The 19th Century in England was a time of great social reform due to the onset of the Industrial Age and and the swelling population of cities such as London. During this time, a number of outstanding Christian leaders heroically worked to better the circumstances of the laboring poor, child workers, prisoners and the mentally ill. One of those outstanding Christian leaders was Anthony Ashley Cooper.
Friend of the Poor and Oppressed
“I will continue to labour so long as there is a soul to be saved, misery to be relieved, and ignorance to be enlightened.”
One Christian leader widely regarded as the greatest reformer of his era was Anthony Ashley Cooper (1801-1885), the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury. Also known as Lord Ashley and Lord Shaftesbury, Cooper was a Member of the British Parliament. A passionate Christian and a consummate legislator, Lord Ashley believed that both the Church and the government are called to meet the needs of society’s most vulnerable members.
Personal Support for Christian Charities
As a private citizen, Lord Ashley was active in his church and supported the work of the London City Mission that Scottish evangelist David Naismith had founded in 1835. The Wikipedia article describing the work of the London City Mission says: “LCM was established as a joint venture of different Protestant denominations. Its aim was to ‘go to the people of London, especially the poor, to bring them to an acquaintance with Jesus Christ as Saviour, and to do them good by every means in their power.’”
The Mission pioneered the idea of recruiting and paying full-time salaried workers (or “agents”) and sending them into disadvantaged areas to visit families, present them with the good news of the Gospel and assess their needs. London was divided into Districts, with each agent assigned to 500 to 550 families. The agents were assigned to spend at least 36 hours each week visiting families, and were responsible for compiling reports detailing their progress. These reports show that by 1842, as many as 63 agents were active in this ministry; in 1860, the number had grown to 631, with others assigned to surrounding towns. One missionary reported: “Last year I walked 3,000 miles on London pavements [and] paid 1,300 visits, 300 of which were to sick and dying cab men.” These city missionaries also invited members of Parliament (including Lord Ashley) to visit the slums of London with them, and lobbied Parliament to pass legislation addressing the social conditions they encountered.
In addition to their visitation program, the Mission also opened the first “Ragged School” in London in 1835. This aim of this movement was to provide free education (including Biblical education) to the children of the poor, and to provide them with food, clothing, lodging and other services where possible. Their stated goal was “moving every ragged, destitute child from our streets, and placing that child in the path of industry and virtue.”
As a private citizen, Lord Ashley poured his heart into the Ragged Schools and visited dozens of them. On one such visit, he reported finding “[an] average Sunday evening attendance of 260, aged five to twenty. This number included forty-two who had no parents, seven children of convicts, twenty-seven who had been imprisoned, thirty-six who had run away from home, nineteen who slept in lodging houses, forty-one who lived by begging, twenty-nine who never slept on beds, and seventeen who had no shoes or stockings.” Lord Ashley eventually became President of the Ragged School Union, which by 1870 had grown to include 350 schools. Lord Ashley once said, “I should not regret it if my last words were words of prayer for such a work as this.” Lord Ashley’s work with the London City Mission and the Ragged School Union was an example of the Church fulfilling the Great Commission and living out the “pure and undefiled religion before God” of James 1:17 (NKJV), which instructs Christians to “visit orphans and widows in their trouble” and provide for those who are in need of clothing and are “destitute of daily food” (James 2:14 NKJV).
Outstanding Legislative Career
In his remarkable career as a legislator, Lord Ashley publicized the sufferings of the poor and led movements to:
• Remedy the crowded, run-down lodging houses in which poor families resided. Lord Ashley reported on one visit to a lodging house as follows: “What scenes of filth, discomfort, disease! What scenes of moral and mental ill! Perambulated many parts of Whitechapel and Bethnal Green, to see, with my own eyes the suffering and degradation which unwholesome residences inflict on poorer classes.”
• Improve the sanitation in industrial London, which stank due to tons of human and animal waste accumulating and overflowing from inadequate sewers and, at times, even backing up into dwelling places.
• Provide safe drinking water in parts of the city where it was not available.
• Investigate the inhumane conditions found in mines, in which half-naked woman were employed to haul coal carts through narrow passageways on their hands and knees and children were lowered into coal pits by ropes.
• Provide protection for children from cruelties suffered as chimney sweeps and mine-workers.
• Investigate and expose the mistreatment of the mentally ill in “madhouses” and “lunatic asylums.” In one asylum visited by Lord Ashley, patients were “sitting on benches around the room, and several of them were chained to the wall. The air of the room was highly oppressive and offensive so that I could not draw my breath… the room was exceedingly oppressive, from the excrement and smell which existed there.” These facilities provided no rehabilitation services. Sanitary conditions were so bad that in one case, 170 men shared one towel for an entire week.
• Combat sex slavery in which young girls were sold into prostitution.
As a member of England’s upper class, Lord Ashley was unusual in personally visiting the places where the poorest of the poor lived and worked, investigating their living conditions and fighting for legislation to remedy these conditions. As an illustration of Lord Ashley’s commitment to helping the poor, his biographer, Richard Turnbull, wrote: “A City Missionary… found seventeen wretched and homeless creatures [poor children] sleeping under arches near a school. Lord Ashley hearing of it, with his accustomed promptness and philanthropy, visited this scene of wretchedness at midnight. Nothing was beneath this indefatigable man.”
Lord Ashley fought tirelessly in Parliament for legislation addressing many deplorable conditions. His speeches before Parliament, which included statistics and graphic personal reports detailing the need for reform, often lasted two hours or longer. However, Lord Ashley is most noted for his long and passionate fight to reform child labor laws. During Lord Ashley’s time, poor children as young as 8 years of age worked up to 14 hours a day in factories; this excessive and abusive child labor was highly detrimental to children’s health and well-being. Fighting the resistance of powerful factory owners for fifteen years in Parliament, Lord Ashley was finally able to prevail after an investigation reported that the inhumane overwork of children in mills and factories resulted in disease, stunted growth, numerous accidents, and premature deaths.
Lord Ashley’s biographer reports that his funeral in 1885, thousands of poor people gathered “whose hearts were heavy, and whose eyes were red with weeping for the best friend the poor ever had.”