The English social reformer and philanthropist Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury (1801-1885), was a leading exponent in Victorian England of reform of a multitude of social evils.
Anthony Ashley Cooper was born on April 28, 1801, and was known as Lord Ashley until he succeeded his father as Earl of Shaftesbury in 1851. His childhood was not happy, his father's relationship with him being both distant and harsh. For reasons not completely known, though partly through the influence of a family servant, Lord Ashley early became an Evangelical and always remained, as he put it, "an Evangelical of the Evangelicals." This creed meant a fervent belief in Protestant Anglicanism; the orientation of his life and work by religion; hostility to modernism and secularism on the one hand and to Rome and Roman Catholic tendencies in his Church on the other; and, finally, infinite compassion for the poor, the helpless, and the unfortunate. "God had called me," he wrote, "to labour among the poor."
After Lord Ashley's election in 1826 as a Conservative member of Parliament, his first important speech urged the improvement of laws governing the treatment of the insane. He became chairman of the Lunacy Commissioners, established in that year, and he continued in that office until his death. In 1845 he wrote parliamentary acts to strengthen the controls against unjust institutionalization, to protect patients, to extend facilities, and to professionalize public supervision. He conducted a similar campaign against the employment—often under horrifying conditions—of small boys as chimney sweeps, and he became chairman of the Climbing Boys' Society, a typical Victorian reform society. After repeated efforts he finally secured passage of an effective statute in 1875 that introduced public licensing of the trade.
In the 1840s Lord Ashley adopted the Ragged School movement as another cause. This movement involved the provision of rudimentary education and housing for thousands of homeless children in London. His Lodging House Act (1851) provided for public licenses and inspection of lodgings, and during the Crimean War he instituted the Sanitary Commission. These achievements arose from his conversion to the cause of public health and from his service, from 1848 to 1854, as a commissioner of the new Board of Health.
Lord Ashley's most important and most famous work was conducted as a member of Parliament between 1832 and 1850. He was the leader of the struggle for statutory intervention in the hours and working conditions of children in English textile mills and also of women and children employed in mines. He later recorded that he took up the first cause quite unexpectedly and became suddenly convinced of his duty by "meditation and prayer." Over nearly 2 decades of deep social unrest he steadily fought for the limitation of the work of women and children to 10 hours a day, and he represented in Parliament a massive popular movement by the workers of Lancashire and Yorkshire. The victory in this cause was substantially won, after piecemeal acts in 1833 and 1844, by the famous Ten Hours Act of 1847. He had briefly withdrawn from Commons in 1846 and therefore could not lead the final effort. Earlier, in 1842, he had won a much quicker and more personal success with his Mines Act, which prohibited work underground by small boys and females.
Curiously, Lord Ashley's dedication was accompanied by a keen sense of the wearisome, thankless, and often inconclusive character of these reform efforts. Moreover, as a reformer, he was limited and even anachronistic in his outlook for his generation. He was antagonistic to political democracy and to trade unionism, to socialism and to public agitation arising from the lower classes, to secular education and to advances in scientific inquiry. His self-appointed career kept him aloof from politics, especially after 1846. When Lord Shaftesbury died, on Oct. 1, 1885, he had been much honored for his work, but he had also been bypassed by the political and social changes of the later Victorian era.
The best-known and most accessible biography of Shaftesbury is J. L. and Barbara Hammond, Lord Shaftesbury (1923; 4th ed. 1936). The standard Victorian study is Edwin Hodder, Life and Work of the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury (3 vols., 1886-1887), which is valuable particularly for the extensive quotations from Shaftesbury's diaries. For a general discussion of Victorian social reform see David Roberts, Victorian Origins of the British Welfare State (1960). Cecil Driver, Tory Radical: The Life of Richard Oastler (1946), contains a rich and lively account of the movement for the Ten Hours Act.