three years later a boy died in a chimney in Cambridge. This time The Times thundered into action in an editorial demanding final and resolute action. Shaftesbury moved in the Lords for an inquiry which was denied and so on 20th April 1875 he gave notice of new legislation. In his speech to Parliament, Shaftesbury said his interest lay in the temporal and eternal welfare of this oppressed group. He described the practices as Satanic.14 The Bill passed unscathed and effectively ended a century of misery. The Earl was seventy-four years old when the Act passed. He had shown remarkable tenacity and perseverance in the cause. This was a characteristic of his campaigns and a reason for his success. Meticulous in gathering and presenting evidence, for Shaftesbury both the eternal destiny and the bodily welfare of the child sweep were of equal concern.

Place in history

  How are we to assess Shaftesbury’s life, significance and contribution to history? He resisted senior government office because it would threaten his independence. In 1866 alone he was offered a seat in the Cabinet three times by both Whig and Tory Prime Ministers. As a result the legacy is probably greater, but perhaps less well known. His sense of calling and Christian passion and compassion ran very deep indeed.
  Shaftesbury had a vision for God in society. This came from his uncompromising Protestantism, a conclusion that some might find uncomfortable. As a campaigner for some “party” causes he was unyielding. (For a discussion of Shaftesbury’s Protestant campaigning, see Tumball, Shaftesbury.) Undoubtedly he made errors and misjudgments. However, this same commitment gave him a clear vision for God in the public domain. It was because the nation was Christian that the state carried responsibilities for God’s creatures.

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