Lord Shaftesbury: The Great Reformer

Jennie Pollock
Tuesday 15 Feb 2011

Lord Shaftesbury: The Great Reformer Image One

London - Shaftesbury Memorial by ...::: Antman :::...

Anthony Ashley Cooper was a man who understood what it meant to be Salt and Light in society. The son of a wealthy landowner in an age when Britain’s fortunes were built on the broken backs of the poor, he disappointed his father, was derided by his contemporaries and deprived himself and his family of many of life’s luxuries in his lifelong campaign for social justice.

Equally at ease conversing with royalty and chimney sweeps, Anthony cared little for his position or reputation, but devoted his life to serving the God he loved. He is commemorated in the name of one of Central London’s busiest streets, and with one of its most famous monuments; and it is no exaggeration to say that his tireless work saved the lives, as well as the souls, of many thousands of people. He was dubbed in his life time ‘the Great Reformer’ and ‘the best friend the poor ever had’, but is most commonly known today simply as Lord Shaftesbury.
 
As was the case for many children of the rich at the time, Anthony’s early years – he was born in 1801 – were ones of loneliness and deprivation, even in the midst of his parents’ wealth. The love we might have expected to be provided by his parents came instead from the devout Christian housekeeper Maria Millis. While the church and his father taught Anthony to know and obey the teachings of the Bible, Maria taught him to know and love the God of the Bible; she introduced him to the faith that was to sustain and drive him for the rest of his life.
 
As a teenager at Harrow School he once witnessed a ramshackle, undignified pauper’s funeral. His compassion welled up for the dead man, and he resolved then to commit his life to making a difference to the fates of the lower classes. He asked God to help him to use the power and influence that were coming his way (he was to become an MP for many years before inheriting his father’s Earldom) ‘to plead the cause of the poor and friendless and to give them a better life.’
 
It is almost easier to list the areas of poverty and injustice in 19th Century Britain that Shaftesbury didn’t try to solve than those he did. He campaigned for better treatment of mental health patients and proper regulation of the asylums; for improved working conditions, fewer hours and the provision of education for children working in factories and cotton mills; for the prohibition of the employment of children under ten and women in coal mines; for the abolition of the use of small boys to sweep chimneys, and against animal vivisection. He was a strong supporter of the London City Mission, an active participant in the establishment of ‘Ragged Schools’ (free schools established to teach the poorest children reading, writing, arithmetic, the Bible and a marketable skill), and an opponent of the wholesale destruction of poor people’s housing to make way for the new railways. He sought the regulation of boarding houses (which sometimes housed up to thirty people of both sexes in a single room), the placing of new cemeteries within easy reach of the poor in London, and the provision of clean water and proper sanitation for the city. In short, Lord Shaftesbury made good on his intention to give his life to the improvement of every aspect of life for the poor and friendless.
 
If this list appears exhausting in itself, consider the even more remarkable aspect of Shaftesbury’s work, and the thing which made him so persuasive: he didn’t merely campaign for these reforms from the warmth and safety of his London office or his country estate, but made a point of backing up his rhetoric with first-hand evidence. He travelled to the north of England to see conditions in the factories and meet the hunched, wizened, half-crippled children who worked as many as nineteen hours per day during the ‘rush months’ (and fourteen the rest of the year) darting among the noisy, dusty, potentially lethal machinery in the cotton mills. Then it was down into the coal mines, taking an artist with him this time, the better to convey the dark, cramped conditions in which children as young as four years old would often be found working. The pictures and stories revealed six-year olds carrying loads too heavy for a grown man, boys and girls with their legs rubbed raw crawling along the passageways dragging cartloads of coal to the surface, chained to their loads like pack horses, a young girl sitting alone in a dark passage hour after hour listening out for the rumble of a cart signalling that she should open the trap door to let it through. Alone, afraid, hungry and tired, she sat at her post all day every day, earning a few pennies to help keep her family from starvation.
 
