HC Deb 23 February 1818 vol 37 cc581-8

On the order of the day for the second reading of this bill,

Sir Robert Peel

said, he wished to offer a few observations to the House with regard to the nature of the bill. The principle of it was exactly the same as that of the bill which he had brought in in 1815; and he hoped, for the sake of those unhappy children for whose protection it was intended, that he should succeed in his object. When he brought in a bill for regulating the labour of apprentices in cotton mills, in 1802, he told the House that he was an advocate of free labour. He was still an advocate of free labour, and he wished that that principle should not be infringed on. He could not think that little children, who had not a will of their own, could be called free labourers. They were either under the control of a master or a parent. He hoped the House would take these children under their protection. If ever there was a case which deserved the attention of every member of the House, the present was that case. He well knew that many factories were conducted in the most reputable manner; but, at the same time, he knew that there were other factories conducted very differently. There were many poor children in every part of the kingdom whom there was no way of protecting but by act of parliament. He hoped the same course which was adopted three years ago would be adopted now—that the second reading would be agreed to, and the clauses of the bill filled up in a committee; and plenty of time would be allowed for circulating the bill up and down the country. He pledged himself that no future proceeding should take place till after the holidays, and that therefore no person should be taken by surprise. In the bill brought in in 1815, the age at which children might be employed was fixed at ten. He now proposed the age of nine years, and that the powers of the act should terminate when the child reached the age of sixteen, and could be considered a free agent. He, therefore, now recommended that children employed in cotton factories, should, from nine to sixteen, be under the protection of parliament, and before nine that they should not be admitted; that they should be employed in working eleven hours, which, with l½ hours for meals, made in the whole 12-½ hours. It was his intention, if possible, to prevent the recurrence of such a misfortune as that which had lately taken place-he alluded to the fourteen poor children who were lately burnt in the night in a cotton factory. He knew that the iniquitous practice of working children at a time when their masters were in bed too often took place. He was ashamed to own that he had himself been concerned where that proceeding had been suffered; but he hoped the House would interfere, and prevent it for the future. It was his wish to have no night-work at all in the factories. The hon. baronet concluded by moving that the bill be read a second time.

Lord Lascelles

did not rise to make a professed opposition to the motion of the hon. baronet, because he had stated that the bill might lie over, the blanks be filled up, and the whole country have proper notice of what was going forward. In one part of the bill he agreed with the hon, baronet, namely, in that part which limited the ages of the children employed in the manufactories. If there was any abuse with regard to the age, it certainly called for the attention of the House. There was one thing which ought to be observed: in former times a great part of the manufactories had been conducted upon streams of water, but lately the in- troduction of steam had removed many of them into remote parts of the country. But still a number were upon streams. The bill was calculated to give a great superiority and advantage to those factories that were carried on by steam. They could, in fact, do as they liked; they could work eleven or twelve, or whatever number of hours they chose. But it was not so with those upon streams. There were many of those that could not work except when the water suited them; and if they were limited to the hours prescribed by the bill, they would be rendered useless, which was a very strong fact for the consideration of the House. The real grounds of the bill, it should be observed, did not arise out of any of the proceedings of 1816, but, in a great measure, upon other evidence. But he would say, that whatever evidence was brought up in the pockets of certain individuals from the country, when that evidence fell upon the characters of people not present, it was hard that they could not be heard in their own defence. That method of taking evidence was a kind of underhand mode of proceeding. He by no means alluded to any part of the conduct of the hon. baronet; he was speaking of the impropriety of the production of that kind of evidence. It was such evidence as he was not at all partial to. He should not oppose the bill in its present stage, as the hon, baronet had professed his intention of giving ample time for consideration.

