HC Deb 26 June 1821 vol 5 cc1316-25
Mr. Maxwell

rose, pursuant to notice, to move for the appointment of a commission to examine into the feasibility of Mr. Owen's plan. The hon. member spoke as follows:—It is painful to contemplate nakedness and famine in the midst of plenty—to hear that the shower of May, and the sunshine of July are a curse; to know that those who clothe our fields with luxuriance, and animate the landscape with their flocks, must withdraw their eyes from the smiling face of nature to the bitter perspective of a bankruptcy and a dungeon. When we behold the ignorant stoicism of those who have induced such disorder in practice, and such impiety in theory, like Nero looking with unpitying eye on the sorrows they have caused, we are tempted to exclaim in the words of an amiable French, woman, on tracing the ravages of the modern Brennus in Switzerland,—"Les montagnes furent verdoyantes comme autrefois, les prairies florissantes comme jadis, le cœur d'homme seul pourquoi n'etoit-il qu'un desert?" The calamities which have sprung from corn-laws, inequitable to the consumer and useless to, the agriculturist—from a sacrifice of the present generation by a Vansittart,, to; atone for the folly of a past one under the auspices of a Pitt, have traveled through the labouring classes and the productive capitalists, and are now settled on the land-owner; and those who could not appreciate the effects upon others, doomed labour to die down to the level of wages, or visited their convulsive movements with the stern compression of military power, are subjected by the perfect justice of Providence to a more convincing evidence, by its action upon themselves. I hope they have nearly expiated their offence against Heaven by their neglect of the manufacturing districts, and that the time is fast approaching when the monied interest will find it right to yield the inequitable increase which the legislature, with good intentions and great folly, have ignorantly bestowed upon it, and to lower their rent upon the community from five to four per cent; to obviate the tardy but certain application of the sponge of necessity. I lament the sufferings of the landlord, of the merchant, and of the manufacturer; but their interests will be protected who hold boroughs, or thrust themselves on the House through the trafficking privileges of the citizens of Cornwall. My object is, to call the attention of the House to the unrepresented labourer of the British empire, who has drained his best veins for the House of Hanover, and now, with impaired force but unshaken fortitude, is working the vessel of the state out of that maelstrom into which a rash and ignorant pilot had steered it. I shall endeavour to prove, not that the poor man has been ill-treated by the legislature, or that he has been neglected by the government, but that his interests have been misunderstood, and his condition overlooked, both by one and the other; and that the indignation which he feels against his wealthy neighbour, and his want of loyalty to the institutions of the country, are misdirected, and in some degree misapplied. The inclosure of commons since the year 1760, has been stated by a judicious and intelligent inquirer into the principles of labour and of poor-laws, to amount to 3,500; and that the increase of the poor-rate appears to have kept pace with the loss of their common rights—the green meadows, which our benevolent and wise forefathers had destined as the life-rent property of successive generations of villagers, the solace of their evening homes, and the arena of their infantine gambols, has become the haunt of the pettifogging attorney, or the unsightly villa of some sordid money-lender. The poor man dependant on his employer, became the menial of the farmer and tradesman, instead of his independent and unshackled domestic. But Mr. Pitt, by a restriction on the issue of a metallic currency, and a long and expensive war, soon rendered the nominal shilling of Great Britain, the real sixpence of baiter, and the employer found it better to give money than subsistence to his work people. Unable to maintain his family in the decency of a happier era of his life, the uncomfortable and mortified man sought refuge in the crowded assemblies of manufacture, where, if his mean appearance was less noticed, and his humiliation unknown, a less cleanly cottage, and equal wages, were gladly exchanged for those altered scenes, and that humble position which degraded his mind and wounded his spirit. But here, alas, he was doomed to meet with new misfortunes; and no sooner had the extravagant system of Mr. Pitt carried taxation to a given point, than artificial labour evading his burthens, was launched in half-taxed elasticity, to tear the abundant supply of bread, which loans at home, and exclusive commerce abroad, were