HC Deb 27 April 1814 vol 27 cc563-74
Mr. Serj. Onslow

rose to move for leave to bring in a Bill to repeal part of an Act, passed in the 5th year of queen Elizabeth, entitled "An Act containing divers orders for artificers, labourers, servants of husbandry, and apprentices." That Act had experienced a singular fate; from a very early period after it was passed, down to the present time, the policy of it had been condemned, both by those who were to enforce it, and by every enlightened writer who had treated of the subject. The moral feelings of mankind had been so opposed to it, that it was with extreme reluctance that juries ever found verdicts in favour of the prosecutors: and it had been frittered away by the decisions of the courts. It had been early determined, that a person who had served an apprenticeship of seven years to any trade, might legally work in every other; but that determination was too violent an infringement of the plain words of the statute to be sustained, and had been abandoned. The decisions, however, which now remained, were very extraordinary; it had been determined, that a gardener was not within the statute, because it was not an occupation requiring skill, but a fruiterer was; even a pippin-monger had been held to be within the statute; the same determination had taken place as to a cook (he presumed it was determined in the city of London.) He did not mean to go through the many inconsistent decisions on the subject: he * must lament that they had taken place, not only because he thought the judges had, in many instances, transgressed the bounds of their province; but because the manner in which the Act had been frittered away, had been the means of its continuance on the statute book. It had been looked on as a poisonous insect destroyed; it was not so; the reptile, though crashed, was not dead, it had still power to sting. The reign of queen Elizabeth, though glorious, was not one in which sound principles of commerce were known; and a perusal of the other clauses of the Act, as well as the one creating the penalties for exercising trades contrary to its provisions, would fully confirm that assertion; indeed, it did not seem to be the object of that statute to favour manufactures; it rather seemed to be intended to make them subservient to a most mistaken notion of favour to the landed interest. So little was political economy then understood, that the idea never seemed to have occurred, that agriculture was best promoted by the prosperity of commerce and manufactures; and that restraints upon them defeated the end they aimed at, and discouraged that very employment which they ought to promote. By many clauses of that statute a qualification in land is made a requisite to the power of becoming an apprentice; the statute also aims at an equalization of wages, an attempt too absurd to make it necessary for him further to notice, and which he only now mentioned, to shew how ignorant of the subject the framers of that Act were. Apprenticeships had been looked upon as favourable to the morals of youth, and he was very far from wishing to discourage them; but he did not wish them to be an indispensable qualification for legally carrying on trades. He agreed entirely on that point with the very able report on the state of the woollen manufacture; so far from wishing to discourage them, he had prepared a clause to carry them into effect; for as the law now stood, very few indentures were made according to the statute. Apprenticeships were not a sacrifice, to be remunerated by statutable restrictions on others; but when properly conducted, were best secured by mutual interest. Apprenticeships were as common in trades not within the statute, as in those that were within what had been called the protection, but what he thought the curse, of the statute. It appeared, even by the evidence given in the committee last year on the * petition of those who wished to enforce the statute, how common apprenticeships are in trades where they are not enforced by penalties, or encouraged by monopoly; and he was credibly informed, that in some trades that were notoriously within the scope of the Act they are hardly known. If he had thought that the morals of the country could be endangered by the repeal, he would not have proposed it; he never could put any increase of national wealth in competition with national morals; but there never was a period when there was so little to dread on that subject,—never was there a time when so much pains were taken to diffuse religions instruction, and to promote education among the lower orders of society; although he perceived with grief, in some instances, dissensions among those who, agreeing on the object, differed as to the means: he trusted, however, that animosity would soon be exchanged for emulation. He complained of the extraordinary pains that had been taken to misrepresent his object; he said, that his views were directed to the benefit of those whom it had been attempted to mislead; that by far the greater part of the working manufacturers had not served a legal apprenticeship to the trades they exercised; it was their protection he aimed at: indeed, he had not found one person who thought well of the statute as it stood; he had seen many who entertained different views of the subject from himself; for, however personally, and professionally, he had found it inconvenient, he had seen every deputation that wished to lay their sentiments before him. Last year a petition had been brought up, praying that the Act might be extended and enforced; he understood the petitioners wished it to be extended to all trades, and the penalty augmented to 50l. per month, and that costs of suit should be given to the informer. On that petition a committee had been appointed; and though, through some strange apathy, it had been almost unresisted, he did not think that the petitioners had made out a case. It was remarkable, that all the witnesses, whatever was their