Mr. Philips

commented on the proceedings which had been resorted to in order to get signatures to the petition which had lately been presented by the hon. baronet from the persons employed in the cotton factories. He entered into some of the particulars of the evidence taken by the committee, which went to prove, that persons were employed at an earlier age, and for longer hours, in weaving, than in the cotton factories. On what principle could they interfere with free labour in cotton factories, and not at the same time regulate the age at which children could be employed in weaving, and the number of hours which they should work? To prove the unhealthy nature of the employment in cotton factories, the matron of the fever ward of the Manchester infirmary had been examined, who stated, that the number of persons employed in such factories, brought to the fever ward, was disproportionately great. He was convinced, at the time this evidence was delivered, that the statement was incorrect. In order to obtain correct information on the subject, he had had reference to the books of the infirmary, and he found that the whole number of persons, at a certain period, was 180, and that of this number only 19 were from the cotton factories. In July, 1817, the whole number of persons in the Manchester infirmary, amounted to 370; of that number, 55 only were from the cotton factories. Now, the number of persons in Manchester, engaged in the cotton factories, amounted to 24,000, while the population was between ninety and a hundred thousand. There was, therefore, the most complete evidence of the superior health of the persons engaged in the cotton factories, to that of the other inhabitants. He referred to a report from the poorhouse of Preston from 1815 to 1816, to show how little burdensome this class of manufacturers in general was to the country. The whole number of persons in the workhouse exceeded 600; and of these, there was not one person who had ever been employed in any cotton factory. With respect to the factory with which he was concerned, they had a sick fund of their own; but when the working people saw disease and misery around them, they, of their own accord, and without the least excitement from others, contributed 24l. from their sick fund to the Manchester infirmary, and 24l. to a fund for the poor of that town. With respect to the healthiness of the employment, he would state the opinions of two medical gentlemen in Manchester, of the first eminence, Dr. Home and Dr. Henry. The hon, gentleman then read a letter from Dr. Henry. In that letter Dr. Henry stated, that if any disease was proportionally more frequent than any other in cotton factories, it was pulmonary consumption; persons between the ages of 15 and 45, employed in such factories, were more subject to consumption than persons in many other employments; but, on the other hand, he would decidedly say, that chronic rheumatism, a most severe disease, was very frequent there, and which often disqualified, for a great length of time, persons afflicted with it from labour, was much less common among persons engaged in cotton factories, than among dyers, bleachers, and weavers. Dr. Henry thought, however, that the temperature of some of the rooms was higher than was consistent with health; but if the temperature could be reduced to 65 or 60, there was no reason why a well-regulated factory should not be as healthy as an ordinary apartment. Dr. Home had told him (Mr. Philips), that he had not the slightest doubt of the superior health of the persons engaged in cotton factories, compared with persons in other manufactories. If they regulated labour in cotton factories, did they think that other manufacturers would be quiet? In well-conducted factories few or no children were taken under nine—an employer would not wish to have them at an earlier age. He wished gentlemen to pause before they interfered with such an important manufacture. They ought to know, that the yarn spun in this country was much more than sufficient for our domestic use. On this subject there was the greatest jealousy abroad; and there had also been an application last session for a duty on the exportation of cotton yarn. On the continent the hours of working were fully as long as in this country, and unlimited. The language of the continental manufacturers was, "if your legislature only limit the hours of labour, or lay a duty on the exportation of yarn, that is all we ask. If your legislature would limit your hours, while ours are left unlimited, and impose an export duty on yarn, a greater effect would be produced by these measures in our favour, than by all the measures which our own governments could take." The hon. baronet was less acquainted now with Lancashire than he had once been. He did not know, perhaps, the difficulty there was in employing free labourers, from the facility with which they could combine. What would be the consequence of aft attempt to regulate labour? Would it not be to spread Luddism through the whole country? There was much more danger from this spirit in good than in bad times. He did not object to the limitation of the age at which children could be employed; but in consequence of the improvements in machinery, persons of more advanced age were required than formerly. Night-work could not he carried on to advantage. It might have been advantageous when the manufacture was confined to few hands; but since the general diffusion of the manufacture, the profits were too small to admit of the expense of night-work. For these reasons, he felt it his duty to oppose the second reading of the bill.

Mr. Davenport

said, that he was a member of the committee appointed to inquire into this subject in the year 1816, and he thought that the legislature ought not to interfere without the most serious deliberation. He did not wish to give any opinion on the question in its present state; but he trusted that the House would not proceed with any indiscreet haste. If the bill was founded on the report of the committee, it might be desirable to hear the opinions of the different members who had attended most closely to the investigation of this matter; if it was founded oft the petition which had been recently presented, it might be proper to inquire into the truth of its allegations, with a view to ascertain whether the petitioners might not have asked for the adoption of a measure which would be more injurious than beneficial to their interests.