beginning to bring within the workman's reach, as they had already done to the other classes of society. Again brought back to the penury and privations with which he was before assailed, he entered into combinations with his fellow-workmen, in imitation of his rich employer; but his wealthy model showed him, that what was lawful to riches was illegal to poverty, and the manufacturer showered from his borough-throne the scalding leaven of the combination laws on his audacious head. Disgusted with his rulers, enraged with his employer, his indignant feelings attack machinery, and, caught in the act, he is immured in a cell, or transported to New South Wales. The term of confinement or banishment arrives, and his grey hairs are sent back to whiten on the pittance of poor-rates, or as a pivot and automaton of some smoked and greasy steam engine, he mendicates the means of life by the degradation of human nature. This I believe to be a faithful picture of the unrepresented labourer; who will, whilst I have a seat in this House, never want a feeble, but, I hope, a sincere advocate; and I ask the man, who has the common courage of his species, if these wrongs might not have tempted him "to take up arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them," as my misguided and suffering country- men did at Bonnymuir? If any one can doubt that this is the situation of the labourers of this country, let him inspect the hulks, the gaols, the bridewells, the penitentiaries—let him read the press which writes for the poor—let him visit the manufacturing districts—let him examine the most religious and loyal part of the artisans and mechanics of the island, and his scepticism will disappear. Crime and disaffection could not grow as they do, in spite of the exertions of the religious philanthropy of the public, if some great injustice did not exist in the distribution of the profits of labour, or in the imposition of the public burthens: the violent language of the press could not be relished, if the people of this enlightened land did not feel themselves deeply injured by the privileged and influential classes of society. The orations of a demagogue, and the inflammatory style of an editor, are the effects, and not the cause of public dissatisfaction; both are the barometers of the sentiments of their readers, and their interests make them, as much as their speculative opinions, a faithful index of political feeling. Having made these remarks, to show the motive and impressions which have led me to take the petition of the county of Lanark, I shall proceed to point out what appears to me to be the nature of Mr. Owen's schemes-r-although nay practical efforts have been and will be directed to another channel, and devoted to reduce taxes, not only to relieve the labour of the country from the fetters of a forty per cent property tax, but to save it from the undue influence of the Crown, and from misgovernment. Mr. Owen conceives, that the substitution of the spade to the plough, and a re-union of rural labour to the task of the artisan and mechanic—with a judicious combination of the general stock of industry, and with the savings of fuel, of the profits of retail, and of time in the management of a family, added to a system of education, enforcing the practice of honesty, sobriety, industry, and benevolence, would permit the working classes of society to derive most of the necessaries and a greater share of the happiness of life; and rescue them from the degradation and its consequences—vice and disloyalty which now has become their lot. How far his conception is just, how far his theories might be reducible to practice, it is impossible to say; but he undoubtedly has rendered that establishment over which he presides unusually and peculiarly exempt from bad feelings and from profligate lives, without in any way wasting the property over which he is superintendent and joint proprietor, although restricted in his plan by want of land, and inconvenienced by a too numerous population, and an imperfect habitation. The tendency of his plan would unquestionably be, to increase the consumption of the poor, and consequently to augment the value of all articles of home production—of course, to render taxation less oppressive, and to diminish the expenses of government, by reducing the number of starving and disaffected persons. The hon. member concluded by moving, "That an humble Address be presented to his Majesty, that he will be graciously pleased to issue a Commission to visit New Lanark, to examine the condition and treatment of the working classes in that Establishment, to inquire into any farther arrangements which Mr. Owen may propose for the benefit of labourers, and to report the same to the House; and to assure his Majesty, that the House will make good the expenses of the same."

