HC Deb 21 July 1807 vol 9 cc853-9

On the motion of Mr. Whitbread, the house went into a committee on the Parochial Schools bill.

Mr. Sturges Bourne

said, that understanding from the hon. gent. that that was the stage for proposing any clauses that might be deemed necessary, he rose for the purpose of submitting a clause to the committee. His great objection to the bill in its present form was the mode of carrying into effect the relief proposed, namely, by compulsion. He disapproved entirely of compulsion; in its present form, the bill was not to be fitted to the parish, but the parish to the bill, and this he thought would be in general impracticable: besides, if compulsory, it might considerably check the spontaneous charity of many individuals: another objection was, that it was teaching the persons relieved that they might claim as a right that relief which they ought to be taught to look upon as a favour. He was not at all anxious that any of these bills should pass into a law this session. The public were anxious to give their opinion upon them, and, as far as he could learn, that opinion was against them, for certainly he had heard of many petitions against the bill, and not one in favour of it. The clause he had to propose was, that it be lawful for the Churchwardens, parish officers, &c. to hold vestries in their respective parishes, for the purpose of taking into consideration the best means of establishing a school or schools, under the direction of fit persons, to be by them appointed for the better education and instruction of the poor of the said parish. Something to this effect, he thought, would be better than any compulsory method; for certainly the inhabitants of each parish were better judges of the claims of their own poor, and their own means to judge of and provide for these claims, than gentlemen in that house could possibly be.

Mr. W. Smith

said, he was not at all sure that the house could pass this measure in the form of a law this session, but it might perhaps be expedient at least to make it take the shape and form of a law, as they were all agreed as to the necessity of instructing the poor. It was giving power to the churchwardens to do, under the sanction of parliament, what they already were in the habit of doing; and as he approved so much of the principle of the bill, he should support it in its present state.

Mr. Hawkins Browne

thought it was certainly the duty of parliament to provide regulations to instruct the poor; but to get them to receive it, was a very different thing. In many parishes, the office of school-master would become a perfect sinecure. It would be extremely difficult to find any number of parishes to which the same law would properly apply. Some contained 10,000 inhabitants, while others contained only 30. Some were flourishing in their manufactures and trade, and others decaying. Some were supported by agriculture alone. Some had no endowments, while others had charitable institutions and free-schools. While he disapproved of the measure, he at the same time gave the hon. gent. who had brought it forward, great credit for his patriotism and zeal for the public good, but he really thought parliament had not come to a sufficient investigation of the subject, to enable them to come to a law, even although this had been an earlier period of the session.

Mr. Wilberforce

was glad to perceive that his own opinion, as to the desirableness of not passing the bill during the present session, seemed to accord with the general disposition of the house. It was certainly more important that this subject should be decided upon, than that it should be decided upon soon. It was highly to be wished, that there should not be any appearance of forcing this plan upon the people, and he regretted to find upon conversing with many magistrates, and other country gentlemen, that they were not so well disposed towards it as he was himself. At the same time, he could not approve of the amendment proposed by the hon. gent., because, if the voluntary measure which he recommended, should be unsuccessful, it would be very difficult afterwards to carry the compulsory one into execution. The necessity of instruction among the lower classes in the south and west of England, and in Ireland, was strikingly obvious; in the latter particularly, he was convinced that on the instructing and enlightening of the people depended the very safety of the empire itself. Still, although general instruction might be very practicable, he was not quite prepared to agree to the sending out a parliamentary edict for that purpose. He thought that sufficient pains had not been taken to avail ourselves of the voluntary institutions for the education of the poor, and was of opinion, that it would be a great improvement to the measure, were it only to operate where those institutions were deficient. Having instanced several cases in which the detail of the bill might be improved, he recommended that the bill should be made as good as possible, and be then sent to the country for the general sentiment. Parliament ought not to be hasty in this business: they ought to recollect that they were legislating for posterity on a subject in which their happiness was more concerned than in any other; for he was convinced that in a thousand attempts to do good, there was not one the result of which could be ascertained with so much satisfaction as the diffusion of useful knowledge.

Mr. Whitbread

expressed himself happy to find, from the conclusion of the hon. gent.'s speech, that he continued to be an advocate for the diffusion of knowledge: such an opinion was to be expected from a man of his character and conduct, and one who had paid such unremitting attention to similar subjects. He owned, however, that he was somewhat surprised at the inclination for delay which that hon. gent. had manifested. Had he not proofs in other parts of the world of the benefits which resulted from the diffusion of the truths of the gospel? And how were those truths to be still further diffused in this country, but by putting into every one's hands the keys of knowledge? The hon. gent. had allowed that the instruction of the Irish was indispensable with the safety of the empire; was a moment then to be lost? He (Mr. Whitbread) was then what that hon. gent. had often been, in the hands of the gradual abolitionists of the bill. The postponement would be espoused by those who hoped, by putting off the bill to another session, to get rid of it altogether. The measure had been opposed without having been even read, for if it had been read, it could never have been asserted that it was compulsory. It did not compel a single child to attend; it only gave power to the magistrates to erect schools and to appoint schoolmasters: the rest would necessarily follow. This misrepresentation proved to him, that if the bill were re-printed and sent into the country, it would be only to make waste paper. When parliament met again, gentlemen would declare that they had not had time to read it, and would press for further delay. He desired, therefore, to have a decision on it in the present session. With regard to the petitions on the table, they did not complain of the principle of the measure, but of the enactments, as tending to affect the petitioners; but the bill contained a clause, enabling the justices to suspend the execution of the bill, where unnecessary. This would obviate any inconvenience, unless, indeed, the magistrates were supposed to be corrupt. If corruption were thus to be imputed to all men, every attempt to benefit mankind must cease. We must do nothing but lie down and die. It had been said, that the bill would put an end to charitable contributions. Not so. If in a large parish 6,000 children were educated by charitable contributions, and 10,000 were not educated at all, his bill passing over the former would apply only to the latter, whose situation was rendered at present so much more distressing by the contrast. It had been also said, that by the bill, parishes would be compelled to raise a shilling rate. No such thing. The bill only gave a power of doing so when necessary, a necessity that would perhaps not exist once in a thousand parishes. The impossibility of carrying the measure into effect in a year, had been dwelt upon. Why was it impossible? In many parishes schools were already erected. In others, temporary buildings might be used until schools were erected. It would be easy to find schoolmasters, among whom there would doubtless be a competition for appointments. If the committee adopted the proposed amendment, he should despair of its ever being the serious intention of the house to carry the general measure into effect. The most weighty objections that had been made to the bill, related to the metropolis and its neighbourhood. It was certainly not probable that police magistrates would be so likely properly to execute the provisions of the bill, as magistrates in the country, who possessed local knowledge and local interests. If, on the report of the bill, the members for the city of London, or for the county of Middlesex, should propose a clause to prevent this power from being lodged in the hands of the police magistrates, he should not object to it. He repeated his wish, that the bill might pass in the present session. The example of Scotland, and the north of England, evinced the benefits of that instruction in which he was most desirous that the rest of the empire should participate.