Mr. Peel

said, that the wish of the author of the bill was, to avoid for the present, the discussion Of it; and to postpone the consideration till it had been committed, and the blanks filled up. Until that period arrived, it was difficult to judge of its nature or effects. Besides those who approved of the whole of the bill, some agreed to that part which fixed the mini-mum of age, and some to the prohibition of night work; from those he hoped in the present stage it would meet With no opposition. When it had been committed and the blanks had been filled up, it was proposed to print it, and circulate it, to collect the sense of the manufactures on the subject. He knew there were also some who opposed any regulation oft the subject, as a matter unfit for legislation. But if it was unfit for legislation, it could hardly be said to be unfit to be entertained. It was objected with a show of plausibility, that it was improper to interfere with free labour; but from the age of the children, and from the situation of the factories, their labour could hardly be said to be free. The masters of the c6t-ton mills fixed the same hours of labour for all the persons employed, and a child could not say, that he would not work nine hours; he must work the ordinary number of hours, or not at all. He was satisfied that a number of mills were well managed, but he repeated, that it was for those which were improperly managed, that legislation was meant. The noble lord had said, that the bill was founded not on the evidence before the committee, but on evidence of a private nature, which was kept in the pocket of the mover of the bill, and which reflected on individuals. He was induced to state what this infor- mation was; he did not wish to keep it to himself, but would communicate the whole of it to any gentleman. It consisted of the result of recent inquiries of gentlemen in Manchester. One was Mr. Simmons, senior surgeon of the Manchester Dispensary, who said, he gave his opinion on the aggregate of cases which had been presented to him; and was convinced, that the hours which children laboured in the factories were too great for human in-durance; that he shuddered to think of the effects of it, and that he did not think. the practice would have been continued, but because the consequences were not known. The vicar of St. John's, Manchester, and another gentleman who inspected the Sunday school which many of these children frequented, had also stated, that from their observations, the long hours of labour were prejudicial to the health of children. He was somewhat surprised at the levity with which the hon. gentleman had treated the petition which had been presented, while he had dwelt so much on another petition from the same place. He (Mr. Peel) was not himself inclined to dwell much on this petition, but it was satisfactory on this point, that the petitioners being the parents of the children, wished parliament to interfere on the subject. They stated, that as from, their poverty they were unable to do without the labour of their children, they were compelled to submit to the hours which the masters of the factories chose to establish. It was obvious, then, that the parents themselves had no discretion or control in the business, and that the legislature alone could regulate the management of these factories.

Mr. Finlay

was decidedly of opinion that there was no occasion for the bill. It was brought forward on evidence which had never been seen, and which those who opposed the measure had therefore no opportunity of rebutting. He had every reason to believe, that a great many of the facts would turn out to be incorrect. If the House suffered the bill to pass, they would do a great injury to the good works, which required no regulation at all, without being able to compel the bad works to adhere to those regulations, upon which all the benefits of the bill must depend. He maintained, that the limitation of the hours of labour would be so prejudicial to the cotton manufactories, as to remove to foreign countries a very considerable portion of this branch of trade. He was no § advocate for employing children of a very young age; but it had been his misfortune (for so he must consider it), to be a member of a committee who were appointed to visit the gaols of this city, and he saw in them, children often and eleven years of age, who had been condemned for offences; whereas, if they had been employed in manufactories, they would have learnt the benefits of industry, would have been saved from the punishment of the law, and, at the same time would have contributed to the support of their parents and families. He was persuaded that great prejudices existed on this subject. In the linen and woollen manufactories the hoursof employment were generally longer than in the cotton-factories. The latter had been much improved since 1802, and the children employed in them were better clothed, lodged, and fed. He had no objection, however, to limit the employment of children to those who were above nine or even ten years of age. The hon. member then read a statement made by an hon. member in a committee on a former occasion, tending to show that legislative interference in the manner proposed by the bill under consideration, would be rather prejudicial than otherwise; and in this opinion he fully concurred. He therefore hoped the House would proceed with great caution.

Mr. Curwen

said, that after the fair and candid explanation which had been given, though he had objected to the principle of the bill, he should not oppose it in the present stage.

Sir F. Burdell

said, he was gratified that some legislative interference was about to take place on this subject. They did not want the opinions of physicians to tell them that to make children of a tender age work so many hours was prejudicial to their health as well as to their happiness. To prove the injuriousness of such a system, it was in evidence, at the time night work existed, that the children employed on it were less unhealthy than those who worked in the day, because the former had a few hours of play, and from this circumstance their work, though at a time supposed to be so destructive to health, was found to be less injurious than such unremitting, unrelaxed exertion. He should certainly support the bill.

The bill was read a second time, and committed, the report received, and ordered to be taken into consideration on the 6th of April.