HC Deb 10 February 1818 vol 37 cc264-8
Sir Robert Peel

rose to present a Petition from the Cotton Spinners of Manchester—a numerous class of men, who had rendered as great service to the country by their industry and skill, as any body of persons of the same order in society. The petitioners had come to him most unexpectedly, but he felt that they were entitled to his peculiar attention. They were aware that the attainment of the object of the petition must be attended with a reduction of their wages; but anxious for health, and in order to enjoy some of the comforts of life, they were willing to submit to that sacrifice. He had had a communication with some of those poor men this morning; and he declared he could not hear their statement, or witness their appearance, which confirmed that statement, without shedding tears [Hear, hear!]. As the House valued the trade of the country it could not fail to feel for the sufferings and consider the interests of those by whom that trade was sustained. How, then, would the gentlemen who heard him regard those poor petitioners, who, in rooms badly ventilated, and much over heated, were compelled to work from fourteen to fifteen hours a day? Young persons might endure such labour; but, after men had attained a certain age, it became intolerable. Premature old age, accompanied by incurable disease, was indeed too often the consequence of such labour in such places. He hoped, therefore, that the House would interpose to protect those from whose labour the country had derived so much advantage. He had himself been long concerned in the cotton trade; and from a strong conviction of its necessity, he had brought in a bill for the purpose of regulating the work of apprentices; but since that bill passed into a law, masters declined to take apprentices, and employed the children of paupers without any limitation. Hence the law was evaded, and rendered ineffective for the object which it had in view—that object was the prevention of inhumanity; and he hoped it was not inconsistent with our constitution to legislate for the protection of children as well as grown persons against the harshness of their employers. Those immediately concerned in the cotton trade did not perhaps perceive the injury to health which their workmen suffered, as they were in the habit of seeing them every day; but that injury was obvious to every stranger. Such a case was detailed in this petition, as presented an appeal to the House which could not be withstood by any assemblage of gentlemen susceptible of common humanity; and these poor people had no other protection but in that House. The hon. baronet manifested throughout very great emotion, and was listened to with peculiar attention.

The Petition was read; and after describing the circumstances stated by the hon. baronet, concluded with praying, that the case of the petitioners might be considered by the House, and that the period for their employment might be limited to 10½ hours each day, including the allowance of half an hour for breakfast and an hour for dinner.

Mr. Curwen

declared, that the impression upon his mind, from the evidence and Report of the Committee upon this subject two years ago, was, that the persons alluded to were not over-worked. The hon. baronet had spoken of the persons employed as having no protection. Had they not their natural protectors, their parents? He objected to a measure which would go to point out to the parents what were the hours in which their children should be employed. He had visited several of the manufactories, and must say, he never found children in better health and with better looks. He had no concern in any manufactories, and could therefore have no interest in expressing his opinions.

Mr. Gordon

expressed his surprise at what he had heard from his hon. friend. The children in the manufactories were certainly overworked, and that had appeared from the report of a committee appointed to inquire into the subject. If the children were kept at work from six in the morning till eight in the evening, with hardly any time to take their food, except as they passed from one room to another, they must certainly be overworked; and yet such was the fact. Many of the children also began to work at the age of six. The present petition had been signed by the parents of many of the children, who were anxious for a diminution of labour, even though accompanied with a reduction of wages. In a Sunday school, out of several hundred children, it was easy to distinguish those who were employed in manufactories. It was then honourable to the feelings of the hon. baronet to bring this question before the House. He was for such conduct, entitled, not only to the gratitude of the poor petitioners, but to the benediction of all good men. When a gentleman who had realized a large fortune in trade, thus stood forward to extend paternal protection to those who had contributed to his wealth, he could not fail to meet, as he merited, the universal thanks of his countrymen [Hear, hear!].

Mr. Philips

doubted the accuracy of the hon. member's information, that children employed in cotton factories could be distinguished among hundreds of others in consequence of their appearance of ill health; for, from his own observation, the children so employed enjoyed as good health as any other children. He had himself personally inspected those schools, and selected two children who were engaged in a factory, and bore the appearance of ill health. The one was a boy whose ill health he found to be attributable to an accident he had suffered from having fallen down and been trampled upon by some soldiers; the other was a female, whose delicate state of health was of long continuance, and before she had been engaged in any employment of the kind. In these schools there were three distinct classes of children, and on inquiry he ascertained that the children employed in factories were better looking than the others. On expressing this difference to the very person who had affixed his signature to the opinion that the health of children was deteriorated by their employment in factories, the answer he received was, that the difference in the appearance of the other classes arose from their not being well fed. If the employment of such children was productive of evil, that was a good ground for the interference of the legislature. But let that interference not be founded on ex parte evidence from one side or the other. Let it he the result of impartial examination, and to effect that he would recommend a special commission to investigate the circumstances on the spot The hon. baronet had no ground for assuming that the improvement which had certainly taken place, was in consequence of the operation of his bill. It arose from the good example set by other factories; and it was even to such examples that the improvement in the worthy baronet's establishment, and not to the bill, was attributable.

Sir R. Peel

thought the hon. gentleman had travelled out of the question for the purpose of making an attack upon him. Previously to any regulation having been made as to the employment of persons in the different manufactories, his establishments were as faulty as those of any other person, but when such regulation was proposed, he perceived, with surprise, the former injurious mode of regulating them, and was most anxious to concur in the proposed remedy. Me thought an application to parliament the best way by which a remedy could be procured, and that application was accordingly made. He should observe, in reply to what had been said by the hon. member, that his (Mr. Philips's) manufactories were as badly regulated previous to the late improvement, as those of any other person whatever.

Mr. F. Douglas

observed, that he was as anxious as any man to inquire into, and redress the grievances complained of, but he thought it was due to his hon. friend (Mr. P.) to state, that when he visited his manufactories a short time back, he saw all the children employed there were of the most healthy, cheerful, and contented appearance.

Mr. W. Smith

wished to answer one objection which had been made to the petition being received. It had been said that it had not the assent of those persons from whom it was said to come. That observation he had the best ground for refuting, namely, the testimony of several of the parties themselves. Several of the petitioners having been disappointed that nothing had been done for them last session, had come to London this session, and he had inquired of them if they were aware of the nature of their petition, and that its being agreed to would be a means of reducing their wages. They replied, that they were perfectly aware of it, and so were many thousands of those by whom the petition had been made. There were upwards of 6,000 persons in and about Manchester who were most anxious to have their petitions, agreed to, though they all knew that a reduction of their wages would be the consequence. There were in all between 20 and 30,000 persons who were anxious that a different regulation should take place with respect to their hours of working, and with respect to the hours of the children also.

Mr. Shaw

observed, that two years ago, when he visited the manufactories of I Philips, he was pleased at seeing that all the children employed there were of the healthiest and soundest appearance. He hoped the House would examine strictly and personally into the statements on which the petition was grounded, before they interfered in so important a question as that of lowering the wages of a numerous class of society.

The petition was ordered to lie on the table.