HC Deb 19 February 1818 vol 37 cc559-66
Sir Robert Peel

rose to make his promised motion on a subject, the importance of which increased more and more on every consideration of it. About fifteen years ago he had brought in a bill for the Regulation of Apprentices in Cotton Manufactories. At that time they were the description of persons most employed in those manufactories He himself had a thousand of them, and felt the necessity of some regulation with respect to them. Since that time, however, the business had been much extended. Manufactories were established in large towns, and the proprietors availed themselves of all the poor population of those towns. In Manchester alone 20,000 persons Were employed in the cotton manufactories, and in the whole of England about three times that number. The business was of a peculiar nature, requiring of necessity that adults and children should work in the same rooms and at the same hours. It was notorious that children of a very tender age were dragged from their beds some hours before day light, and confined in the factories not less than fifteen hours; and it was also notoriously the opinion of the faculty, that no children of eight or nine years of age could bear that degree of hardship with impunity to their health and constitution. It had been urged by the humane, that there might be two sets of young labourers for one set of adults. He was afraid this would produce more harm than good. The better way would be to shorten the time of working for adults as well as for children; and to prevent the introduction of the latter at a very early age. Those who were employers of the children, seeing them from day to day, were not so sensible of the injury that they sustained from this practice as strangers, who were strongly impressed by it. In fact, they were prevented from growing to their full size. In consequence, Manchester, which used to furnish numerous recruits for the army, was now wholly unproductive in that respect. He hoped the House would allow him to bring in the Bill that night; he would then move that it be printed, and-the second reading might take place at any future period that might seem convenient. The hon. baronet concluded by moving, "That leave be given to bring in. a bill to amend and extend an act made in the 42d year of his present majesty, for the preservation of the health and morals of Apprentices and others employed in cotton and other mills, and cotton and other factories."

Lord Lascelles

said, he felt considerable difficulty on the present subject, which was of the highest importance to the manufacturing districts. It was not all evils that were fit subjects for legislative interference; for instance, he highly applauded the bill of an hon. friend of his, respecting chimney-sweepers. But in the present case it should be recollected, that the individuals who were the objects of the hon. gentleman's proposition were free labourers. This excited his jealousy; for, were the principle of interference with free labourers once admitted, it was difficult to say how far it might not be carried. If there existed any thing radically vicious in the system, it ought to be inquired into. In fact, a parliamentary inquiry had taken place by a committee in 1816, and he could not help expressing his surprise, if the evils existed described by the hon. baronet, that no legislative measure had sooner been proposed. When the House were about to legislate on a large scale, they ought at least not to do so on ex-parte evidence privately obtained, but on evidence openly taken before a committee of the House or otherwise. If the evils stated in this ex-parte evidence really existed, it might be extremely desirous that something should be done to remedy them; still, however, the House ought to entertain a great jealousy on this subject. At all events, the subject ought to be canvassed and examined in the most open manner.

Mr. W. Smith

thought the principle of the bill would be discussed more advantageously on the second reading, and he merely rose to say, that the measure had its origin in the report of the committee which sat in 1816, which contained fully sufficient grounds for it, although those grounds were certainly not weakened by the additional evidence which had been produced, and shown to particular individuals. He would also remind the House, that a petition had been received from the adult persons in this employment, against the existing practice, which alone proved the necessity of some farther regulation.