occupation, thought seven years was hardly sufficient to acquire a due knowledge of their trade; even the pipe-makers stated seven years to be barely sufficient; what, then, had the petitioners to dread? they did not want the aid of the statute to prevent others from interfering with them. They had brought forward some charges of fraud against persons who had not served an apprenticeship; but fraud does not arise from inexpertness. Prosecutions had been formerly rare, and only arising from personal malignity to the master, or jealousy of the man employed; for never was an unskilful workman the object of attack: of late, they had assumed a more serious and systematic shape: in one county (the county of Northumberland) they had gone through most trades; they had found out that a cook was a trade requiring skill; and had they not been stopped by the notice he had given, they were preparing to attack the chimney-sweepers, he supposed with a view to enforce morals, by subjecting boys to hard labour at nine years of age, and turning them loose again at the most dangerous period of youth. As the Act now stands, it is ridiculous; it ought either to be made effectual, or repealed; and who, he asked, would be hardy enough to propose to enforce it? He said, skill was not given by the parchment indenture, but by industry proportioned to the nature of the employment and the capacity of the learner; therefore not only the time requisite to acquire it was different in different trades, but in different individuals. Again, the law only applies to trades in existence at the time of passing the statute, and is therefore unequal; and it is worthy of observation, that those trades which have flourished most, had arisen since the statute: it is also unequal, as affecting the natives of Ireland and Scotland, in neither of which countries such a law prevails; and yet, if at an adult age they came here as workmen, they are affected by the statute. And here he observed, that the natives of Scotland had never been accused of want of industry, or of skill, nor of moral habits. He said, the subject was so extensive, that he was afraid he should fatigue the patience of the House were he to go into a tenth part of the topics that presented themselves to his mind; he should therefore confine himself merely to a few more observations. The penal part of the statute had been repealed as to many descriptions of persons; soldiers, sailors, and militia men; persons who convicted two offenders of coining had been exempted from the operation of statute; an exemption odd enough, if skill in the execution of trade was what the legislature aimed at securing even the hawkers and pedlars have been equally favoured; they may carry on any manufacture, even with unapprenticed hands: it had been also repealed as to divers trades; the hatters, the wool-combers, the dyers, and very lately as to our great staple the woollen manufacture, and they may also carry on any other manufacture, and that after a long and most laborious enquiry. Another point that pressed, more strongly on his mind was, the case of the female sex, numbers of whom were now employed in trades to which they certainly never served an apprenticeship, and these were affected by the statute. Men also who had been brought up to one trade were frequently, from want of health or some other powerful cause, unfit to follow it; and yet it was penal to transfer their industry to another to which they were competent. Trade too is of a most fluctuating nature; many branches of it, from various causes, decay, and others flourish; and yet the operation of the statute checks the transfer of the industry of the workmen. The buckle manufactory is a striking instance; when that failed, had the statute been enforced, many thousands must have starved, or subsisted on parochial relief. He begged leave, to draw the attention of the House to some information that he had received from an enlightened gentleman, the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce at Birmingham: what be stated as to the fluctuation of trades there, was most material; indeed, he stated, that the fluctuation was almost daily; the white metal button trade had failed; the manufacture was totally distinct from that of the gilt buttons; the white metal buttons were cast, the other pressed out of rolled metal. Another important branch of manufacture which formerly belonged to that town, but had almost disappeared, was that of polished steel goods, such as buckles, watch-chains, &c.; thousands who had engaged in that manufacture had turned their industry to filing gun-locks, a trade now about to be most amazingly diminished; the same observation applied to many other trades, the gilt toy, the tin and Bath metal, &c. Numbers, indeed, had been employed in the manufacture of a particular sort of musket; in prospect of peace, orders had been countermanded, and half the manufacturers had been discharged. In consequence of the glorious news just communicated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the whole employment must cease; what, then, is to become of the manufacturers? Are they to be allowed to transfer their industry, or are they to be thrown on their parishes for support? He observed, that his Bill did not seek to repeal or alter any other statute than that of the 5th Elizabeth; nor did it affect or alter the bye-laws or privileges of any corporation or company lawfully constituted; indeed, out of abundant caution be had inserted a clause to that effect. The learned serjeant said he had not taken up this case lightly; he had thought much upon the subject; nor had he proceeded merely on the opinion of theoretical men, though political economy had ever been with him a favourite study; he had been favoured with the valuable opinions of many enlightened practical men; and from all the information he had derived on the subject he was fully convinced it was one that loudly called for the interposition of the legislature.

