HC Deb 13 May 1819 vol 40 cc337-47
Mr. Peter Moore

presented two petitions, one from the mayor and corporation of Coventry, stating the distresses under which the ribbon weavers of that place were now suffering, and praying that their case might be taken into consideration by the House; and another from the employers of the ribbon-weavers, corroborating the statements and concurring in the prayer of the former petition. These distresses originated in the reduced wages which were now paid to the ribbon weavers; and the petitioners in order to give the House some idea of their extent and magnitude, declared that they were obliged to pay in poor rates, by which the weavers were almost entirely supported, 45s. per acre on their landed property and 19s. in the pound upon the rent of every House of which they were occupiers. They also stated, that unless some relief was granted them, they must all perish in one common ruin. The mayor and corporation of Coventry, in their petition submit to the House, that during these scenes of unparalleled misery and distress, no inclination to disorder or tumult had exhibited itself among this suffering body. He was happy to be able to add his own testimony to theirs, and to say, that if ever patience and tranquillity under distress deserved the careful attention of parliament, the present was a case to which it ought to be extended. It was on this account that he had now come forward to the House with a bill, whose clauses were principally founded on the report of the committee appointed to examine into this subject during the last session. In 1816, the distress among the weavers had been very great, and the master manufacturers had, out of compassion to those who were in their employment, agreed not to pay them for their labour by the week, but by the value of the work which they performed. This agreement, however, was not of any long duration; first one and then another of the manufacturers disregarded it, till at last it was entirely rescinded. The ribbon-weavers wanted to make these parties stand to their agreement, and the bill which he should ask leave to bring in was intended to effect this purpose. A rumour had gone abroad that he wanted to fix a maximum and a minimum of wages: he wanted no such thing, he merely wanted a standard regulation to be appointed, by which a due remuneration might be paid to the artisan for his labour. If that had been previously done, the House would not have had to listen to the melancholy details which he felt it his duty to make, in order to show the necessity of some legislative enactments on this subject. In the town which he had the honour to represent, there were five classes of manufacturers, each working 96 hours in the week, or 16 hours in the day. The first of these classes gain, in return for their labour, 10s. a week, or two-pence halfpenny an hour, which was but a very trifling share of what they were formerly in the habit of acquiring. The second class gained 5s. 6d a week. The third 2s. 9d. The two remaining classes received 2s. and Is. 6d. per week. The consequence of this reduction of wages was, that the weavers had been obliged to resort to the funds of their friendly societies; and he was sorry to say, that not merely had these funds been exhausted, but also the funds of their saving banks, which were now becoming a mere mockery. The hon. member then, went into some farther details of the distress of his constituents, and argued that if a similar sys- tern had been adopted at Coventry, as had been adopted at Spitalfields and Dublin, there would have been as little distress in the one place as there now was in the others. A fraction of a farthing added by a legislative measure on each yard of manufacture to the produce of the weaver, would remedy the whole distress. All the manufactures expressed their hearty concurrence in the principle of his bill, and he therefore hoped that the House would not refuse him leave to bring it in. He then moved, "That leave be given to bring in a bill for the better Regulation of Persons employed in the Silk Manufacture in Great Britain."