The Mines and Collieries Bill was passed relatively quickly, due in no small measure to the powerful first-hand evidence and testimony that Shaftesbury was able to give. The Government tried to prevent the evidence from reaching the public domain, but it was leaked and doubtless the public outcry contributed to the success of the Bill. Other measures did not fare so well. It took 41 years before the Ten Hours Bill regulating the length of time children could work in factories was fully functional! Then as now, the complexity of issues surrounding any legislation was so great, and the interests of the mill owners and the MPs who were in Parliament thanks to their votes were so strong that to do what was right for one part of society would upset the finely balanced economy and, so it was argued, damage the prosperity and health of the nation. Shaftesbury would not give in, though, refusing to ‘let my fears or my love of ease come before my sense of what is right and of what God wants.’
 
But that was still not all. Not content with using his influence and his testimony to make a difference, Lord Shaftesbury used his own meagre resources to be of immediate assistance, too. One biographer described him as, like many of the landed gentry of his day, ‘asset-rich but income-poor’. (By this time too, he and his wife, Minny, had nine children to feed, clothe, educate and, sadly, in a couple of cases provide expensive medical care for.) He was constantly in debt, yet constantly giving to others whose needs were even greater than his own. On finding pupils at one of the Ragged Schools too hungry to concentrate on their work, he went home and got his cook to boil up a cauldron of soup, which he took to the school. He provided the same for the school every day for the rest of the winter.
 
A story which encapsulates the esteem in which he was held by the poorest of the city, tells of the time when a small boy picked his pocket and made off with his gold watch. The pick-pocket’s friends recognised the watch and promptly bundled thief and timepiece into a sack, tied it up and deposited it outside Lord Shaftesbury’s front door! History does not record how the Earl dealt with the ragamuffin, but the example of countless other such encounters would suggest he was more likely to give the child a bath and a hot meal than a beating.
 
Shaftesbury was not only a friend of the poor, though. He was encouraged and supported (often with very generous financial gifts) by Lord Palmerston, offered positions of power by successive governments, and was counted by Prince Albert as a confidant and friend.
 
Story after story could be told of this great man who humbled himself and gave all he could to befriend the friendless and live out his faith in practical action. He was deeply concerned for the souls of the lost, but knew that calls to repentance would go unheeded unless their hearts were softened by experiencing the love of the God he served.
 
The statue of Anteros, or the Angel of Christian Charity, was erected in memory of him in Piccadilly Circus, at the foot of the street named in his honour: Shaftesbury Avenue. Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, died in 1885 at the age of 84. His funeral was held at Westminster Abbey, and he was offered a burial place there, but asked instead to be buried at his home, Wimborne St Giles. The words he chose for his gravestone sum up the philosophy that motivated his life’s work, his generosity and his love: ‘What hast thou that thou didst not receive?’ (1 Cor 4:7) He worked, not to earn God’s favour, but out of gratitude for the blessings, love and salvation the Father had lavished upon him. It took time and effort, it was exhausting and often discouraging, he often felt almost entirely alone in his fight (save for the faithful support of his wife), and his support of the rights of the poor over the profits of the rich alienated him not just from his political colleagues but from his own father, yet considering whether it was worth it, Shaftesbury once wrote:

‘In spite of all vexations, insults, toil, expense, weariness, all loss of political position – in spite of always being secretly despised and often publicly ignored, I would for myself say “Yes”’.

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Further reading:

Richard Turnbull, Shaftesbury: The Great Reformer (Lion Hudson, 2010) – a very thorough, detailed account of the many areas of Shaftesbury’s interest and campaigning.
 
Jenny Robertson, I Stand Alone: The Life of Lord Shaftesbury (Scripture Union, 1985) – written for children, but manages to be both thorough and engaging. Turnbull’s book will give you a clear catalogue of the facts, but Robertson’s adds to that a vibrant sense of the man and his character.

 

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Let us know what you think of Lord Shaftesbury: The Great Reformer. Please only provide constructive feedback, and be nice!

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Carolyn – Friday 10 Aug 2012

Lord Shaftesbury is my inspiration. Here in the UK today we need people like him again! Good article - thanks, I’ve book marked the page smile

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Jennie Pollock – Friday 28 Sep 2012

Thanks so much, Carolyn. Yes, we need lots more Shaftesburys. I love hearing stories about how people are allowing God to use them in so many different ways today, following in his footsteps whether they realise it or not!