HC Deb 13 May 1814 vol 27 cc879-84

Mr. Serjeant Onslow moved the second reading of the Bill; which was warmly opposed by

Sir Fred. Flood

, who, though a friend to liberty, disliked licentiousness. The Bill went to abrogate that most salutary law of the 5th Elizabeth; and to revive the practice which had previously existed from Edward the third's time. It would be destructive of the interests of persons who served their apprenticeships, and paid for education in their respective trades, and ruinous to the morals of youth. It would be hurtful to commerce, to mechanics, to manufactures, and to the Stamp Act. The present law had lasted 220 years. He proposed to postpone the second reading to that day six months.

Mr. Protheroe

seconded the motion, as the Bill proceeded on no general comprehensive system; but simply on a repeal, without any efficient substitute for what was to be repealed. He objected to the measure in a moral point of view; in which respect he was upheld by the opinions of lord Coke and sir Wm. Blackstone. He had heard much of vexatious prosecutions under the Act of Elizabeth; but, on enquiry, he found that, at Bristol, for the last 20 years, there had not been one such prosecution. If apprenticeships were more encouraged, he was satisfied that combinations among journeymen would almost entirely be put an end to. If the House were to lower its attention down to the humble cottage, they would there see the advantages of this system, in beholding careful masters provided for the youths, who, in addition, were provided with food and clothing, while their morals were protected. He should be happy that the present Bill were withdrawn, and some measure unaccompanied by its disadvantages were introduced.

Mr. Hart Davis

could not disguise from himself that the present measure was attended with many difficulties. It would undoubtedly be of great advantage to our manufacturers that the present law should be repealed, and that every restraint should be removed from the rising generation. Supposing a person to be brought up to a trade for which from his constitution he was not fit, was he to be excluded from pursuing any other pursuit, or occupation whatever? Suppose the trade of button-makers, which was a trade that speedily passed away; or of gon-makers, of whom probably 40,000 might in a few months be thrown out of employment, was it to be held that they could follow no other occupation, but must remain a burden upon the community? The mere he considered the present measure, the more he was satisfied of its utility.

Mr. Protheroe

explained that he could wish a general review of the whole system.

Mr. Giddy

thought, if any one measure than another could be said to involve the general rights of mankind, the present was that measure. What was this but the general right of the inhabitants of this country, to employ the energies of their mind and body in the way they themselves pleased? And if a system were to be continued by which men were deprived of this general and undoubted right, it seemed to be incumbent on those who contended for the continuance of such a restriction to shew on what principle it was founded. If gentlemen attended to the time in which the law in question was passed, they would find that it was a period in which many ill-advised monopolies had been granted, and one in which remonstrances on that subject had been made by the House of Commons on the impolicy of such a system, which had not been much attended to. Nothing, he was convinced, had contributed so much as the law in question to check the progress in our arts and manufactures.

Sir C. Mordaunt

, on the part of his constituents, the manufacturers of Birmingham, was strongly in favour of the present repeal. If the law, as it now stood, were put in force, it would have the effect of imposing the strongest possible fetters upon ingenuity and industry,

Mr. Thompson

liked liberty; and doing so, he wished to see every man have the liberty of employing his bands and his genius in the best way he could for his own advantage, and for the benefit of the country. This no man was at liberty to do, so long as the present law remained in force. He wished the law totally repealed, though the Bill did not go so far. The present law was necessarily broken every day. It was clear, that the judges always wished to evade it, when they could do so. He knew a case of two men, who were prosecuted under the Act for sawing a piece of wood; another, of a good and a bad baker in the same town; where the bad one, finding that the good one had not served a regular apprenticeship, had him turned out, and got liberty to poison, all his neighbours with his bad bread. Some years ago the printers struck, and there was a difficulty in getting even the parliamentary papers printed. Let those, who chose it, bind their children as apprentices; but let not others be compelled to do the same. Instances of the absurdity of the law would be innumerable. It was none the better for the age of it, which the worthy baronet had stated. It was, in fact, superannuated; and it was much the kindest way to let it die quietly, and so confer an advantage both on this country and Ireland. Lord Ellenborough once got the coach-makers out of a scrape ingeniously enough. They were attacked as wheel-makers; bat his lordship said, that coaches could not have been known in Elizabeth's days, as that queen went to parliament on horseback. He perfectly agreed in the opinion which lord Mansfield had given, in speaking of the Act of Elizabeth, that "it was against the natural rights of man, and contrary to the common law rights of the land."

Mr. Rose

considered this as a subject of extraordinary difficulty. After all that had been said, he could not help thinking that if the Bill were passed into a law, it would put an end to apprenticeships altogether; for no person would subject himself to a seven years' servitude, when he knew, that having fulfilled his indenture, he would only be on a level with a man who perhaps had not been one year at the business. He was willing to examine and improve the 5th of Elizabeth, but would not agree to this unqualified repeal.

Sir J. Newport

was surprised that the hon. baronet (sir F. Flood) should be so anxious to perpetuate a statute which never was law in Ireland; and yet, in that country, where no such penalties as those indicted by the 5th of Elizabeth existed, the system of apprenticeships was freely and voluntarily adopted. He thought, on every principle of justice, that the sub- ject was entitled to make use of his abilities and industry in those pursuits most beneficial to his interests.