Mr. F. Robinson

could assure the hon. gentleman, that no man sympathised more deeply than himself with the individuals whom the hon. gentleman represented, and whose condition that hon. gentleman had done his duty in laying before the House. Entertaining that feeling, as he did, it was with great regret he found himself under the absolute necessity of declaring, that in his opinion, the measure proposed by the hon. gentleman was not calculated to remove the evil. If he understood the hon. gentleman his principal object was to extend to the silk trade in general the existing legislative regulations, respecting the wages of persons employed in that trade in London and Dublin. Objecting to the principle of such a proposition, he should be acting unjustly, were he not to take the earliest opportunity of expressing his sense of its impropriety. He was sure the hon. gentleman would not be disposed to deny, that on all general principles by which such matters ought to be regulated in a commercial country like Great Britain, it was inexpedient to allow the wages of labourers, of whatever denomination, to be settled by any other means than by the natural demand for their labour. Indeed, he was almost ashamed to use so trite and acknowledged a principle—a principle maintained by every able writer on the subject of political economy; and which received a farther confirmation by the recorded opinion of a committee of that House, appointed in 1809, to investigate grievances in the cotton trade, similar to those now represented to exist in that of silk. The committee to which he alluded came to an early and unanimous resolution "That the committee had taken into their serious consideration the proposition for passing an act, establishing a reform in the wages of per- § sons employed in the cotton manufacture, and that the regulations to a similar effect in the silk trade had been laid before them: but that, after the most mature deliberation, they had resolved unanimously that any such legislative provision would aggravate, rather than alleviate the evil. That the committee, not conceiving that by any mode of legislation a beneficial effect could be produced, felt it their duty to come to as early a decision and declaration of their opinion as possible, in order that false hopes might not be entertained by those whose sufferings, arising from natural and political causes, could be remedied only by the change which time would occasion." The committee from which this report proceeded was composed principally of those members of the House who were qualified to for in the most accurate judgment on the subject, viz. Mr. Blackburn, Mr. D. Giddy, Mr. Eden, Mr. Homer, the hon. mover of the present bill, Mr. Rose, Mr. Whitbread, sir R. Peel, Mr. Wilberforce, Mr. H. Thornton, Mr. Davenport, &c.; so that the report was entitled to the highest consideration. If, then, the general principle, that it was inexpedient to interfere in such cases, was firmly established, it remained for the hon. gentleman to show that there were some peculiar circumstances in the ribbon and silk trade which entitled it to be treated as an exception. For his own part, lamenting as he did the condition of the individuals in question, he could see nothing in their case to distinguish it from that of persons in other trades. There was one argument, indeed, urged by the hon. member in favour of the proposed measure which was very portentous in its nature, and which of itself would induce him decidedly to object to it. The hon. member had expressed his hope that his example would be followed by all members whose constituents were suffering pressure; thus stimulating the representatives of all the manufacturing districts to make similar propositions for the relief of similar distresses. Should that take place, and should the House accede to such propositions, there would be an end to the system of free labour in this country. But he was persuaded that the House would never acquiesce in any measure that set at defiance all general principles founded on the soundest views of political economy; and it was on that account, and not from any disposition to dispute the facts alleged by the hon. gentleman, that he felt bound to oppose the motion.

Mr. Davenport

while he lamented the state of great distress in which the ribbon and silk weavers were placed, contended, that of all the measures which it was possible to devise on the subject, none could be so generally prejudicial as that recommended by the hon. gentleman.

Mr. Ellice

, in answer to the remark of the right hon. president of the board of trade, that the great object of the bill moved for by his hon. colleague, was to extend the interference of the legislature with respect to the wages of labour in the silk trade of London and Dublin to the silk trade generally, and that he saw nothing in the circumstances of the silk trade different from those of any other trade, which rendered the adoption of such a measure expedient, maintained that the silk trade was peculiarly circumstanced. In the first place, there were excessive duties on the raw material. The right hon. gentleman had talked of general principles; but was it a good general principle to lay a heavy duty on the raw material of any manufacture? It was very well to argue in favour of general principles; but it was sometimes necessary to look at the suite of particular cases. If parliament had always acted on general principles, the present application would have been unnecessary. It was because they had departed in some instances from general principles—it was because they had adopted, in some instances, temporary expedients, that other expedients became indispensable to correct the evils of the former. He maintained that his hon. colleague and himself had a right to call on the House to adopt some expedient to prevent their constituents from starving; as the House had adopted expedients to relieve the distresses of the constituents of the representatives of the landed interest. One of the right hon. gentleman's arguments, though urged against the measure, was, in his opinion, decidedly in its favour. He had said, that when in 1809 the manufacturers were in the same state, a committee of that House had declared they must look for relief from the change which time would bring. But that relief had never arrived. And so great was their present distress, that relief, in some way or other, was absolutely necessary. If the mode proposed, was an improper one, he entreated the House or government to point out some other course by which the enormous evils that existed might be alleviated, if not removed. The present was no interference of one party with another. Both the master manufacturers and those employed by them, were unanimous in their wish for legislative interference.—There was another point of view in which he wished to put the subject. It was calculated that above 30,000l were levied in poor-rates in Coventry and the adjoining districts in Warwickshire; in order to feed those persons, and tar supply the deficiency of their wages. Now, it was stated by the weavers, that all the increase of wages that they wanted, was the eighth of a penny on every yard of ribbon, which would produce a sum exceeding that at present raised by the poor-rates. He wished to know, therefore, with what justice a tax of above 30,000l. was laid on the landholders of Warwickshire in the shape of poor-rates, in order to save the consumers of a luxury from paying what they ought to pay. It ought to be also considered, that in a bill at present pending in the House, called the poor-rates regulation bill, there was a clause preventing the magistrates from giving relief to able-bodied labourers from the poor-rates. Now, if a ribbon weaver, earning with all his exertions only five shillings a week, was to be denied assistance from the poor-rates, what was to become of him and his family? He did not advocate the proposed bill on general principles, but he advocated it as an expedient to relieve the distresses of people who, he believed in his conscience, could not go on without relief. An additional reason for allowing the bill to be brought in was, that there were some parts of it to which he was persuaded even the right hon. gentleman would not object. For instance, a system had many years ago been introduced of employing poor children in the ribbon and silk trade, as what were called half-pay apprentices; the meaning of which was, that half their earnings were withheld by their employers and the other half went to their parents. While the trade went on well, that was a good plan enough, but the moment any unfavourable change occurred, the unfortunate children were thrown on the parish. One of the provisions of the proposed bill went to remedy that evil. There were other provisions for regulating the silk trade similar to those by which the cloth weavers were at present regulated, and which he was sure would be found wholly unobjectionable. For all these reasons, he trusted the House would give his hon. colleague leave to bring in the bill.

