HC Deb 10 April 1818 vol 37 cc1259-63
Sir Ro bert Peel

presented a Petition from all the cotton-spinning factories of Stockport, in favour of the Cotton Factories bill. The petition, he said, was entitled to great attention, because it came from persons well acquainted with the facts in which they desired alteration. It would show, that the masters themselves were petitioners at the bar of the House in favour of their labourers. It was signed by seven master manufacturers, the opinion of one of whom, Mr. Entwistle, was entitled to the greatest consideration, and of the rest he was persuaded, that if they believed the measure he had brought forward would tend to injure the trade, they would be the last to petition for it. It was, moreover, signed by thirteen resident clergymen, who had an opportunity of knowing the condition of the objects of it, and by not less than eight medical gentlemen. He thought the petition was of the first consequence, in showing the necessity of the measure he wished to have adopted.—The petition was then read: it purported to be from the labourers above sixteen years of age, employed in the cotton-spinning factories of Stockport, and others of that town, and stated in substance, that under the existing regulations, workmen were over-laboured, over heated, and subject to oppressive inconveniences; that the personal experience of most of the petitioners showed how injurious the system was to the constitution. It prayed that a shorter period of labour might be established, and added, that the petitioners had no expectation of relief, but from the wisdom and liberality of parliament.

Sir James Graham

thought that the House would not attach as much importance to the petition as the hon. baronet had, when they were informed of the real character of the petitioners. He would inform them, that these petitioners were no other, for the most part, than a set of idle, discontented, discarded, and good-for-nothing workmen, who conceived that they did too much, when in employment, for the wages which they received. He knew them to be of the description which he had stated, and he had no doubt, that if the bill before the House were carried in the present session, these men would endeavour next year to have a bill carried to limit their hours of employment to a much smaller number than that which was fixed by the bill. He thought that manufactories and the. workmen employed in them should not be interfered with by any legislative regulation, so far as the hours they might consent to work were concerned. He should beg leave to add, that if such a regulation, with respect to free labour, had been passed when he was a boy, he should never have had the honour of a seat in that House.

Mr. Curwen

said, he was averse from granting the prayer of the petition. The petitioners asked that their time of labour might be reduced to ten hours and a half: if that was conceded, the next prayer would be, that it might be brought down to nine. The House should remember, that if the principle were once adopted in the case of the cotton-spinners, there was not a trade in the kingdom that would not desire the same interference and the same reduction. He thought an alteration was advisable; but he verily believed it would come at no great distance from the parties interested themselves. He believed the masters, if left to themselves, would shortly reduce the hours to twelve.

Sir R. Peel

begged it to be distinctly understood, that, to his certain knowledge, the character of the petitioners varied materially from the character given of them by the hon. baronet. They were respectable inhabitants of Stockport, professional men, and clergymen, who, observing the evils of the existing system, stepped forward to give that information which the House ought gratefully to receive. He was certainly of their opinion; having long been convinced (and he was happy to hear that his hon. friend who had last spoken entertained similar sentiments), that the hours of labour in cotton factories were protracted to an excessive length.

Mr. Butterworth

said, that he knew many persons in the north of England, who were in no way interested in cotton factories, but who were unequivocally of opinion, that unless some decided measure were adopted, with respect to the rising generation, the lower classes of the community would, in a few years, become a most degenerate race of human beings.

Mr. Finlay

was well aware of the evils which were attendant upon protracted hours of labour in manufactories, but he was convinced they were not confined to the cotton manufactories alone. In several others there were younger children employed, and for a longer period of the day. He should state to the House what had occurred in the committee upon the subject of manufactories. It was there ascertained, that children of a more tender age were employed in the silk factories, and for a longer time. The same might be said of the potteries, but no remedy had been applied to them. Why, he asked, if the evil was admitted to be the same in both cases, was not the same remedy applied? Why not extend the operation of the bill to all cases where similar causes might render it necessary? But he could state to the House, that it was not the fault of the manufacturers that the people were employed for so long a portion of the day. They were compelled to work by that greatest of all necessities—hunger. The evil was inherent in the very nature of manufactories, and in the present state of society, and unless these could be altered, it would be useless to make any legislative regulations to remedy the evil which arose out of them. Let those who possessed manufactories endeavour to improve the condition of those who they employed. They possessed the means of doing so under many circumstances; but the House was mistaken if they imagined that the evil could be remedied by mere legislative measures. He was aware that many of the master manufacturers had consented to the present measure from motives of humanity. He gave them credit for it, but he wished that a mistaken notion of humanity might not lead them to injure those whom they wished to serve; and he was convinced, that the effects of the present bill would operate more to the injury than the benefit of those for whom it was intended.

Mr. Wynn,

without entering into any argument on the question, wished merely to state, that he did not think the adoption of the bill which had been introduced by the hon. baronet, would evince any hostility to the principle, that it was generally expedient not to interfere with free labour. For on what was that principle founded? On the knowledge that, by leaving the regulation of the labour in the hands of the master, if he worked his labourer too hard, that labourer could resort to some other employment. Now this was wholly inapplicable to children of a tender age, who were placed in cotton factories, and who were necessarily at the mercy of their masters. What remedy had they if they were overworked? He did conceive, that it was in strict conformity to the principle on which the House ought to act, that they should interfere in the case of children who had no resort when oppressed. Where was the difference between children who were free labourers and apprentices? Those children, who were placed in cotton factories by their parents, had no more remedy if overworked than apprentices. They had not so much; for apprentices had it in their power to go before a magistrate, and complain if their masters tasked them beyond their strength. If it was proved that in any way the masters were enabled to task the children whom they employed beyond their health and strength, he was completely ready to contend, that a case had been made out which called imperatively for the interference of the legislature.

Ordered to lie on the table.

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