Mr. Lockhart

said, that, while he agreed in some of the propositions laid down by his hon. and learned friend, he felt considerable alarm at others which he had promulged. He certainly had shewn the inconsistency, and sometimes even the absurdity, which characterised the decisions, under the 5th of Elizabeth, in out courts of justice—and, above all, he had placed in a very striking light the danger of giving to the judges a sort of feeling, which induced them to act rather from their own ideas of policy, than from the provisions of the law. He (Mr. Lockhart) held, the same opinion on these points as his learned friend; and, with him, he also thought, that the system of seeking redress by action brought through the medium of a common informer was very objectionable. But his hon. and learned friend had not applied himself to the main object of the existing law—he had not touched upon the general necessity of apprenticeships. He appeared to thinks with most writers upon political œconomy, that regulations of this kind had better be left to the discretion of parents, and of the individuals themselves who wished to acquire any trade. If this course were followed, his learned friend was of opinion, that wages would be given, according to the contract entered into or in proportion to the ability of the party. He had also said, that skill was not to be obtained by an adherence to indentures. But this was a proposition that ought to be received with extreme caution; and therefore he was of opinion, that a committee should be appointed to investigate that fact—to examine whether apprenticeships were not beneficial to the morals of the community, and useful to the commerce and manufactures of the country. It would be right for the House to consider, whether, if a matter of such serious import had been left merely to parents, many of them of the lowest class in society, the manufactures of this country would ever have arrived at the pitch of excellence which they had now attained. This consideration alone was sufficient to call on the legislature to pause, before they made an alteration in so important a law. He did not mean to prejudge the measure proposed by his hon. and learned friend; at the same time, he conceived it was but just, in deciding on the Act now in existence, to recur to the effects which it had already produced, and to be guided by those effects, in legislating for the future. His hon. and learned friend had stated, that his Bill would not affect either the privileges or the revenues of corporate bodies; because it contained a clause which guarded them from its operation.—This clause he had not stated. But it appeared to him, that, where the freedom of a corporation depended on an apprenticeship of seven years, and fees were paid on the attainment of such freedom, the lessening the number of apprenticeships for that specific period, as it would decrease the claim for the freedom of the corporation, must also decrease the revenue arising from the fees so paid. Another important question was, whether this alteration would not affect the representative system. Many persons in corporate towns derived the right to vote, in consequence of serving an apprenticeship of seven years. Now if these apprenticeships for seven years were, by the provisions of the Bill, rendered less frequent, the number of voters would be contracted, exactly in the ratio of its operation. He, therefore, recommended, that the whole subject should be investigated by a committee, who might state what period they considered necessary for the acquirement of one trade, and what for another. And, if it were thought proper to grant any pecuniary encouragement to the apprentice, in the latter part of his time (for he knew it was objected, that apprentices between idle, when they found themselves capable of earning a great deal of money, by which the master alone was benefited), a provision might be introduced, enabling magistrates, or others, to affix some rate of wages for those who were advanced in their apprenticeships. He was by no means averse to an alteration of the law; but he deprecated that sweeping principle which his hon. and learned friend called upon them to sanction.

