HC Deb 06 March 1815 vol 30 cc0-12

This being the last day for receiving private petitions, the Speaker entered the House at a quarter past three, and formed a House immediately after prayers. After some private petitions had been received, numerous petitions were presented by different members, from nearly all parts of the kingdom, praying that no alteration might be made in the Corn laws.

Mr. Calvert

, on presenting the petition from the borough of Southwark, observed, that the shortness of the time had only enabled 7,500 inhabitants to sign it; but there was no doubt that the petition which would be prepared for another place, would be signed by more than three times that number. He took that opportunity of adding, that the object of this petition was not to entreat consideration whether 76s. or 80s. were the fittest price, I but decidedly to pray, that no alteration whatever might be made in the corn laws.

Mr. Barclay

presented one from the manor of Clapham, signed by 7,700 persons.

Mr. Blackburn

presented ten petitions from different parts of Lancashire; amongst them was the petition from Manchester, which was signed by 54,000 inhabitants. On this being presented,

General Gascoyne

took occasion to observe, that when he had commented on the unpopularity of this measure in Lancashire, an hon. member for Lancaster had said, that the people were rather friendly than adverse to it. He would only ask whether the many thousands of names signed to all the petitions from those parts, did not prove directly the contrary?

The petition from Manchester was ordered to be read. It set forth the unequivocal and unanimous opinion of the petitioners, that the Bill was the most unadvised and injudicious measure ever brought forward: that the petitioners were convinced it would have the effect of raising the price of labour, and diminishing the demand for our own manufactures. It alluded to the great improvements in the cotton machinery on the continent, by which an important rivalship would exist towards us, that could not fail to undermine our manufactures, if this measure were passed into a law; the petitioners therefore viewed it with the greatest alarm, and prayed it might be rejected.

Sir Robert Peel

said, that it was not without some uneasiness he rose on this occasion. He thought the petition must show the unanimous opinion entertained of the Bill in this large manufacturing town. He begged the House also to observe, that the petition was not urged by any want of attachment to the government; for during the most pressing periods of the war, the people of Manchester had abstained from all complaints, because they had hoped that the return of peace, whenever it might arrive, would cause a cessation of their burthens. He had witnessed their feelings on former occasions with great uneasiness, as they arose from a want of bread; but when they were told that it would be injurious to publish their complaints, they submitted to their hard condition with the most praiseworthy silence. He considered the present Bill as the most injurious and unprecedented measure which had occurred in his time, as it went to affect an immensely numerous and loyal body of people, who had supported government by their labour and the advantages derived from its exercise. Was it, then, to be endured, that ministers should lend themselves to such a measure? He would tell them that they had but one interest to consult, and that was, to support the labourer in manufacturing industry. Was it intended that we should for the future only live on the produce of our land? If so, what would become of the resources from our manufactures, when our machinery should be lost? He was persuaded our manufacturers would not sit still and see their trade frittered away and destroyed: they would go abroad and exert themselves where their labour would be properly appreciated, and enable them to procure the necessaries of life. He, however, yet hoped, that as the injurious tendency of the measure must now be evident, it would not be suffered to proceed, but that ministers would convince the anxious multitude that they were alive to their real and vital interests. The fact was, that the more the measure became known, the more generally it was execrated and condemned. The people were not to be cajoled by such arguments as that the Bill would give them cheap bread: they knew better; they knew the thing was impossible; and, considering the inevitable consequences of the measure, he hoped the House would not suffer it to proceed further.