Mr. Philips

strongly objected to the adoption of any measure of this description, and denied that the employment of children in the cotton factories operated, as had been described, to stint their growth, impair their comfort, or scatter disease amongst them. If he conceived that the establishment with which he was connected, though he was only what was called a sleeping partner in it, scattered disease and death in the manner which had been described, he should take shame to himself if he did not immediately attempt to remedy the evil. The fact was, however, that that establishment had been conducted in such a manner that it was an important benefit to the poor, and an example to other factories. In this, however, he himself had no merit, for the whole was done independently of him. During the twenty-seven years which that establishment had existed, no contagious disease had ever been known in it; and during eleven of those years returns of the state of health had regularly been made, and the sickness amounted only to a small fraction per cent. Out of a thousand persons employed, the whole sum paid to them in poors-rates did not exceed 5l. per annum—a fortieth part of the sum which the factory contributed to the poor. If such was the fact, could any man say that the employment was unhealthy? There was no manufactory in the country, from which, if the same means were taken which had been resorted to in this case, numerous petitions and complaints might not be got. About four or five persons had been very active in looking out for complaints; they had dispatched their emissaries secretly about the country, and had circulated papers among the people in the different factories for their signature. The hon. baronet had said, the petitioners, in order to have the number of hours reduced, would willingly submit to a reduction of wages; but the petitioners did not say one word about reduction of wages; and if they said they would con- sent to such reduction, he would not believe them. The habits of these people led them to combine together; and it required great delicacy on the part of their employers to prevent much mischief being done in this way. Small factories were: often ill ventilated, and from that circumstance the health of a person might suffer more in six hours in one of these factories, than in fifteen hours in a factory which was well ventilated and properly constructed in other respects. But how could this evil be cured by any bill? The small factories generally went to ruin, and that was the cure for the evil. From the returns made to the House, out of 31, 117, the number of persons employed in these returns, 1717, or 5½ per cent, were of the age of 10 and under, 13,203 from 10 to 18, and 16,197 of the age of 18 and upwards. Out of 27,827 persons, there were 1830 only who could not read. Out of 25,000 the number of persons returned sick was 163, very little more than ⅝ths per cent. For these and other reasons, he felt it to be his duty to oppose the hon. baronet's measure.

Mr. Wilberforce

was desirous that the discussion should be reserved till the whole subject should be fully before them. If different systems of management prevailed in the conduct of different factories, that was a sufficient reason for inducing the House to require farther information. His hope and belief was, that a fair inquiry would prove that the interests of the manufacturers and those of humanity were not at variance. Whatever might be the result of the measure, he was sure the House must feel obliged to the hon. baronet. Discussion must lead to useful results. He was convinced that whatever originated with the hon. baronet was the result of experience, prudence, and humanity.

Mr. Finlay

said, that excepting in one instance, in the county of Lancaster, there was no proof of the existence of any evils which could justify legislative interference. In that case indeed, evils existed of the highest description. But this was a factory conducted under the provisions of an act of parliament—a proof that no law could prevent bad men from doing wicked things. Even in this factory, however, it was proved, that though children were employed fourteen hours, they were notwithstanding in exceeding good health. He warned the House against entertaining any measure, which went, like the present, to interfere with a manufacture of such vital importance. It was the most important ever established in this country; indeed, he believed, it employed more people than all the other manufactures of the country taken together. The exports from it exceeded 20 millions a year; and what was exported was not equal to what the home con- sumption was. The whole amount of the manufactures was little short of 40 millions a year. The bill should extend to the linen and woollen manufactories, as the hours of confinement were in them equally long. The medical men, whose opinion had been quoted, had never been in the cotton factories, and a medical man had told a friend of his, six months ago, that within six months he would be a dead man. He mentioned that, to show that medical men were not infallible. In 1802 the hon. baronet had opposed a measure similar to the present, on the ground that it was impracticable. For himself, he should allow no one stage to pass without discussion, and he must express his regret, that on a question of such importance, none of the ministers should be present.

Mr. Peel

wished to observe, that the bill now proposed to be brought in, was introduced in 1815: it was then withdrawn, as it was contended, that there was not sufficient evidence on the subject before the House. In 1816, a committee sat for the purpose of investigation. A bill was not introduced last year from the indisposition of the mover; but that was no reason why one should not be introduced now. It was no argument against such a bill that some factories were well regulated. If same factories were well regulated at present, that was a reason for the House adopting the regulations on which those factories were conducted. With respect to the instance of misconduct in Lancashire, which had been alluded to, it was proved that children were employed there fifteen hours a day, and after any stoppage, from five in the morning till ten in the evening—seventeen hours, and this often for three weeks at a time. On the Sunday they were employed from six in the morning till twelve, in cleaning the machinery. The medical men examined by the committee were some of them related to manufacturers, and well acquainted with factories. It was on evidence, that children had even been employed at an age as early as five, and some were employed under the age of seven. Could any person say, that a child of seven years of age ought to be employed fourteen hours? Was it necessary to have the evidence of medical men to prove that to employ a child of seven years of age was unfavourable to health? At the same time, he allowed that the subject was not without difficulty. A sort of personal reflection had been thrown out against an individual with whom he was nearly connected. An hon. gentleman had observed, that the individual in question had not introduced the bill till after he had acquired his wealth, and abandoned the trade. So far the hon. gentleman was perfectly correct in his facts. The hon. gentleman had stated, that the magistrates had complained of the manner in which the establishment with which the individual in question was concerned, was conducted; but he had stated this without qualification as to the time of such complaints. This referred to a period so far back as 1784, and again in 1796; and it was in consequence of these complaints that the bill of 1802 was introduced. A great change had taken place in the manner of conducting that manufactory since that period. Before the application of steam, it was necessary to select situations where falls of water could be had; these situations were frequently mountainous, and the population thin, and children were obtained as apprentices from large towns; but now these manufactories were in populous neighbourhoods. The individuals in question finding that in his own establishment abuses had taken place, and were kept from his knowledge by the overseer, and learning that the same abuses took place in other manufactories, gave a proof of his sincere wish to remedy the evil by bringing in the bill of 1802.