Mr. Rose

said, that, when a number of tradesmen brought petitions to him against any alteration of the existing law, he told them, that, as he had himself introduced a Bill to repeal the 5th of Elizabeth, as far as it regarded the woollen manufacturers, he of course felt a considerable bias in his mind. With that impression, he candidly informed them, that it would require a great deal of information before he could be induced to alter his opinion on the subject. He therefore advised them to be cautious in what they were about to do; as an attempt to bring into full effect the 5th of Elizabeth would probably end in disappointment. In thus acting, he was influenced by a desire not to raise expectations in their minds which perhaps never would be realised—a principle by which his conduct had always been guided. The petitioners, however, stated, that they could make out a very strong case; and all they requested was, that it might be patiently heard. In answer to this, he told them, that he had no objection to lay their petition before the House, and to take the chair of the committee to which it might be referred. The committee was appointed—it met from day to day, and, except when prevented by indisposition, he presided in it—and this he felt himself bound to admit, that the petitioners did bring forward a very strong case indeed. The learned gentleman had alluded to pipe-makers and basket-makers; it so happened, that he (Mr. Rose) did not hear that part of the evidence. But there were other trades, which the persons examined proved would be greatly deteriorated, if individuals who had not served regular apprenticeships to them were suffered to adopt them. The learned gentleman (Mr. Lockhart) had expressed himself in favour of a committee—but he did not conceive that such a proceeding would be at all useful; since the former committee was very rarely attended by more than two or three members, after they had formed a quorum. The learned gentleman (Serjeant Onslow) had, he thought, made a charge against the petitioners, which they did not deserve. He accused them of having brought actions, from malignant feelings—(No, no, from Mr. Serjeant Onslow.)—He (Mr. Rose) did not at all wonder, that those who had served apprenticeships to a trade, and who had paid premiums to acquire it, knowing that a law existed, which gave to them, and to them only, a right to work at that trade, should avail themselves of it. The learned gentleman had compared that law to a venomous reptile; but, if it were so, it was created by one of the wisest administrations this country ever saw. The judges certainly had moderated the effects of the law; and so far, he was ready to admit, had shewn themselves hostile to it. He thought, before any farther discussion took place, they should permit the Bill to be brought in. They would then become acquainted with its provisions, and could act as the necessity of the case demanded. If, as he originally understood the intention of the learned gentleman, he meant to move for the complete repeal of the 5th of Elizabeth, he thought the measure would be very dangerous in many points of view. It would, for instance, in a variety of cases, do away with the right of voting. That privilege, he believed, in the city of London, was chiefly exercised by those who had served apprenticeships for seven years. But, if he merely intended to remove the penalties to which persons were at present liable, for employing workmen who had not served a regular apprenticeship, the Bill would probably meet with the concurrence of the House. In conclusion, the right hon. gentleman begged leave to state, that those persons who had waited on him, for the purpose of having petitions (from, he believed 40,000 tradesmen) presented to the House, had demeaned themselves in the most proper and becoming manner. They had indulged in no intemperance of complaint, but uniformly expressed their perfect resignation to the award of the legislature, whatever it might be.

Mr. Serjeant Onslow

explained. When he spoke of malignant motives, he had no idea of alluding to the petitioners. With respect to the scope of the intended Bill if the right hon. gentleman had examined the order-book, he would have found, that this notice referred to the repeal of only one clause in the existing Act.