Sir S. Romilly

had been applied to on the subject of the present Bill, by the constituents of two hon. gentlemen who had already delivered their sentiments on the measure this night (Messrs. Protheroe and Davis). He felt the highest respect for the gentlemen who had so applied to him on the subject of the present Bill; but his opinion of the measure being decidedly opposite to theirs, he thought he should not be acting a manly part were he either to abstain from voting on this Bill, or were he to content himself with a silent vote on this occasion. He was satisfied that there were reasons sufficiently strong to support the system of apprenticeship in those trades in which a number of years were requisite to the acquiring a knowledge of them, without the assistance of the law as it now stood. This law, which went to prohibit a man from the exercise of that trade for which he was fit, he therefore thought ought to be repealed. For what was it but to take from a poor man the only property he possessed—his genius and industry—and to drive him into a workhouse; or to force him to abandon his country, and to forsake his wife and family. These were the moral consequences which the House was to look for from a perseverance in the law as it now stood.

Alderman Atkins

hoped that some clause might be introduced into the Bill, when it was in the committee, that would give sufficient encouragement to the apprentice system; while, at the same time, the abuses of it might be remedied.

Sir F. Flood

, seeing the sense of the House against him, withdrew his amendment.

Mr. Canning

wished the Bill to go into the committee. He was aware that the subject was attended with considerable difficulties. The difficulty would be to find the means of doing away the abuses complained of, without doing away the system altogether, which he was convinced was useful to the perfection of our manufacturers, and still more useful as affecting the morality of the lower orders.

Mr. Serjeant Best

said, that if no other member introduced a clause to that effect, he himself should feel it his duty to propose one. He thought the penal clauses of the Act of Elizabeth should certainly be repealed; but that, at the same time, it was much better that young people should not be left without some contronl. He thought that at present the masters had much more advantages from the services of the apprentice, than the apprentice had from the instructions of the master; as most of those trades might be learned in a very short time. He therefore wished that part of the earnings might go to the parents, as an encouragement to the system.

Mr. P. Moore

opposed the Bill because he thought that its enactment would operate seriously to the prejudice of our manufactures both in skill and reputation. Indeed, such had been found the effect of the partial repeal of the statute of Elizabeth with respect to the woollen manufacture. For although the Yorkshire tag had formerly been a sufficient recommendation upon the continent; yet since the repeal alluded to, our pieces of woollen-manufactures were examined yard by yard before they were purchased.

Mr. Lockhart

expressed his opinion, that this Bill, it enacted, should only operate prospectively; that is, that it should not become effective until a certain period; so that those mechanics who had served apprenticeships upon the faith of the existing law, should not be injured by its operation, by being thrown out of employment at a period of life when they could not devote themselves to any other profession than that to which they had been reared.

Mr. B. Shaw

deprecated the idea that morality was likely to be endangered, or our manufactures injured, by the enactment of the Bill under consideration; for Scotland, to which the Act of Elizabeth never extended, was never found in any degree inferior in morality, or skill in manufacture.

Mr. W. Smith

observed, that he never heard of any proposition of reform which was not likely to be inconvenient to some persons; and therefore he was not surprised at the assertion, that the adoption of the Bill before the House would operate to injure the interests of particular persons. The apprehension of such injury was, however, in his judgment, unfounded. But still, those who expressed the apprehension were entitled to attention; and the objections which certain petitioners urged against this Bill, would, he had no doubt, meet all due consideration in the committee. The fact was, as to the statute of Elizabeth, that its existence served to create certain monopolies; and the effect of those monopolies was, that when the demand for an article was large, the price was enhanced to the public; while, when the demand became small, many workmen were thrown out of employment. Therefore, the repeal of that stature would tend to serve both the public and the workmen. As to the argument advanced in support of the statute of Elizabeth, merely in consequence of its antiquity, he could not admit that it had any force. He declared that his ears were quite tired of the phrase "the wisdom of our ancestors," which phrase was, in fact, calculated only to impose upon the superficial. For, after all, what did this phrase mean? The world was younger in the time of our ancestors, although they were older than us. Time, lord Bacon said, was the greatest innovator; and if, at this advanced time of the world, after all our experience, we could not improve upon the system of our ancestors, our intellects must be what would hardly be asserted, not only quite unequal to theirs, but infinitely inferior. How then could it be pretended, that the same legislative, arrangement applied in the reign of Elizabeth, when the trade of the whole British empire was not equal to that of the port of London at this day, was, strictly applicable at present, and suited to our improved situation?

Mr. Serjeant Onslow

replied and observing upon the petitions on the table against the Bill, expressed his conviction that they were not the unsolicited acts of the petitioners; as indeed appeared from several placards about town, inviting signatures to such petitions; and those petitioners, he meant especially the journeymen mechanics, would find the repeal of the Act of Elizabeth rather materially serviceable, than in any degree injurious to their interests.

The Bill was read a second time, and ordered to be committed on Tuesday.