Mr. Philips

, in explanation, observed, that the bill of 1802 was completely a dead letter, but that the manufactories were now in a far better state than they were at that time. The hon. member paid several compliments to the worthy baronet who had introduced the bill.

Mr. Curwen

observed, that at the passing of the bill in 1802, the manufactories were conducted most infamously, but he could now state, from actual observation, that they were much better managed. The present measure did not appear to him to have been well digested; for instead of weighing the whole of the matters it was intended to embrace, the hon. baronet appeared contented with weighing parts. He thought he might be allowed to put the question, whether it was possible that individuals in the situation of parents, who, it must be generally admitted, had some portion of the milk of human nature where their offspring was concerned, should seek to wear away the health and spirits of their children by over exertion. Dr. Blane, previous to his examining some of the factories, had expected to find a great degree of sickness, and was greatly astonished at finding the very reverse. What, then, could have produced effects so striking, but that improvement in the system of preserving health which had been found so efficacious in many of his majesty's gaols? In fact, no set of persons could be more healthy than the children so employed, and he could have wished, before the House had been called upon to legislate, that a committee had been appointed to examine into the real state of the case. Before he sat down, he thought it right to remark upon the propriety of legislating between the parent and the child: it went to say, that those of the poorer order were not fit to be trusted with the management of their own children. Let the House not disguise from itself, that the moment it was ascertained that the hours of labour were to be reduced, that moment there would be an outcry for an increase of wages. It had been said, that the parties themselves would consent to a diminution of wages, and farther, that the measure would be the means of calling a greater number of persons into employment. But then the consequences must be, that if the earnings of persons were lessened in point of hours, there must be some means found for increasing their wages. In that case it must be ruinous to the individuals and hurtful to the country: for the well-being of the cotton manufacture must depend on our foreign relations, and the ultimate effect must be, that the trade would be destroyed, and a number of persons thrown out of employment. On a former occasion, he concurred in opinion with those who thought an alteration in the system not only proper, but necessary; but since then he had had many opportunities of becoming more practically acquainted with the details and with the real facts; and he now felt confident, that to legislate at all upon the subject, would be ruinous to the trade, and injurious to the parties who were intended to be relieved.

Sir John Jackson

thought, as the House had given their attention to the amelioration of the situation of slaves abroad, that they could not in reason neglect their fellows-subjects at home. It was totally impossible that children kept at work for so many hours could be brought up with a due impression of their moral duties. He had had much conversation upon the subject with many persons connected with cotton mills, and particularly with the conductor of the establishment at New Lanark, and the general opinion was, that something was necessary to be done. He hoped, therefore, that the bill would be carried through the House. It came from an excellent quarter, for it was impossible to select a person more experienced in the business than the hon. baronet.

Sir James Graham

was of opinion, that if children who were apprenticed were restrained from working sixteen hours a day, the House ought not to put any restraint upon free labour. As far as went to the relief of apprentices, it was proper to legislate; and he should be ready to go as far as any one in forming any measure for their amelioration. The House must be aware, that a committee upon this subject was appointed in 1815,but nothing final was agreed upon. In 1816 the same committee again sat, and their inquiry was proceeding when the session closed. The committee was not able to lay any report before the House, but they expected to be called upon to resume the inquiry. As nothing had resulted from the labours of that committee, the present bill was founded upon an ex parte exposition of the subject. The hon. baronet was not perhaps aware of this fact, but it was one which, in his opinion, ought to weigh with the House. He would not oppose the bringing in of the bill, but he would take every means of obstructing its progress upon every point which interfered with free labour.

The bill was brought in, and read a first time.