Mr. Wilberforce ,

in explanation, declared that on no subject had he formed a more deliberate, and at the same time a more decided opinion, than on the advantages which a country must derive from the instruction of its people. The difference of opinion entertained by the magistrates, and others with whom he had conversed, was not on the benefit of instruction, but on the mode of conveying it.

Sir John Newport

was decidedly in favour of a measure which the hon. gent. (Mr. Wilberforce) supposed to be most intimately connected with the interest of Ireland and the general welfare of the empire. He thought it, however, to be his duty to state what was the opinion of a man who was not only a friend to the regular establishments of these conntries, but also to its political interests, and who was universally acknowledged to be a friend to the human race, he meant Mr. Howard the philanthropist: that patriotic and moral man had travelled through Ireland, and he stated, that if ever we attempted to incorporate any particular principles of faith with our education of the people in Ireland, we should certainly fall short of our object. He therefore hoped, that as far as respected that country the system of education would be conducted on the most liberal and enlightened principles of toleration.

Mr. Rose

urged the postponement of this measure. There appeared a general disinclination to it throughout the country, and in proof of this, he read a letter from a gentleman, stating, that at a quarter sessions, where above 30 magistrates were assembled, this measure had met with general disapprobation. He trusted, however, that the hon. gent.'s well-meant endeavours would give the greater facility to some practicable mode being adopted. He hoped that a plan would be effected, which should admit of mixing habits of industry with education; for in many places there was a disinclination in the lower orders to send their children to school merely for education. If the bill were now to be adopted, it would incur a great expense in the erection of schools, &c. without producing much practical benefit. He approved of the amendment, as best calculated to reconcile the country to the measure; it would thus be rendered more palatable, and a better chance would be afforded for its ultimate success.

Mr. Simeon

thought the question came to this, whether it were better to adopt a voluntary or a compulsory mode of education. He found a general objection against enforcing this measure by compulsion. Poor parents were not averse to have their children educated; but from the ages of 7 to 14, in country places, they could send their children into the fields, and gain something for the better support of their families; and if deprived of this advantage, they would come sooner upon the parishes for relief. He thought no one could object to the education of the poor, provided it was coupled with religious instruction. He objected also to this measure, on account of its expense.

Mr. Lushington

objected to the amendment, as tending to render the measure itself perfectly nugatory.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer professed himself a warm friend to the moral and religious instruction of the poor; but he thought that, by adopting the amendment of his hon. friend, the house would part with the measure for the session in a state infinitely preferable to that in which it would otherwise be. He agreed with an hon. baronet, that it was not advisable to couple proselytism with education; but he hoped that no fear of being suspected of such an intention would ever induce the house to separate religion from education; for he was convinced, that by a religious education alone, the people could be made good subjects, and their happiness be established.—After some further discussion, a division took place;

For the amendment 33
Against it 12
Majority 21
The compulsory clause was therefore lost.— On the re-admission of strangers to the Gallery, we found,

Mr. Pole Carew

speaking against the bill. He said, he could never admit the justice of laying such an impost as two millions a year, the amount of the charge according to his own calculation, upon one class of the community, namely, the landed interest of the country, to educate another class. But whatever advantage, in the way of morality, might arise to the poor from learning to read, he could see neither utility nor morality in teaching them writing and arithmetic, and he begged that gentlemen would just turn to the preamble, and substitute the words "writing" and "arithmetic," in place of the Word "instruction," and see how the matter would then bear in their own minds, as to the feasibility of the position, "Whereas great advantages to the lower orders are likely to arise from teaching them writing and arithmetic."

Mr. Whitbread

immediately rose. He said, the hon. gent. had attempted to cast a degree of ridicule upon the preamble and the intent of the bill, which, in his opinion, it did not deserve. The hon. gent. asked, would any man say, after considering the principle in the way he had put it, whether morals were likely to be improved by writing and arithmetic? He (Mr. W.) was the man that would now stand forward, and answer, that they would; and he was ready to vindicate his opinion, but should be glad to hear the hon. gent. defend his own. He would assert, without fear of contradiction from any rational man, that writing and arithmetic, so far as they tended to exercise and improve the human understanding, tended also to improve morality; and that every vestige of knowledge, in progression from the humblest to the highest and most refined, operated proportionably to the improvement of morality amongst mankind.— After some farther discussion, the bill was gone through, reported forthwith, ordered to be printed as amended, and to be taken into further consideration on Monday next.