Mr. Phillips

thought the conduct of the right hon. gentleman (Mr. Rose) very extraordinary. He stated, that he had himself formerly moved the repeal of this very Act, with reference to certain manu- factures; and yet he had just spoken of it in terms of high panegyric, as one for which he had the highest respect. Glorious as the reign of queen Elizabeth undoubtedly was, they ought not to refer to that period as affording wise commercial regulations. The true principles of commerce appeared, at that time, to be misunderstood; and the Act in question proved the truth of this assertion. The persons most competent to form regulations with respect to trade were the master manufacturers, whose interest it was to have goods of the best fabric; and no legislative enactment could ever effect so much in producing that result, as the merely leaving things to their own course and operation. The proof of this was to be found in the fact, that the manufactures for which this country was most famous, were precisely those to which this Act did not apply. If this narrow principle had been carried into every branch of art, the machinery of sir Richard Arkwright would have been lost to the country—and the genius of Mr. Watt, whose inventions had added more to the productive powers of the empire, than if the population had been increased one half, would have been still unknown. By this Act, which was said to be so beneficial, a man, who had served his apprenticeship to a trade he detested, was prevented from exercising another for which he might feel an inclination. And, where a manufacturer ceased to employ the usual number of hands, and another had not a sufficient quantity, the superabundance of the one, was prevented from being employed to make up the deficiency in the other. This principle went, in fact, to place the trading classes in this country on a level with the Indian castes.—The hon. gentleman then proceeded to point out the evil effects which arose from the system of combination among tradesmen; a system that had extended widely through the country, and had produced great violence and insubordination. That system was supported by contributions, which were placed under the controul of committees, composed of idle and turbulent people, who willingly undertook the office, because they themselves benefited by it. Adam Smith thought that combinations among workman were not dangerous—because they were counteracted by combinations among the master manufacturers, which be believed to be more frequent. That able writer was mistaken in the fact, and his reasoning was consequently erroneous.—Masters, it was true, might have a common interest in reducing the rate of wages—but the opposition among them was so much greater and more powerful than that among the workmen, that it prevented them from frequently combining together. On the other hand, the journeymen drove the reluctant into combination, through terror—and the apprehensive, by the hope of protection and security which their great numbers held out. This was not the language of a candidate for popularity—but it was a language which his public duty taught him to make use of.

Alderman Atkins

should be happy to find that he was under an error in opposition the measure of the repeal; but he did so from the idea that we had no means of compelling young minds to pursue a trade, except by holding forth motives of encouragement, in showing that they would thereby have advantage over their fellows. He knew that many instances might be cited of great geniuses, who had not served apprenticeships. Such was Margarot, who invented the lunar tables, and a watch for the more perfect calculation of the longitude. Taking such instances as proofs of the non-necessity of being bound for seven years, young men say, "Why should we submit to a term of bondage?" The answer of parents and masters is, "We are afraid to trust you; we will have our bond, and then we have a security for your attendance to your duty." Only take away the power to inflict the penalty; and it will be seen what a door we are opening for the neglect of our youth, who would then form their own views, and conceive themselves competent to practice a trade after only one, two, or three years initiation in its mysteries.

Mr. Protheroe

was by no means satisfied with what had been said on this subject; but he did not conceive this a proper time for delivering his sentiments upon it.

Mr. Peter Moore

was convinced, that the farther the hon. gentleman proceeded with his Bill, the more difficulty he would have to encounter. He had already caused very great alarm throughout the country; a proof of which was, the great number of signatures to the petitions which he (Mr. Moore) had presented against any alterations in the 5th of Eli- zabeth. There were not less than 300,000 in favour of the established law; while the illegitimate, unapprenticed, and itinerant counter-petitioners, coming forward against an existing right, did not exceed 2,000! If such claims were to be admitted, it would be right to enquire why other persons might not be justified in coming forward with theirs; and instead of confining apprentices to ribbon-weavers and watch-makers, the learned professions might be brought in question; and it might be asked, what right parsons or lawyers have to practise their duties, without serving a seven years apprenticeship.

Mr. W. Smith

said, from what had occurred in the course of the debate, it appeared to him most necessary, that leave should be given to bring in the Bill, and that it should be read a first time; they would thus be perfectly aware of its provisions, and all misunderstanding on the subject would be removed. He did not place any great weight on the circumstance of the petitions against the measure being signed by a great number of persons; for, when individuals made it their business to go through the country, and to represent to the working classes that an attack was about to be made on their privileges, it was not wonderful that a great clamour should have been excited. He should not have been surprised, under such circumstances, if, instead of 300,000 persons, double that number had come forward. He had himself presented a petition from a great number of manufacturers, inhabitants of the city which he represented (Norwich) against the projected measure; but (though he had no doubt many of them were his constituents), as an independent, member of parliament, that circumstance should not deter him from giving the proposed Bill a full and fair consideration—He thought, that, when the measure came to be discussed, there would be a great number of speakers against it; but he had no doubt there would be a large majority of votes for it.

Mr. Serjeant Onslow made a few observations in reply.

Leave was then given to bring in the Bill, which was shortly afterwards brought up; read the first, and ordered to be read the second time on Friday the 13th of May.