Mr. Wallace

said, that if there was one species of interposition more injudicious than another, it was that which had for its object to dictate to the master the rate of wages he was to pay his servant. No case of particular exception had been made out; and as to the case of Spitalfields, he thought that it would have been much better, if, instead of an enactment, recourse had been had to the vigour of the law, and the authority of the magistrates. He approved of that part of the bill which related to half-pay apprentices; but he could not on that account consent to adopt the rest, which was so highly objectionable.

Mr. Dugdale

said, that having acted as a magistrate in the neighbourhood in question, he must declare that the distress was now arrived at such a pitch that he really believed the most alarming consequences would ensue, if some steps were not immediately taken. Though he was reluctant to interfere between the master and workmen, he considered the present a peculiar case. All the petitioners sought for was, to be placed on the same footing as workmen in the metropolis.

Mr. Fowell Buxton

said, he felt some difficulty in delivering his sentiments on this subject; for to all the maxims of trade laid down by the two right hon. gentlemen opposite, no answer could be given. All legislative attempts to compel men to be prosperous under pains and penalties, ended in folly and oppression. But the maxims of the right hon. gentlemen did not apply to Coventry; for Coventry was now employed in a most unnatural and artificial trade. By whom were the wages of the workmen of Coventry paid? By the parishes. A skilful workman, after working sixteen hours a day, and aided by machinery which was his own property, could only earn 10s. a week; and another workman, without any capital, but with equal skill, after working the same number of hours, could only earn 5s. 6d. a week. There was nothing but the poor rates which caused this. The evil would long ago have remedied itself had it not been for the poor rates; for either the workmen would have abandoned the trade, and applied themselves to some other occupation, or the masters must have raised their wages. The question here therefore was, not whether they should abandon an unrestricted trade, and have recourse to a system of restriction, but in what manner they could diminish the distress, arising out of a trade diverted from its natural channels by themselves? The question was, whether they were to mitigate those evils which their own previous interference had occasioned? There could be no doubt of the distress of Coventry at the present moment. But it had been said that it was the nature of trade to fluctuate, and that if they were to interfere whenever there was a temporary distress in any branch of trade, they might devote their whole attention to this subject alone. It appeared, however, from the evidence, that this was not an ordinary distress. This was given in evidence by all parties, masters and servants. One circumstance, indeed, showed this in the highest degree. In this time of comparative prosperity, the poor rates of Coventry were nineteen shillings in the pound, and one-third of the population were receiving money from the parish. This was alone sufficient to justify the application of a remedy to the evil, if any could be discovered. Many causes had concurred to produce this state of things, but the great cause was that system which had been so fatal and injurious to the landed interest of this country, the system of paying wages partly out of the pocket of the master, and partly out of the poor-rates—that system, which, beginning in agricultural districts, had extended itself at last to large manufacturing districts, and had long been in operation in Coventry. A merchant in London, who had no connection whatever with Coventry, sent down a large order for the manufacture of goods at the rate of 5s. 6d. a week to the workmen; and as long as the remainder of the wages of the workmen continued to be paid by the parish, this would continue. Another source of the evil was half-pay apprenticeships; this system was indefensible in every point of view. All persons trained to the weaving trade in Coventry, became necessarily and certainly paupers. This system also by congregating young persons by day and dispersing them by night, gave rise to a system of debauchery and profligacy, which loudly called for the interference of the House. The evidence showed that the distress and the licentiousness were equally without example. This state of things called for the extension of an act already in existence, which in Spitalfields, the district under its ope- ration, had produced the greatest benefit. It appeared from the testimony of many masters living on the spot, that this act had produced the greatest benefit both to masters and to workmen. The principle of the act was, that if any dispute arose between masters and workmen, respecting the rate of wages, it should be settled by magistrates. This act made any agreement between the two bodies binding. The consequence was, that whereas in 1816, an agreement was entered into between the masters and workmen of Spitalfields and Coventry, that of Spitalfields was adhered to, and that of Coventry was not. An hon. friend of his had said, that bad consequences had resulted from the Spitalfields act. He could only say, that the people of Spitalfields were ignorant of such evil consequences. No part of the country had exhibited more loyalty and tranquillity than Spitalfields, which had before this act, been the scene of perpetual tumult and disorder. He said that an argument had been urged which he, in point of fact, must admit—and he would leave it to the wisdom of the House whether that argument was strong enough to decide the fate of the bill: it was, that the effect of the bill would be to enhance the price of manufactured goods. It certainly would; but to what extent? to the amount of one-fourth of a farthing per yard. That was the extent, and he would ask, whether it was not more reasonable that those who thought fit to wear silks should pay the fair wages of the labourer who manufactured them, than that the parish should pay him? The system of poor-rates was one which, in the better days of England, wa9 little known: it was a system which every friend to the country would wish to remove: it was degrading and demoralizing, calculated to deprive the people of the national feelings of pride and independence, and to fix in their stead base and degrading sentiments, subversive of the freedom, and the virtue of man. He concluded by expressing his intention of supporting the motion of his hon. friend.