Mr. J. Dawson

said, that the plan of Mr. Owen had not been treated with all that attention which any proposition for the improvement of the country deserved. He wished the motion had been brought forward at an early period of the session. They had now carefully examined the estimates, and voted the supplies. They had had an insufficient report on foreign trade, and he wished he could say they had had none on agricultural distress. In the report of the latter committee they had an account of all the speculations of every speculative farmer and tradesman. The sum of the report was, that the farmer must receive less for his produce, the landlord less rent, and the shopkeeper less profit. As the farmer had less money to spend, he must reduce his expenses in every direction, and some of the reduction must fall upon the labourer. It was under these appalling circumstances, that a learned gentleman had introduced a bill to stultify that generous system of legislation for the poor on which this country had so long acted. Mr. Owen proposed a more humane plan for the improvement of the poor-laws. His plan was exposed to much prejudice; of which all inventors had to stand the brunt, till it was dissipated by time. It was no small testimony in favour of Mr. Owen, that such a petition was presented in favour of his plan from the county of Lanark, which was the scene of his experiments. The benefit which he expected to derive from a parliamentary commission, was from the complete investigation and public discussion which would thus be excited.

The Marquis of Londonderry

said, that a proposition similar to the present had formerly been rejected by the House, and he still had great doubt of the propriety of deciding that parliament should charge itself with the responsibility of deciding on the prospect held out to the community by Mr. Owen's plan. The mode in which his hon. friend had referred to the report which had been made to parliament during this session, increased those doubts. For, if the report of the agricultural committee was so unsatisfactory, what would the feelings of the country be, if, after being told that a plan existed for bringing back the golden days of paradise, and that parliament had given into the trick, all the bright colours melted into air? In this free and happy country, any plan of this kind would be sufficiently investigated, without the intervention of parliament. The hon. member had told us that the spade was preferable to the plough, and that we should never be happy until we were all digging; that a cotton manufactory could never be carried on well until there was a Mr. Owen to take care of the morals of the people when they came out Of the mill, so that society would lose its dispersed and independent character, and would be reduced to a system of machinery, which the hon. member would drive out of the world, except as applied to human beings. He protested against the House being the proper body to take upon itself the investigation of abstract principles, or of all new inventions, the success of which so often depended on the zeal of the inventors. He hoped they would not undertake an inquiry which would add one to those fruitless results which were supposed to lower their character in public estimation. There Were large and intelligent bodies which had a direct and lively interest in any plan for the improvement of the administration of the poor; and it was not necessary to a trial of Mr. Owen's plan (if it held out any prospects) that the country should be carved out into parallelograms, in order to put the poor under the management of the exchequer. The state of discipline recommended by Mr. Owen might be applicable enough to poor-houses; but it was by no mean's applicable to the feelings of a free nation? He did not stand there to oppose any benevolent scheme, but he felt it necessary to protest against parliament being made the tribunal for investigating every abstruse principle and every new scheme for remodelling the established order of society.

Sir W. De Crespigny

thought that the House was precisely the place for considering of any plan that might lead to the improvement of the people, and bore testimony to the prevalent good effects of Mr. Owen's establishment.

Mr. Hume

said, he had never heard a speech from the noble marquis in which he so entirely concurred. The very principle of this system went to take away from the people of this country all that independence and spirit which were among their noblest characteristics. He admitted the extraordinary regularity of habits and discipline which it was calculated to introduce among them; but that very regularity furnished one of the strongest objections against the system. If a man were not called upon, from the circumstances of his situation to think, he never would think; and thus, if Mr. Owen's system produced so much happiness with so little care, the adoption of it would make us a race of beings little removed from brutes, only ranging the four corners of a parallelogram, instead of the mazes of a forest. He could not, however, sit down without expressing the respect and admiration he felt for the virtues and the extensive benevolence of Mr. Owen.

Mr. F. Buxton

observed, that there was hardly a remark which had fallen from the noble marquis with which he did not entirely concur; and on the other hand, there was scarcely one observation made by the hon. mover with which he did not absolutely disagree. He could not bring himself to believe that England would be able to find a remedy for all her distresses in the quadrangular paradises of Mr. Owen. There were reasons, however, which induced him to support the motion. He had inspected many of the work-, houses in this kingdom, and the result of his observations was, that those institutions were better adapted for promoting vice and misery than any other object. It was impossible for persons to visit our workhouses, and not to remark the squalid and unhealthy appearance of the children. Now, it appeared that nothing could surpass the condition of the children in Mr. Owen's establishment, in point of health, vivacity, and good conduct. In the hope that some improvement would be made in the regulation of our workhouses, if the motion were carried, he would vote for it.

Mr. Scarlett

thought that the mode proposed was not the most expedient mode of inquiry. If any gentleman thought the principle good, perhaps the best way of proceeding would be to bring in a specific bill on the subject.

Mr. H. Gurney

observed, that although he was opposed to the principle of Mr. Owen, which tended to destroy all individuality in the societies conducted on the plan of that gentleman, yet he thought he possessed claims to the favourable consideration of the House. There was one circumstance which he thought it necessary to allude to. In the district in which Mr. Owen's' establishment was situated, a peculiar degree of distress had existed which had not in any way affected his establishment. Now the plan of the individual who had thus been able to keep the population of his establishment free from distress, whilst all around him was misery, must possess some meri.

