1809 – 1872
Born in Bristol in 1809 to Quakers Elizabeth and James Charleton Robert learnt his business skills from Henry Fowler Cottrell, a Quaker farmer and land surveyor from Bath.
He established himself as a pin maker at Kingswood in 1833. His was one of the largest factories in East Bristol and employed about 110 women and girls and 50 men and boys at the factory. There were also about 500 outworkers who worked at home heading and sticking the pins. It is surprising that this form of manual work was still prevalent in Victorian times, even after the industrial revolution.
In keeping with factory inspections at that time, his working practices were examined and the factory was inspected by the Childrens Employment Commission in 1840. Robert Charleton was shown to be an exemplary employer. Their report states that no children under the age of 12 years were employed in the factory. The boys, who drew and straightened the wire for the pins, were often employed by their fathers rather than being directly employed by Charleton.
Victorian society was keen that women should be virtuous and respectable. People were wary about young, single women who went out of the home to work, but they felt that pin making was reasonably respectable. Charleton would not employ anyone who could not show a “fair moral character”. He separated the men from the women in the factory which won approval from the Employment Commission. Employees were fined 3d (old pennies) for the use of foul language and although singing was allowed, they were only permitted to sing hymn tunes.
He offered education to the children of his employees and had a school built for them. Both boys and girls could attend school at 2d per week and an extra 1d if they wished to learn writing. The school concentrated on reading, grammar and writing. Girls could also learn to sew and boys could learn mathematics and geography. The school could take 120 boys and 80 girls. Charleton also contributed financially to other schools for the children of workers in the Bristol area. He was well known for his philanthropy, which took many forms.
Charleton believed in total abstinence from the consumption of alcohol and lectured on that subject in many parts of England. Later he toured Ireland with his friend Samuel Capper warning of the ravages of the demon drink.
Charleton was a committed Quaker. He wrote a number of pamphlets and books of which the most famous was a critique of Robert Barclay’s great theological work ‘An Apology for the True Christian Divinity’ . As an evangelical Quaker and a minister he gave lectures on Quaker beliefs both in England and Ireland. He was a member of the Peace Society which tried to eliminate war. Together with Joseph Sturge and Henry Pease he formed part of the deputation sent from London in 1854 to present an address to Tsar Nicholas at St Petersburg in the hope of preventing the imminent Crimean war. Unfortunately, this mission was unsuccessful and made them unpopular but they had tried.
He suggested the formation of the Friends’ Foreign Missionary Association. Unlike Charleton some Friends were uncertain about whether Quakers should try to spread their beliefs in other countries, so the FFMA was not formed until 1867.
The Contagious Diseases Acts gave police the right to arrest prostitutes, subject them to forced examination, and if found to be infected, to incarcerate them in locked hospitals for periods of up to a year. The Acts were an attempt to protect British soldiers from sexually transmitted diseases and started in military towns but later spread. Charleton opposed these Acts as he felt that there was a double standard, in that men caused the problem through their use of prostitutes, but women were the victims. He worked hard to have the Acts repealed and was the organiser of the first public meeting of those who wish to see an end to them. He became the treasurer of the national association until ill health forced him to retire. The Acts were repealed in 1886.
He died in Bristol in 1872 from cancer of the face, which he had endured for eight years.