Mr. Stuart-Wortley

resisted the introduction of the bill, because he thought it would set an example to the cloth-weaver, the linen-weaver, and indeed all classes of manufacturers, to come forward with unwarrantable demands. If the principle now contended for could be introduced—if magistrates on all occasions could settle the amount of wages—there would be no need of poor rates. It had been said, that one-fourth of a farthing in the yard Would not be felt; but there were limits to every thing, and the question was not whether this was a great increase, but whether it was one which the article could bear. In his opinion it was not. Gentlemen seemed to forget the consumer, and that he would not buy the goods at all, if they could, not he had at a certain price. With regard to the corn-bill, it was quite unfair to argue, that the object was to raise the price of grain: it was merely to protect the grower from importation and unfair competition.

Mr. Philips

said, that so far from all the master-weavers agreeing that the Spitalfields act had been beneficial in its operation, the very first witness examined, Mr. Stephen Wilson, who stated himself largely concerned in the manufacture of Spitalfields goods, was of opinion it had been highly injurious to Spitalfields. This witness had stated several instances of the mischievous consequences of the interference between masters and workmen in Spitalfields. The necessary consequence of interference was, the rendering the magistrate the judge of the reward of the workman, who could know nothing at all of the work. It had been said, that the Spitalfields act had produced quiet. Why, it had produced the quiet of death—the manufacture had been driven from Spitalfields to Cheshire, and if the Spitalfields act were introduced into Cheshire, it would be driven out of Cheshire. Nothing could more decidedly injure these manufactures than to interfere between the masters and their labourers. Nor indeed could he see any reason why labour should not be just as fair a commodity of sale and purchase, as any thing else sold or bought in this country. Why should they introduce a different principle in regard to the wages or price of labour than they adopted in regard to any other matter of sale? His hon. friend proposed to raise that price. And if he did, what would be the consequence? Why, that they would destroy the manufactory altogether. The arguments of his hon. friend seemed to be directed rather against the corn laws generally, than against any thing else. The house well knew that he (Mr. P.) was no friend to the corn bill. All attempts to alter the poor laws had only tended to aggravate the evils complained of. Any real relief to be now extended could only be attained by breaking up a system which had done so much to undermine that native spirit of independence, which was formerly the most distinguishing characteristic of the British nation.

Mr. E. Littleton

stated, that a very large number of his constituents were deeply interested in this question. He had himself carefully read over the evidence given before the committee appointed to examine the Coventry petitions last year; but the evil appeared to him, not to arise from the causes to which it was traced by his hon. friend, but from the half-pay apprentice system. He hoped the house would not be induced to apply to evils professedly temporary, a remedy which must be permanent.

Mr. Curwen

suggested to his hon. friend the propriety of withdrawing his motion. In its present state, the House was unable to extend relief to sufferings which he was sure it compassionated. If, therefore, his hon. friend would amend his bill, on his again bringing it in, parliament would feel disposed to further and assist his views. By doing so, he would convince his constituents, that there was a decided feeling in the house in their favour, although, from the present state of the bill, it could not grant that relief which it was called upon to do.

Mr. Peter Moore

, in reply, observed, that Mr. Stephen Wilson, the witness alluded to by an hon. gentleman, was an exporter and a capitalist, who, of consequence, was only interested in obtaining goods at a cheap rate for exportation, and had no concern with the manner in which the workman was paid. But when goods were exported at a cheap rate by means of paying workmen out of the poor-rates, we were only making the people of the continent a present of all that was taken from the poor-rates. He had done what he considered his duty, in endeavouring, as far as possible, to remedy the evils of the system which prevailed in Coventry. Leaving it to the responsible ministers of the crown, to take some measures to save that city from starvation, he should, as such was the sense of the House, withdraw his motion for the present. The motion was then withdrawn.

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