Mr. Wilberforce

had the highest opinion of the disinterested benevolence of Mr. Owen's views, but thought a commission quite unnecessary. Any four or five members who would take upon them to examine Mr. Owen's establishment, and put the result of that examination on paper, would receive full credit from the public. Thus, all useful information would be obtained without the danger of having it understood out of that House, that they took up the principle of Mr. Owen as a sort of panacea for the present distress.

Dr. Lushington

considered the plan to be the most visionary, and the most impracticable he had ever met with. The praise-worthy exertions of Mr. Owen had made it succeed, on a small scale, with persons under his influence and control, but to attempt it on a general scale would, in his opinion, be utterly useless. That House had not now to learn from Mr. Owen that it was desirable the poor should support themselves by their own industry. He was delighted with the plan, which, according to Mr. Owen, went to demonstrate the means by which the poor might be not only enabled to support themselves, but rendered willing to do so. These were undoubtedly objects of great importance. But how were they to be obtained? Why, arrangements were to be made by which the people in these new communities were to meet at certain periods—were to be fed at certain hours like horses, and to be exercised at stated times. He perfectly agreed with the noble marquis that such a system was utterly unfit for the people of this country. To improve the morals of the people was very desirable; but he was not prepared to do so by the exclusion of all religion.

Mr. Canning

said, that he had formed the highest opinion of the zeal, talents, and benevolent disposition of Mr. Owen. He had been unwilling, therefore, to do any thing that might hurt the feelings of that gentleman. Mr. Owen had, however, strongly urged him to attend; and he (Mr. C.) having given his word that he would attend, felt it necessary now to say, that after the most impartial consideration of the subject, he must decide against the motion. First, the general application of the plan, as had been well observed by the noble marquis, would lead to the complete destruction of individuality, and to the amalgamation of the population into masses, which was totally repugnant to the principles of human nature, and above all, to the genius of the people of this country. The inference which was drawn from the excellent management of Mr. Owen's establishment at Lanark, that it would be successful when acted upon on a more xtended scale, was, in his opinion, perfectly fallacious. Individuals must be congregated together upon some known and intelligible principle, It was a known principle which connected tenants with landlords, and workmen with manufacturers. But on what principle thousands of persons could be congregated together in Mr. Owen's establishments, he could not conceive. If a number of individuals should unite together as volunteers, supposing all the diffiulties opposed to such an undertaking by parochial regulations and other circumstances to be overcome, there was nothing to prevent the society, which, as it had commenced in delusion might end in disappointment, from becoming the seat of the worst of passions. He wished also to state, and he hoped he might do so without incurring the charge of bigotry, that the House ought to pause before it proceeded to set the example of a community existing in Christendom, in which there would be no religion. There had always existed an established religion, in heathen as well as Christian countries; and though he was not a man who would impose penalties on persons for dissenting from national religion, yet he thought it improper that parliament should be called upon to adopt all the peculiarities of an individual on such an important subject. He had not intended by any thing he had said, to discourage individuals from trying the plan of Mr. Owen, and afterwards bringing the result of their experiments before parliament. But he did think that on one trial, no man had a right to call upon the House to give its implied approbation and support to this system.

Mr. W. Smith

said that, if the present question was for the adoption of Mr. Owen's plan, he would say, no; but at the same time he felt it necessary to vote for an inquiry into the nature of that system which was found to produce so much local advantage in the only part of the country in which it was tried.

Lord A. Hamilton

contended, that Mr, Owen's plan included the strict observance of religious duties. He would support the motion for inquiry, without at all pledging himself to the details of the plan.

Mr. Maxwell

said, it was not his intention to divide the House upon the question.

Mr. Brougham

said, that if the hon. member had pressed the question to a division, he would have voted for the inquiry. He wished to correct a mistake into which some gentlemen had fallen with respect to Mr. Owen's plan. He could assure the House, that if any fault was to be found with the system pursued at Lanark, it was on the score of too much religion. He was aware that there could not be too great an observance of sound religious principles; but there were persons who complained that there was too much of the vehemence of religion practised at Mr. Owen's establishment.

The motion was negatived.

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