Mr. Philips

said, that the petitions before them were a complete answer to the idea that the minds of the people were changed. Upon no question were their opinions so unanimous. It had, indeed, been said that popular clamour was raised on this occasion, which was rather a curious term from a representative to his constituents. At all events, the present petition had no tendency to inflame, it was argumentative and rational; it came, in fact, from a quarter not remarkable for public meetings; for the practice at Manchester was, if a requisition was transmitted to the proper officer to convene a meeting, a counter one was also sent by a greater number of persons, and consequently no meeting was assembled. This practice he strongly reprobated; it went to discountenance the fair and constitutional expression of public feeling. What rendered the present petition of greater value was, that it was signed by those who heretofore objected to general meetings. A great deal had been said of the sufferings of the agriculturist. On this point he would only say, that an artificial extension of what was called their protection would increase their sufferings. Whatever public evil existed, the manufacturer bore his part of the pressure: his wages were getting lower, as the petition stated, and were likely to continue so. Great manufacturing and commercial distress prevailed, to the vital injury of those undeniable sources of national wealth and prosperity. The petitioners had further stated, that artisans were rapidly emigrating to France; and what would not be the consequence of an increase of those emigrations? The hon. member concluded by adverting to the enormous increase of the manufacturing population of Lancashire. In the year 1690 it amounted but to 234,805; it was now 828,000. Such an increase was entitled to the serious reflection of the House.

Mr. Cawthorne

said a few words in explanation of his former opinion, relative to the change in the people's minds upon the subject of this Bill. To the measure he had given his conscientious support. He denied that it was precipitated through the House, having been fully before them during a week's discussion. The hon. baronet had referred to the manufacturer's suffering, but the general support of the poor fell decidedly upon the landed interest. The hon. baronet should have observed, that he had not been much a resident in that part of the country. He did not know, perhaps, that considerable relief had been afforded to the people during that period of distress to which he had alluded.

General Gascoyne

repeated his previous observations, and said, that the proof of their truth was to be found in the 118,000 signatures and upwards, from that county alone.

Sir R. Peel

replied to an observation which fell from Mr. Cawthorne, respecting his not having an accurate knowledge of the opinions of the people of Lancashire, in consequence of his not having resided for some time in that county, by asserting, that although he had been partially absent from the county, he would have the hon. gentleman understand that his great capital had been constantly employed in it, and had contributed to the support of the people, whose sentiments he could not but know as well as any man.

Sir William Curtis

rose to present a Petition, signed by 40,000, and upwards, of the merchants, bankers, and traders of the city of London. There never was assembled a more orderly meeting; attempts were made to introduce extraneous topics for its consideration, which the good sense of the assembly altogether rejected. It was composed, said the worthy alderman, of all parties in the city, Whig and Tory, High-church and Low-church, Dissenter and Non-conformist. The worthy baronet contended that the representatives of the people of England should not shut their ears to the people's voice.

Sir James Shaw

warmly applauded the temper of the meeting from which the petition emanated. It was carried with the utmost and most unexampled unanimity.

Mr. Baring

wished to take this opportunity of saying that he believed a more numerous, respectable, and unanimous meeting had never been assembled, than that at which the present petition was agreed to. He entirely concurred in the sentiments stated in that petition. He believed that the measure now in progress through the House, was substantially a measure having no other effect but that of raising a considerable revenue from the consumers of bread for the purpose of raising the rents of land—[hear, hear!] He congratulated the House on the short delay which had already been gained. If it had not been for the adjournment, for one day, which he had been fortunate enough to succeed in obtaining, on a former stage, at three o'clock in the morning, the citizens of London would not have had an opportunity of stating their sentiments to the House, before this important period in the discussion. The great city of Westminster, where the two Houses of Parliament were held, had not even yet been heard on the subject. The hurry with which the measure had been carried through, had prevented them from yet having a representative from that great city in the House. The absence of one of the members was sufficiently accounted for; but the other member, the worthy-baronet, who had always been such a zealous defender of the rights and liberties of the people, would no doubt be anxious to come forward on such an important occasion as the present; and he must, at least, have been on the road from the moment that he heard of the measure. The distant parts of the country had been taken by surprise; they thought the subject had been set at rest last year; and many of the towns, from the precipitate manner adopted, had not yet been able to express themselves. It was not enough, in an important question of this kind, in which the whole community were so deeply interested, to have long discussions in that House; it was their duty to give the people time to express their sentiments. To every attempt he saw to hurry this measure, he should give his decided opposition.

Mr. Alderman Atkins

said, that so far from the signatures to the petition being only 40,000, upwards of 40,000 had signed it on Saturday. He had on Friday night earnestly intreated the House to postpone the second reading of the Bill; but the result was known. It really seemed as if the purpose of this precipitation was to prevent the petition from receiving three times the number of signatures that were already affixed to it. ['No, no,' from different parts of the House.] At all events, he said, it had that effect. The unanimous proceedings which had lately transpired, fortified the view which he had originally, taken upon this subject. This petition together with those of the manufacturing districts, should induce the House not to proceed any further with the measure.

Lord Lascelles

presented a similar petition from Leeds, subscribed by 24,000 persons; and petitions from Wakefield, Pontefract, and some other places in the West Riding of Yorkshire. He said, he believed there was a very general disapprobation of the Bill in the manufacturing districts.

Sir Samuel Romilly

presented a similar petition from Westbury. He concurred entirely in the sentiments of the persons petitioning, and thought the present one of the most-injurious measures ever brought forward in that House. He lamented exceedingly that such an important subject should be carried through with such precipitation, and that they should appear unwilling to hear the sentiments of the country.

Mr. Whitbread

presented similar petitions from Derby, Great Bedwin, and Hammersmith.

Mr. Yorke

presented a petition from the corporation of the conservators of the Bedford Level, stating their distressed state, and praying for an alteration in the corn laws. It was rather too much for gentlemen who took the opposite side of the question, to say that they expressed the sentiments of the people. That they expressed the sentiments of a part, he was willing to admit. How easy was it to get petitions signed in great towns like London? The agriculturists had not the same opportunities of coming forward as the inhabitants of great towns. The sense of the people was much divided on this question, and it was therefore a proper subject for the decision of parliament. If the agriculturists could be collected together to petition, the difference in number would not be great. The petitioners had redeemed between 3 and 400,000 acres of land from the water, under the guarantee of parliament, and they now claimed its protection.

Mr. Baring

said, it seemed to be held out by those who favoured the present Bill, that the agriculturists were all on its side. Now, he would maintain, for he had had communications from various respectable quarters on the subject, that the tenantry and labourers in general felt no interest whatever in the price at which the protecting duty should be fixed—[Hear, hear!].—He would repeat it, that the labourers in agriculture, and even the tenantry, had no interest in the present question. He believed the prevailing sentiment among the tenantry was, that this was the landlord's affair, and not theirs, for they could only pay to the landlord what they could afford after defraying their other expenses. But to talk of the labourer was altogether ridiculous. Whether wheat was 120 or 80s. the quarter, he could only expect dry bread in the one case, and dry bread in the other; and they therefore had no interest whatever in it. With respect to petitions from the Fens, he could not but express his opinion, that if any persons were more entitled than others to the thanks of their country, it was those who made land productive but there happened to be evidence as to these fens in the report before the House. That evidence was decidedly against 80s.; and therefore, if the persons best acquainted with land of that description did not consider 80s. as a necessary price for the protection of the petitioners, he considered it conclusive on the subject.

Mr. Methuen

begged to assure the House, that the petitions he had presented that day were not signed by manufacturers alone, but that they contained the names of many land-owners, who were convinced of the injurious tendency of the measure.

Mr. Home Summer

presented a petition from the inhabitants of Croydon against the Bill, and observed, that as he had already brought up one from the same place of a different tendency, he could not but regret that while he performed his duty, he should have to differ in his opinion from any portion of his constituents.

Mr. Calcraft

presented a petition from the inhabitants of Rochester, signed by 8,700 names. The hon. gentleman declared he fully concurred in the prayer of the petition, and hoped the House would even now find it necessary to pause in their precipitancy.

Mr. M. A. Taylor

presented a petition against the Bill from Poole, which, he said, was numerously signed; not by manufacturers, for there were no persons of this description in the town, but by merchants and others, many of whom were considerable landholders. Me trusted, that if the House should agree to the Bill, the people would sit down quietly under it; but, for his own part, he would give it his utmost opposition.—The same hon. member gave notice of a motion relative to Wills; and also of another, for a Bill to abolish the punishment of the Pillory.